Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding
What strategy doubles student learning? According to 250 empirical studies, the answer is formative assessment, defined by Bill Younglove as "the frequent, interactive checking of student progress and understanding in order to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately."
Unlike summative assessment, which evaluates student learning according to a benchmark, formative assessment monitors student understanding so that kids are always aware of their academic strengths and learning gaps. Meanwhile, teachers can improve the effectiveness of their instruction, re-teaching if necessary. "When the cook tastes the soup," writes Robert E. Stake, "that's formative; when the guests taste the soup, that's summative." Formative assessment can be administered as an exam. But if the assessment is not a traditional quiz, it falls within the category of alternative assessment.
Alternative formative assessment (AFA) strategies can be as simple (and important) as checking the oil in your car -- hence the name "dipsticks." They're especially effective when students are given tactical feedback, immediately followed by time to practice the skill. My favorite techniques are those with simple directions, like The 60 Second Paper, which asks students to describe the most important thing they learned and identify any areas of confusion in under a minute. You can find another 53 ways to check for understanding toward the end of this post, also available as a downloadable document.
In the sections below, we'll discuss things to consider when implementing AFAs.
Observation: A Key Practice in Alternative Formative Assessment
A fundamental element of most AFAs is observation. In her Edutopia post, Rebecca Alber says there is much to learn by taking observational notes as students work in groups. "However," she clarifies, "if it is quiet during this talk time, and they are watching you watch them, they are most likely lost." Another Edutopia blogger, Elena Aguilar witnessed "a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher" who directed his students to respond to a story by making hand gestures and holding up picture cards. "In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and provide corrective feedback."
By methodically watching and recording student performance with a focused observation form, you can learn a lot about students' levels of understanding in just a few moments. For example, on the Teach Like a Champion blog, watch how math teacher Taryn Pritchard uses an observation sheet, and note her description of how she pre-plans to assess students' mastery levels in only ten seconds. Pre-planning methodical observations allow instructors to efficiently and effectively intervene when it counts most -- the instant students start down the wrong path.
New to Alternative Formative Assessment? Start Slow
The National Capital Language Resource Center recommends the following when introducing alternative assessment for the first time:
- Integrate alternative assessments gradually, while still using the traditional assessments.
- Walk students through the rubrics and discuss expectations when you introduce assignments.
- Learn to score alternative assessments yourself, and then gradually introduce students to self-evaluation.
- Teach students how to thoughtfully give each other feedback as you introduce them to peer-response.
A Simple Way to Gain Information from Your Students: Ask Them
When preservice teachers are confused as to why their students performed poorly on an assignment, I gently say, "Did you ask them why?" After all, having learners use their own vernacular to articulate why they are stuck can be profoundly useful for identifying where to target support.
According to the American Institute of Nondestructive Testing, the simplest tool to encourage student self-assessment is evaluative prompts:
- How much time and effort did you put into this?
- What do you think your strengths and weaknesses were in this assignment?
- How could you improve your assignment?
- What are the most valuable things you learned from this assignment?
Learners can respond to those prompts using Padlet, a virtual corkboard where many computer users can simultaneously post their responses, followed by a focused whole-class discussion of students' answers. The instructor doesn't always have to develop prompts -- students can invent and submit one or more potential exam questions and answers on relevant content. Tell them that you'll include the best contributions on a forthcoming quiz.
Portfolios are a more complex form of ongoing self-assessment that can be featured during student-led conferences. James Mule, principal of St. Amelia Elementary School in New York, describes how children benefit from the student-led conferences that occur at his institution: "With the student in charge and the teacher acting as a facilitator, the authentic assessment gives students practice in self-evaluation and boosts accountability, self-confidence, and self-esteem." Pernille Ripp's Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension provides all the handouts needed.
The biggest benefit of integrating AFAs into your practice is that students will internalize the habit of monitoring their understanding and adjusting accordingly.
We created the following list as a downloadable reminder to post by your computer. In the comments section of this post, tell us which of these 53 ways you've used for checking on students’ understanding -- or recommend other AFAs we should know about.