Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What's In Your Desk Drawer? Day 18

A stack of little papers...

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I'm a technophile. I love gadgets, and I'm always interested in learning something new. I regularly experiment with new technologies in my teaching practice too, so I've tried a lot of techie things to find out what my students know and understand. I've used Edmodo, and Socrative, and PollEverywhere, and Padlet, and others, I'm sure. And I've had success with each of these, actually. They do different things, and they have different strengths and weaknesses, so I use them in different ways. But all of them are good for what we call "formative assessment." (Just a little education jargon for your day...)

Formative assessment is different than summative assessment. Summative assessment happens at the end of a unit of learning. It's assessment to "sum up," to see what students have learned about the topic they have been studying. Summative assessment is valuable: we want to know that students have synthesized the key topics, and we want to see that at least some of their learning "sticks"--that it lasts beyond just the day's lessons.

Formative assessment, on the other hand, is assessment that is ongoing while the teaching and learning is taking place. The idea here is that teachers need to know how students are thinking, and what they know, and what they don't yet understand along the way, and that having this information can in turn inform your teaching. (e.g., if the kids don't know it yet...we have to change tactics.) I've heard it referred to this way: summative assessment is assessment OF learning, while formative assessment is assessment FOR learning.

The list of tech tools above are some means I've used to get a handle on what my students currently understand about the topics we're learning about in class. It's a snapshot in time, it's not the be-all-and-end-all. But seeing what students are thinking gives me insight into how I'm doing as a teacher.

We need ways of making their thinking visible.

And there are a LOT of ways we can do this.

You know...the guillotine!
So, in my desk drawer I have this stack of papers labeled "In a nutshell..." with a picture of a peanut on them. (Cute, right?) They are printed four to a page, and then I take them to the guillotine to chop them into small sheets.

I used to use these "In a nutshell..." sheets when I was a middle school teacher as a quick, informal formative assessment. I used them in several different ways, actually.

I might ask students at the beginning of class to summarize last night's reading "in a nutshell."

I might ask students at the end of a lesson to sum up the main points "in a nutshell."

I might ask students in the middle of a lesson to pause for a moment and write one question they have at this point "in a nutshell."

I might ask students to answer a specific prompt ("in a nutshell") like, "How is _____ like _____?" or "What is the problem with _____?" or "Give an example of where you've seen _____ at home or at school."

The point is, this is a short, to the point, quick-to-write way of making their thinking visible. Which is really the purpose of formative assessment, in my mind: how will I know what they know? How will I understand what they understand? Where am I missing the mark in my teaching?

They were short enough that I can read through a stack really quickly, get a sense of where the collective group thinking is (and any outliers!) and use this information to shape my next steps as a teacher.

So whether you use a high-tech "text in your answer" sort of  approach, or a decidedly low-tech pencil-and-paper approach, the real point is capturing students' thinking, and then using the knowledge I gain to inform my teaching. Otherwise, my teaching might look more like (as Wiggins & McTighe put it) "Teach, test, and hope for the best!"


(This post is part of a series about the weird stuff teachers have in their desk drawers. You can read more about this project here, and I hope you'll share the stories of the weird stuff you have in your desk too!)

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