Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Mid-Class Launch

I've been thinking lately about how formative assessment and feedback can sometimes feel overwhelming. Maybe that's just the lay of the land, or maybe there's something we can do about that. Can formative assessment be more manageable?

I think that there are some easy shifts to make. A small change that makes a big difference is to increase the number of activities that you launch half-way through your class period. That way, activities don't wrap up at the end of a single class period and you have the possibility of responding in some way to your students' work.

The bare-bones version of this can still make a big difference. Here's what it might look like:

  • MONDAY: You do something in the first half of class to prepare kids for an activity. Then they spend 20 minutes working on the activity. You collect it.
  • MONDAY NIGHT: You read their work. You notice where they had trouble.
  • TUESDAY: Relaunch the activity the next day. Give the whole class some feedback about common issues that came up, and then hand them their work. Have them continue for 20-30 minutes. 
This is the indispensable core of formative assessment: learning what your kids are thinking and using that to make informed decisions. Even if you don't have time for comments or if you feel the need to slap a grade on everything your kids work on, this routine will still help.

Questions for y'all:
  1. Do you agree that this routine make a big difference?
  2. Are there other easy changes that you'd recommend for increasing the amount or quality of formative assessment we give?
  3. Which is more important for learning: knowing what your students think, or giving them feedback?
  4. Is it important for teaching techniques to be easy?


  1. No, think this is a bad idea. I do like the idea of "reteaching", but what I usually do is bring it up within the context of a new topic. So I teach coordinate geometry several times: once directly, once reviewed while I teach rotations and reflections, once while I teach about orthocenters and centroids.

    I do not understand why you always want to collect work. I'm sure you walk around the room and talk with kids while they are working. This gives me 90% of the info I need. Sure, there's occasionally a kid who was making the wrong connections that I missed, but I fix that in other ways.

    Kids don't want feedback much. But they like to know *while* they are doing something if they're going in the right direction.

  2. I think this shift in classroom practice could be used very effectively. I do think that kids need both feedback and chances to refine or redo their work. Students may tell you that they don’t want feedback, but I think it is because, often times, they are not getting it enough for them to know what to do with it. They need to practice the process of getting feedback, and then planning a set of next steps. In my experience, we don’t often allow our students a chance to look back at mistakes or inefficient strategies and refine their work. A grade/score on a paper is so often an ending place. If we made feedback a place to refine and/or restart, students might better understand that we learn mathematics through errors and multiple strategies. It would also give us a chance to differentiate. If we have students who are hitting the target, the task can be extended for them. If students are struggling with the task, scaffolding (without losing rigor) could be provided for them. I do think that students like feedback while they are working, too, but I also think that we want to be careful so that we do not “save” them too soon. We want productive struggle, without letting them become overwhelmed. Likewise, we don’t want to be overwhelmed as teachers, either, with lots of papers that need feedback. Well-timed quality feedback, I think, can be very effective, without having to happen all of the time.

    I don’t think that we can say that knowing what our students think OR giving the feedback is more important for learning. I think we just have to realize that giving quality feedback might not happen as often due to the extensive amount of work that it might take. I am wondering how we could explore students being taught to give quality feedback to each other or to themselves through reflection. This may be an untapped resource.

    I do not think that all teaching techniques need to be easy. Some are definitely harder or more overwhelming than others. Teaching is so complex, however, that we need to be able to combine teaching techniques that are “easier” and “harder” in a way that allows us to maintain effective student learning and a personal life outside of school.

  3. I guess I would recommend doing things that last across more than one class period by their nature. Then you wouldn't have to worry about launching it mid-class just to get a break in the middle, it'll happen anyway.

  4. This discussion appears to be going in the direction of the value of feedback. Education Realist says that kids don't want feedback much. I had this discussion repeatedly with my childrens' HS English teacher, She maintained that feedback was a waste of her time as
    her comments were largely ignored by the students. She was right about this, but only because of the long delays between when students did the work and when they received a response. Immediate feedback,within a day or two of doing the work is a tool that seems to have profound impact on student growth. I understand that this approach is more demanding on the educator, but less assignments with more feedback might be a balance that works.
    Math seems to demand that there be a steady stream of homework to keep building skills. Still, less homework with more feedback seems like something to consider. I've watched my children labor over math problems for an hour, just to get them all wrong. This sort of activity and outcome does not lead to a robust learning experience.

    You ask the question , what is more important: knowing what your students think or giving them feedback? I contend that the educator who does not know what the students are thinking are wasting a great resource. Their misinterpretations of material is beyond what we can even begin to imagine. For instance, you know that common metaphor about the alligator and the greater-than sign? One child I worked with insisted that the open mouth of the alligator would reasonably eat only things smaller than him, so the open end must mean less than.

  5. Great comments so far, everyone.

    Bowen, I love working on multi-day problem sets or activities. That said, what if you aren't using those resources, for whatever reason?

    Like all teachers (right?) I wander around the room and observe/help during classwork, Ed Realist. You ask why that isn't enough, why I bother collecting work. On Wednesday I was circulating during work time and a 4th Grader really needed my help with some multiplication. I ended up spending 10 minutes helping her, which was absolutely worth the time. But that meant that I didn't have a good sense of what most of my students had done during those 10 minutes. Do you ever experience situations like that, Ed Realist?

    I appreciate the comments about feedback, Reiner and bookzoompa. I've written a bunch about feedback in other places on this blog, but (and bookzoompa says this, I think) that we can talk about ways to increase our knowledge of student thinking without worrying about whether that leads to feedback. Knowing what our kids think is helpful for a million reasons that have nothing to do with giving effective feedback. At the very least, knowing what our kids are thinking about some task can allow us to help them do better at and learn more from that same task.

  6. What you are describing is a form of a quick sort. After examining "the data," sort students based on their understanding of the concept. Totally worth it. You could even do it during the class period if you have anticipated and are prepared with resources.
    EdRealist's suggestion of revisiting it in the context of a new topic reminds me of integer rules. Before moving on however I would want to give students a few more opportunities to master or become proficient on the concept. Adding another layer to a concept that is already confusing is troublesome for students and the teacher.
    Specifically, integer rules continue to haunt some students. When it is then applied to rational numbers, simplifying expressions, distributive property, etc., teasing out the misconception is more problematic.
    Obviously we need to move on and the concept will be revisited, but catching students using a formative assessment, providing feedback and additional practice opportunities early on are essential.

  7. "She was right about this, but only because of the long delays between when students did the work and when they received a response."

    Well, I'm saying the same thing--except a day or two is way too long a time. I'm saying feedback should be immediate, as in that day, while the kids are working. I think teachers should start by giving kids immediate feedback and reassurance (yes, that's right or oops, you're going off in the wrong direction) and slowly wean the kids off of needing immediate feedback, so they'll charge right in and work without needing feedback immediately, working and consulting with their classmates.

    But a day or two later is just too long. That's not feedback. That's a test grade.

    "Do you ever experience situations like that, Ed Realist?"

    Well, I design my classes so I don't. A kid can't require 10-15 minutes of individualized attention from a teacher. What if each student requires that kind of time?That's not teaching, but tutoring. So what I'd do with a student like that is give them easier work to do, and check in frequently.

    However, there was a time when I didn't do that, when I did stop and do things with one kid. Then the other students are either screwing around or waiting for feedback. That's when I realized that I had to make work more instantly doable, so I could float around and give each kid a pointer without spending too much time with any one student.

    And of course, every so often, you'll still run into a situation like that. But those are the one-offs that may occasionally stop you from getting a good sense of where everyone is.

    Your commenting system appears not to recognize that I'm Ed Realist, although maybe that happens later in the process.

  8. My issue is that splitting lessons is a hairy business. While you might improve the learning for that one activity, you risk spending two half-lessons doing something half-baked either side of it.

    I try to never launch into something brand new halfway through a lesson. I might revise an old thing, so that when we start the next period I get to introduce the new thing while they are at their most attentive.

    It also raises issues about students present for the second day but who missed the first. What do they do? How often can you time the split to avoid big gaps between the two days (in my case, I only have twice a week with consecutive lessons for most classes).

    If your classes are junior enough that the pace of learning is slow enough, then it seems perfectly sensible. I would never do it at high school where I have to keep up a decent clip, and taking two lessons to do one lesson's work isn't a starter.

    Which is more important for learning: knowing what your students think, or giving them feedback?

    Easy -- knowing what they think, because that is what allows me to make the next lesson better. Feedback can become fetishised too easily. Students get feedback all the time, and don't necessarily consider the teacher's feedback as all that important in the scheme of things.

  9. I find that having them work on vertical surfaces helps. I walk around the room & can see from anywhere in the room what any given group is working on. Then I can choose which group to chat with, ask them questions about their work, redirect their thinking, etc. Real-time feedback.

  10. Worth it and time consuming, I admit. After writing the same comment twice, ACK, I remind myself to stop writing comments and instead, circle the whole darn thing. Then I take 6 or 7 versions of the solution, correct and incorrect, scan them, and give a pair of students one page to give feedback on (feedback is kind, helpful and improve clarity and understanding). Then we all talk. Another way I do it is have the students give feed back in pairs right away. That means 4 sets of eyes have been on your paper before you get it back to revise. I would happily send you and example form. Keep the dialogue running, more eyes, better lessons!