practice (5)

The Value of Practice

The January 2013 edition of the Association for Pyschological Science's journal has a great article about what impacts students' learning.  What they found is that certain techniques and strategies have a positive impact on students learning content (and should be continued) and that certain techniques and strategies have little to no impact on student learning (and should be stopped).

The strategies with little impact include summarizing content, highlighting, and rereading material and notes.

The strategies that had a positive impact were ones that fell into the category of taking practice tests.

Some may find those results surprising.  Strong AFL teachers shouldn't be surprised at all.  AFL teachers know that Memory is the Residue of Thought.  AFL teachers know that students and teachers need the feedback that comes from regular practice.  Teachers who, for example, have used regular Quia quizzes to prepare students and to gain benchmark data know and attest to the value of taking practice tests.

What was disturbing, though, was the finding that having students prepare/study by rereading notes and by using the highlighter method was more common than having students take regular practice assessments.

It's time to put away the highlighters and break out the practice tests!

Here is a link to the APS study:

RECOMMENDED READING: Here is a link to a post about the study found on the AJC Get Schooled blog:

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A sure sign that you don't really get AFL...

Here's a sure sign that you don't fully understand AFL and how AFL practices will lead to your goal of helping students learn the content you teach:

You teach a primarily fact-based class or are currently teaching fact-based content - such as History, Biology, or Health - and the first time that your students are assessed/quizzed/tested/etc on facts it's on a graded assignment that goes into your grade book and is averaged with other assignments to determine a final grade.

Think about it for a moment.  AFL is all about assessment FOR THE PURPOSE OF LEARNING.  If you assess your students and put the outcome of that assessment into your grade book - WITHOUT PROVIDING STUDENTS AN OPPORTUNITY TO CHANGE OR IMPROVE THE GRADE AS THEY MASTER CONTENT - then that assessment was for the purpose of determining a grade NOT for the purpose of learning.  

There is nothing wrong with assessing for the purpose of determining a grade.  You are required to do this as a teacher.  However, you are first charged with helping students learn.  Your students' grades should be determined AFTER your students have had ample opportunity to learn by practicing and failing and practicing again IF you want the grade to reflect learning.  If you give students notes on the facts of your content, have them take a quiz on those facts, assign a grade to that quiz, and then put that grade in your grade book to be averaged with other grades HAS YOUR ASSESSMENT HELPED STUDENTS LEARN?  

The answer is yes - it has helped them learn.  Now that they realize what they have missed they better understand the content.  We definitely learn by mistakes.  In fact, we need to give students more opportunities to make mistakes (see this post).  BUT IF THAT GRADE ON THAT FIRST QUIZ IS ETCHED INTO GRADE BOOK "STONE" THEN THERE IS NO WAY FOR THE FINAL GRADE TO ACCURATELY REFLECT LEARNING.  

Here's an example of what I mean: Let's say a student got a 75 on a quiz about people or vocabulary or dates.  If as a result of that 75 the student learns from his or her mistakes and could get a 95 on a similar quiz the next day, then it's safe to say that you have taught them - at least for the short-term - the content at a 95 level.  BUT THE GRADE IN THE GRADE BOOK IS A 75.  If you are satisfied with this - if you allow this to happen in your classroom - then it's safe to say that you don't really get AFL.  You're probably teaching as YOU were taught - or assuming that all students learn in the manner in which you learned - without really thinking about how your assessment strategies and grading strategies are inconsistent.  You've taught content, but you're just not really skilled at assessment.  You might be doing an excellent job of covering content, but you are not giving your students enough opportunities to practice.  Some of your students are probably experiencing a certain level of grade deflation that doesn't indicate the degree to which they are learning from you.

So what are some solutions?  How about if before you give and then grade the assignment that will go into the grade book, you first try one or more of these 4 easy AFL strategies:

  • Try starting each class or most classes off with a short 5-10 question practice quiz.  The practice quiz grade can go in the grade book as long as it can be replaced or improved by a later graded assignment.  I guarantee you that your students will master the content better this way than they would if you gave 1 summative quiz/test after taking notes on the content.  You could even give the same quiz several days in a row.  
  • Try ending each class with a quick check for understanding.  Take 5 minutes and make sure EVERYONE has grasped that day's main points/terms/vocabulary.  You might try this flashcard review method.
  • Use white boards once a week to see how well students are understanding the content.  Read here to see how this could work in your classroom.
  • Start off a unit by giving students a review sheet or rubric.  Then have them assess daily how well they understand the content.  Here's an example of a review sheet and here's an example of a rubric.

Here's my next question?  Why would you not try one of these ideas?  Or more importantly, why would you teach something, give a graded assignment on it, and then put that grade into your grade book without FIRST doing a meaningful AFL activity?  I can promise you this: If you give your students multiple opportunities to fail content and learn from mistakes prior to putting a permanent grade into a grade book, your students will start finding it easier to master the content in your classroom.  And getting students to master difficult content is what teaching is all about.

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An AFL Homework Practice

Sitting this morning in a Student Support Team meeting I heard Beth Moody, a math teacher at SHS, explain her homework practice. It was a wonderful example of AFL in action.

First of all, homework did not count against you. After all, why should practice count against you? Not doing homework or not doing it well does not inherently indicate how well students are mastering content.

Secondly, doing your homework assignments will lead to you receiving an extra grade for the grading period. This is a nice reinforcement of the idea that practice leads to learning. Unlike extra credit, an extra grade does not overly inflate the summative grade, but it does provide an incentive to practice.

Finally, and most AFL-ish, was the fact that Ms. Moody gives students practice problems for homework and then tells them to do as many or as few from each section as they need to do to ensure that they understand the concept. She is putting the students in charge of their own learning by giving them a means to assess themselves and tailor their practice accordingly. Rather than simply assign students 10 practice problems, the students might instead be given 5 examples of one type of problem and 5 of another. Then the students are told to do as many of each type as they need to. So while one student might do 1 of each, another might do 2 of 1 type and 3 of another, and still another students might do all 10.

What a great way to individualize the practice process and give students ownership of their learning!
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Members of this network may have noticed a video that seems out of place on an educational social network. The video is of a post-game interview with NBA player Allen Iverson. Why in the world is that on here?

Salem High School teachers on this Ning know the answer to that. When our school first started taking a serious look at AFL, we realized right away that how you chose to grade assessments could negate the learning that they generated. In other words, if you use AFL strategies well they will lead to an increase in learning. Students and teachers will be using feedback to guide learning and instruction. However, if we want the student's grade to reflect the learning that occurred, we must be very careful and deliberate about how we grade (or don't grade) the assessments we give. Allen Iverson - believe it or not - has something to say about that. Watch the video and then I'll explain.

(If the video on this post didn't load right away, try reloading the page.)

It's been awhile since I've seen that video. Could someone refresh my memory about what he was "talkin' 'bout"? Oh, that's right - PRACTICE!

First of all, my posting this video is not in ANY WAY making a point about the need to practice when you're on a team. I'm not AT ALL an Iverson fan. It's just posted because it gives us an image to which we can relate - We're Talkin' 'Bout Practice!

How does this relate to grading? Think about your grades and your assessments. How many of them are "practice"? In other words, how many of your assignments are intended to help students practice so that they can learn? I bet you that most of them are. Now let's think about grading. How many points to you assign to these assignments? What would happen to a student who mastered the content, as evidenced by your final graded assessment, but did poorly on the practice assignments?

Let's get more direct: How many students are failing your class because they either didn't do or did poorly on your practice assessments? Do you have students who can pass your tests - or whatever your final graded assessment is - but fail your class? Why is this? It's because their practice assignments - the ones that were supposed to help them learn - are counting against them. Never mind that they mastered the material - or at least learned it to a level above failing. Never mind that you taught them even though they didn't do all your assignments. Their practice is causing them to fail.

By the way - I'm not saying here that practice isn't important. I think students should practice everyday in class and every night at home. But should practice be graded in a way that allows a kid who learned the content to fail the class or receive a grade that does not represent learning?

The Winter Olympics just ended. Some gold medals were won by less than 1/10 of second. What if the practice runs were then averaged in causing the gold medal winner to get a silver? That would be ridiculous. Our goal is to get kids to be able to learn and perform. If they do this then it's because of the job we did. Why would we then take a bunch of practice assessments and average them in with the assessments that really counted?

If we use AFL to increase learning but then grade poorly, we can end up negating the achievement. Take a look at your grade book. Examine why some students are failing. Remember - WE'RE TALKIN' 'BOUT PRACTICE!
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Would this work? (A question for Math teachers)

First, a disclaimer: I am not and never have been a Math teacher.  After teaching Modern World History for 7 years, I went to the "Dark Side" and became an administrator, so I probably don't know anything about teaching Math.

However, I do know a few things about teaching in general.  Furthermore, I have a pretty good grasp of the philosophy of AFL and how applying it in the classroom can increase student learning.  So I'm going to give this a shot.

I've noticed that one of the problems that some Math students have is that they don't practice at home.  I will in no way advocate stopping the assignment of practice to be done at home.  Practice at home is a worthy topic unto itself, but please do not read into what I am about to write that I am recommending not having students practice at home.  In fact, I would recommend assigning practice to be done at home every single night.  But if:

  1. Many of our students don't practice at home, and
  2. We realize that we cannot control what one does at home, and
  3. We believe practice is required to learn the content, and
  4. We care MOST about whether or not students learn as opposed to whether or not they make responsible decisions outside of class, then
  5. It makes sense to provide as much practice time as possible during class since that is the only time in a student's day we can control.

Of course this idea of giving time to practice in class fits very nicely with the philosophy of AFL.  The AFL teacher would give practice opportunities in class that provide useful feedback for the teacher and the student.  Frankly, I've never known a Math teacher who doesn't give students chances to practice in class.  Usually this comes in the form of a practice problem or getting started on the night's homework.  Typically the teacher will move around the room to see how students are doing and to answer questions the students might have.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this sort of practice activity, but like everything, it does have limitations.  For example, if a student chooses to just "go through the motions" of doing the practice, then very little feedback will be received.  Also, the student who, for whatever reason, doesn't ask questions will quite possibly not learn as well as the student who does ask questions.  Finally, the teacher is only one person and almost always outnumbered greatly by students.  It can be difficult to give each student the specific feedback they need during such an activity.

One more background observation before I share my idea.  I have noticed that students often take test-like or quiz-like situations more seriously than they do other activities.  In other words, kids who will goof around and disrupt classroom practice tend - in a well-led classroom - to sit quietly and do as they're told during a test or quiz situation.

That's a lot of build up and background to an idea that's not all that earth-shattering.  In fact, I'm sure the Math teachers out there will respond by saying, "Been  there, done that!"  But I still figured I'd share a potential practical application of the philosophy of AFL to the Math classroom.

In a nutshell, the idea is to break up the Math process into steps and then give students a daily quiz on each step as they learn the process.  It would look something like this:

  • The Math process being taught is broken down into steps.  For this discussion let's assume we're learning Math Process P which is divided into 3 steps.
  • The teacher teaches Step 1 and then gives students a quiz on Step 1.  The quiz will ONLY be on Step 1 and it will be worth X points.
  • The teacher teaches Step 2 and then gives the students a quiz on Steps 2 AND 1.  This quiz will be worth 2X points.  The student or the teacher might even  choose to erase the first quiz from the grade book or set it to not factor into the grade.
  • The teacher teaches Step 3 and then gives the students a quiz on Steps 3 AND 2 AND 1.  This quiz will be worth 4X points.  The student or the teacher might even choose to erase the first two quizzes from the grade book or set them to not factor into the grade.  
  • The teacher reviews the quiz on Steps 3, 2, and 1 and then gives a unit test on all aspects of Process P.  This unit test is worth 10X points.  The student or the teacher might even choose to erase the quizzes from the grade book or set them to not factor into the grade.

Here are some more details:

  • A quiz might be given the same day as the respective step was taught.  On the other hand, a step  might take more than one day to teach.  If a step takes a few minutes to teach, then the teacher will quiz on it after giving the students a chance to practice it.  If it takes the entire class period to teach the step, then the quiz will open class the next day.  
  • If any step takes more than one day to teach, then the students will take a quiz on that step on consecutive days.
  • There will be a quiz given every day.

To me this seems like a way to make sure students are practicing in class.  For example, even if the student did no homework, he would still practice Step 1 three times before the unit test, Step 2 two times, and Step 3 one time.  Beyond just practicing the step, the student would be receiving more feedback and more direct feedback than is typically received when the class goes over practice or homework problems.  Finally, the teacher would get valuable feedback as he or she would know how each student - as opposed to just the question askers - was doing on each step.  Plus the teacher would have the specific feedback necessary to tightly focus remediation efforts, determine what might need to be retaught, and create differentiation efforts.  

So, Math Teachers, what do you think?  Could this work?  What have I overlooked?  Would this type of practice - this use of assessment for the purpose of learning - increase the likelihood of students learning?

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