feedback (4)

Do they know if they know?

Here's a quick and easy way to analyze how well you are applying AFL principles in your classroom:

If a parent were to ask his or her child how they were doing in your class, could the child give an accurate, detailed, and specific answer about his or her progress?

If you are regularly providing descriptive feedback to students then they should be able to tell their parents not only if they are doing well or not, but also what their strengths are, what they have mastered, and in what areas they still need improvement.

Of course, many young people - because they are young people - will tend to answer with a simple "Fine" or "I don't know". However, if we could magically control for the idiosyncracies of youth, the question remains, could your students specifically and with detail tell their parents how they are doing in your classroom?

If the answer is "No" then it probably means you are not giving enough feedback - which in turn probably means that you are not assessing them regularly enough. Or perhaps it means you need to focus on training your students to better use the feedback that you are giving.

Don't confuse a student being able to report on his or her grade with a student being able to answer the question in detail. Being able to say, "I'm making a B" is very different from being able to say, "I've mastered grammar but am having trouble with analyzing poetry."

So what can you do to give your students more descriptive feedback so that they can better answer the question?
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Laying an AFL Bead in Welding

When our school first starting investigating Assessment FOR Learning 4 years ago, the first teacher we had address our faculty with an AFL classroom example was Bert Weschke, our Welding teacher.  Recently, as I have engaged in some conversations about applying AFL practices to the classroom - or more specifically, NOT applying those strategies - I have come back in my mind to Bert's example.  There's a lot to learn about AFL from the way Bert Weschke teaches students to "lay a bead".

A weld bead is a deposit of metal that results from a passing of the welding torch over metal.  Bert shared that when teaching students to lay a bead, he has them practice numerous times on a piece of metal.  As they are practicing, he is moving around the room providing them with feedback.  He has already taught/lectured on how to lay a bead.  Now, as he moves about the room, his students get plenty of practice and receive plenty of feedback.  

Eventually, the student will have to submit a bead that receives a summative grade.  Until that point, though, each student will repeat the process over and over with the goal of mastery in mind.  The feedback the student receives might come in the form of a grade - such as "If this was the final product you'd get a C." - but it isn't going to impact the grade.  

This seems to me to be the common sense way to teach Welding.  Imagine a Welding teacher lecturing and demonstrating how to make a bead, telling the students to study his notes on bead laying that night, and then taking his students into the shop the next day for a hands-on test before moving on to the next topic.  It just wouldn't make sense - unless, of course, mastery of the skill was not the goal.

So why does it make sense to teach this way in a Science class or a History class or any other classroom? It doesn't.

If students are going to master content THEY MUST BE GIVEN OPPORTUNITIES TO PRACTICE THE CONTENT AND THEY MUST RECEIVE FEEDBACK FROM THE TEACHER.  Grading the student really should be secondary.  The feedback could look like a grade - "If the final test were today you'd have a C." - but it really shouldn't be what determines the grade.  

It's true that some students can listen to a lecture or read notes and then do well on a test, but:

1. Not all can,

2. This doesn't ensure long-term learning, and

3. This makes the teacher irrelevant.

No matter the level of the student or the level of the course, teachers MUST provide opportunities for practice and they must give regular feedback along the way.  That feedback could be entered into a grade book; it could be a score on a unique feedback scale (such as a check or check+); it could be descriptive and in paragraph format, or it could be a simple statement such as "Keep working on _____."  

How much feedback is too much?  If you're following kids home in the afternoon to give them feedback instead of being with your family, then you probably need to stop.  Until then, keep giving feedback.

As I think about Bert's example of teaching Welding, I'm reminding of several History professors I had in college.  By lecturing and giving notes without any feedback or assessment prior to the quiz, large test, or exam, essentially these professors ended up assessing whether or not:

1. I had strong listening skills,

2. I could memorize notes, and/or

3. I could teach myself.

What they weren't assessing was how well THEY TAUGHT me the content.

Let's not be like those professors.  Instead, let's be like a good Welding instructor.  Let's make sure that students have many opportunities to practice and receive FEEDBACK.  Let's make sure TEACHERS lead students to mastery.

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Assessment in on-line classes presents significant challenges for both students and teachers, especially for teachers like me who give a lot of importance to evidence gathered throughout the course by performance tasks.

The purpose of framing assessment around performance tasks is to clearly distinguish between those who really understand from those who only seem to because through performance understanding becomes "visible". This is the reason that assessments are frequently designed as projects, which are essentially complex, “messy,” and multi-staged problems to be solved. These critical-thinking elements help teachers see levels of comprehension displayed by students. Tasks with these characteristics also go beyond furnishing a snapshot of student understanding to providing "scrapbook" of understanding - in other words a collection of evidence gathered over time, instead of through a single event. This is crucial because "understanding develops as a result of ongoing inquiry and rethinking". (Wiggins pg. 152)

However, this way of framing assessment still goes against many assumptions our students have about learning and thus about grading as they are often considered equivalent. I have spoken with my students at length about this to understand their perspectives, and they offer a variety of interesting ideas that can be summed up in the following two phrases. Whatever is given a grade by the teacher is important, and anything else can be skipped. Further, grades are derived from quizzes and tests.

Several problems arise from these opposing perspectives to learning that need to be looked at carefully. Among them is how forums are approached. Forums provide opportunities for students to put concepts found in the readings in their own terms and bounce ideas off their fellow students. Groups collaboratively plan a product or performance by facing contextualized issues. These exercises give students feedback and practice at doing the task, both valuable for the summative assessment that will come later in the course.

Fellow teacher and blogger Lisa Lane is particularly concerned about the second point because like me, she wants students to extend their understanding of the topic at hand through discussion in forums.

"In terms of course design, I don’t consider the discussion 20% of the course, just 20% of the grade. It’s more like half the class, because it’s the processing and sharing of the knowledge learned via presentation and reading. It’s the heart, not a side activity. It’s lower stakes (not 50% of the grade) because I want the students to feel free to explore." (Lane, 2009)

This seems simple enough, but my experience corroborates Lisa's - the students just don't get it. The message that students receive is that discussions held in forums are 20% of the class and deserve that much of their energy devoted to the course.

I have found a way to begin to resolve this problem. From the beginning of my courses I make it clear that grades will be based on summative assessment only which will take place at or near the end of the course. All other activities are formative and for that reason are not graded. To avoid misunderstandings regarding the importance of non-graded formative activities, I give a mark to each activity, a number according to its relative value. I keep these on a Google spreadsheet permanently linked to the course so it is always up to date and visible to students. The Google spreadsheet is a link so I never have to upload new versions or save them under new names or send the document out to students because they can see updates made to the document in real time or any time they check into the course.

This has effected a change in student's attitude towards formative activities because students can’t stand to receive a low number, even if it doesn’t count towards the grade. I have told them that because activities are formative, they can be improved by going over my qualitative feedback and the rubrics. This of course means being flexible with due dates and very patient with problems students and groups have in submitting assignments on time. It has motivated them to interact more with me, with classmates and with the rubrics and it has focused their attention, even if it is inadvertently, on the learning process - writing, editing, consulting, re-writing, re-editing, consulting again - and less on the grade itself.

Also, if a discussion is designed to last two weeks and it is worth six points (marks), I assign three to the first week and three to the second week. This gets students to participate more constantly and not just at the end of the designated period for that discussion.

Students can compare the number of marks they have to the total possible number at any given moment which serves as an alert for students who fall behind. At the end of the course, they are awarded a Professional Development score, which is simply the sum total of their marks. This indicates effort given towards the activities in the course and their level of mastery of the key course concepts. In nearly every case high marks coincide with high grades and low marks with low grades. Although this score is not part of the grade, students take it as seriously as the grades.

Although it may be counterintuitive to use numbers (marks) to encourage students to practice essential skills, it seems to be a language symbol that communicates a message far clearer than many of my attempts to explain and motivate.

---- References ----

Lane, Lisa. Ramblings on Assessments that work and assumptions that don't. Blog post, 2009. ?p=392

Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. Understanding by Design. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005. pg. 152.

Article originally published in Online Classroom, August 2010.

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Getting and Giving Student Feedback

Check out this article by Heather Rader on getting and giving student feedback, a concept that is central to AFL!Hmmmm... the hyperlink feature does not seem to be working! Here is the full text:Getting and Giving Student FeedbackHeather RaderI saved this quote from an email with the title "Why We Love Children":A little girl had just finished her first week of school. "I'm just wasting my time," she said to her mother. "I can't read, I can't write and they won't let me talk!"I'll be the first to admit I enjoy the sound of my own voice. I love to tell stories. I love it when people laugh at just the right part or when I scan the room and I have all eyes on me waiting for the next line. But I also enjoy a good Malbec wine, and I know too much of that isn't good for me either.I learned to pipe down in my personal life about eight years ago when my middle daughter, Maya, began to stutter. When she was unable to get through a short sentence without bursting into tears, we visited a speech specialist. My homework assignment was to record our dinnertime conversation. If a normal conversation has a typical number of verbal demands, in our family it was four times the expected amount. My husband and I talk a lot and Maya's older brother was a motor mouth. While her vocabulary development was three years ahead of her chronological age, she still had the brain of the three-year-old that was unable to keep up with the verbal demands. As I took this in, I paraphrased the speech specialist, "Basically the issue isn't Maya's brain or speech - it's us that need some shut-up therapy." The specialist was sweet; she just smiled and said nothing.Recent research finds that feedback is most effective when teachers understand how students are making sense of their learning experiences. John Hattie in his book Visible Learning states, "The mistake I was making was seeing feedback as something teachers provided to students. . .It was only when I discovered that feedback was most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher that I started to understand it better. When teachers seek, or at least are open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged -- then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful. Feedback to teachers helps make learning visible."When I consider who is the best educated and the most experienced thinker in the classroom, the answer is almost always the teacher. If I am understanding how the students are making meaning, I can adapt the questions, lessons and interventions. The only way for me to have access to that information is to get it in the form of kid talk - lots of it and in writing too. Schema, 10:2 Theory and Exit Slips are ways to constantly seek feedback on students' understanding.SchemaA friend of mine, Nari, is a student support manager and was working with the kindergartners on the playground."Please don't run on the cement," she said."Okay!" said a five-year-old as she was running off."Please don't run on the cement," she said again."Okay!" said another kindergartner. "Wait - what is cement?"We laughed because those sweet kids were more than willing not to run on cement; they just didn't know what it was. Because we aren't five or seven or even fifteen anymore, we can't know what's in kids' heads or how they are comprehending the information they are taking in.Two ways to quickly assess schema is to use the quick-sketch or quick-write method. Because I'm not 10 in the year 2010, I know I have different schema for the word clustering that I'm going to teach as a prewriting technique to fourth graders. When I think of clustering, clusters of grapes come to mind, but I ask students to draw a quick sketch on a piece of paper for 30 seconds of what comes up when I say cluster. They think of chocolate peanut clusters, video game clusters, bomb clusters and more. Some have no associations at all. When I take a moment to connect grapes to peanut clusters to video game and bomb clusters and point out that all of those examples have similar elements bunched together and that's what we are going to do in writing, I'm connecting to their experience and supporting meaning making.10:2 TheoryTen and two (10:2) theory is based on the idea that students make sense of new information by periodically integrating it with existing information. As learners, we naturally take mental breaks to absorb information even as more information is presented. Mary Budd Rowe (Journal of Teacher Education, 1986) explains how teachers can provide regular pauses to accommodate this need. She recommends we to pause for two minutes about every ten minutes (thus the 10:2 theory).Understanding this idea in theory and actually putting it into practice are two different things. Talking faster to cram more in the ten-minute window or simply directing "now turn and talk to integrate what you've learned into your existing thinking" are not highly effective. I plan my lessons thinking about the rhythm of teaching and learning--like breathing--with this theory in mind. Exhaling is the short minilesson on vivid verbs, and inhaling is when the kids turn to a partner to paraphrase. Exhaling is modeling how to develop a personal list of vivid verbs to use in writing, and inhaling is having the students start their own lists.Each time I inhale, I'm providing students with the opportunity for talk, writing and feedback. I use a timer to raise my awareness of the pacing and try to keep the new information input under ten minutes before shhhh. . .letting the kids make meaning.Exit SlipsThese are also known as "did they get it?" receipts and I use them often. My favorite question to ask is, "What was the most important thing you learned in ________(subject) today?" Here was a response that I received after a revision lesson: "I learned that revision is checking your spelling." Another good one: "I learned that elaboration is writing many words in a sentence." Even better: "I learned that a summary is copying down what was already written."Yes, my response is to clap my hand on my forehead and moan, but when I'm done doing that, I'm thankful for the informal assessment of student understanding. The clearer I am about students' thinking and misconceptions, the less likely I am to fall under the illusion that everyone is getting it. I use exit slips as five-minute quick-writes that can be preceded by talk to help students reflect on their learning and critical thinking. Most often I use them at the end of the lesson, but they can also be used as we transition during the lesson.Here are a few other questions/prompts I've used:• I understand…but I do not understand…• One question I have is…• Three words/phrases I heard a lot during this lesson were…• I know ________ is true because…• I smiled/frowned today when…For students who are not writing words or sentences yet I've used:• Draw a picture of yourself learning today.• Draw a picture of what your face looked like when you learned _____.• I could/could not (circle) tell a friend about what I learned.• The important thing about prewriting is ______.While it may sound like a Geico commercial, five minutes spent on feedback before, during and at the end of the lesson can save. . .a lot. After a lesson that doesn't quite work, I always ask myself:How did I connect to the students' schema?Did I give them multiple opportunities to talk, write and think?What did they take away from the learning experience?How do I know?Heather Rader is a writer and teacher who has landed her dream job as an instructional specialist for North Thurston Public Schools (Washington). She's taught all grades K-6 and now enjoys teaching adults and collaborating as an instructional coach. Her motto is "stay curious" for all that life has to offer.
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