I'm often surprised when teachers are surprised when their students perform poorly on tests. Sure there are kids whose scores belie their skills, such as those who have test anxiety or had a bad day or took the test on an empty stomach. For the most part, though, students' performance on tests is predictable based on their day to day performance in class. And that's the problem: teachers who are surprised by students' performance on tests often aren't assessing students' understanding in class as routinely or effectively as they need to be.
Routine, effective assessment means knowing what students know or don't know now. No waiting for the chapter test, much less a year-end standardized test. In fact, no waiting until you grade students' papers after class, since the time for timely formative assessment is during class when you can identify ASAP what students don't get and why they don't get it, and clear up their confusion right away.
One key to such in-the-moment assessment is circulating to see how students are doing as they're working on something in class--whether it's a five-minute "Do Now" or a 45-minute discovery activity. Just be sure when you do this to assess all students before you assist any students.
Another key to immediate, reliable assessment is effective questioning techniques. I've written before about one such technique, cold calling, and here are a few more:
- Ask, Don't Tell. Ask questions through which you can pull information from students rather than provide it to them. Examples: give students diagrams of insects and arachnids (or, better yet, have them create their own), and ask them to identify similarities and differences rather than doing so for them; draw a few figures with lines of symmetry inserted and ask students what they think a line of symmetry is rather than define it for them up front. Same goes for discussing readings or interpreting graphs, where you'll get a better sense for students' understanding if you solicit their opinions and analysis before sharing yours.
- Avoid Yes-No Questions. Ask questions that require students to say or show what they do or don't understand rather than if they understand. In other words, lots of what, why, and how questions rather than knee-jerk yes-no questions like "Does everyone understand?" or "Is everyone ready to move on?" or "Does this make sense?" I've noticed even when facilitating workshops that participants are more responsive when I ask, "What questions do you have?" than when I ask, "Any questions?" Similarly, it's better to ask, "What do you remember about...? " rather than "Do you remember...?"
- Target Conceptual Understanding. Ask questions that assess and facilitate conceptual understanding before asking those aimed at procedural understanding. (Example: "What is perimeter?" rather than "What is the formula for perimeter?")
In my experience, teachers who assess students' understanding using these practices are rarely if ever surprised by their students' performance on tests. And more important, they're pleased with their students' performance on tests, since formative assessment efficiency on the part of teachers is a key to summative assessment proficiency on the part of students.
What questions do you have?
Image provided by Phillip Martin with permission
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