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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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The Power of Asking "Can You"

My daughter, Kelsey, is an eighth grader at Andrew Lewis Middle School where she, as her sister before her, is blessed to have Beth Swain as her Geometry teacher.  


Geometry is proving to be a challenging class for Kelsey.  She is very intelligent and a hard-worker, and while Math is and always has been her favorite subject, she's starting off slower than normal in Geometry.  Thankfully, Mrs. Swain uses the kind of AFL strategies that help young people master content.  


So far, Kelsey's Geometry class has had 3 large tests.  Kelsey scored a D when she took the first test.  In many classrooms a large test like this would be used as a summative assessment; however, Mrs. Swain uses tests in a formative/AFL manner.  This means that the D was not the end of the story.  The grade could still improve since the purpose of the assessment was to promote learning as opposed to the purpose being to provide a grade.  Mrs. Swain chooses to use even large chapter tests formatively - like check-ups - rather than summatively - like autopsies.  After taking the first test, Kelsey's class was allowed to perform a "test analysis" that led to her mastering the content and earning a 95 A on the test.


Then came the second test.  Again, the content was not easy for her, but she worked hard.  Kelsey scored a C on that test.  Again, Mrs. Swain used the test in AFL manner, and Kelsey again was able to perform a test analysis which resulted in her understanding the content better and earning a B+.


So this brings us to the third test and the power of asking "Can You?"   On Monday, October 31, Beth Swain communicated the following message to parents via email:


Good afternoon!  The chapter 3 test will be this Friday with the vocab test being on Thursday.  To help students prepare for the test, they were given a "Can You"? sheet today.  If they can answer yes to all the "can you.." questions on the sheet by Thursday night then they should be prepared for the test.  If they can't answer yes then they need to practice those concepts so that they fully understand them.  Please make sure your child is making use of this sheet as they prepare for the test. 
As always, I am available in the mornings to help them if they need me.

As a parent, I was so encouraged to receive this email.  I don't know if your kids are like mine, but there seem to be a few standard answers to the questions my wife and I ask.  Those answers seem to be "Nothing" and "I Don't Know."  It's always nice to hear from a teacher information that allows me to ask more effective questions.  In this case, I was able to ask Kelsey, "How are you doing on your 'Can You' sheet?"  All week I was able to encourage Kelsey to make sure she was using the "Can You" sheet as it was intended.


More importantly, though, was the fact that this "Can You" sheet and the way Mrs. Swain used it enabled Kelsey to take better control of her own learning and studying.  She was given a tool that assisted her in assessing herself on a daily basis and then making decisions based on the feedback she received.  


So on the first test Kelsey scored a D the first go around.  On the second test, Kelsey scored a C the first go around.  On the third test - the one with the "Can You" sheet - Kelsey scored a B+ the first go around.  She told me that she felt much better heading into that test than she had on the previous two.


AFL strategies are rarely "revolutionary".  Rather, they are often as simple as asking students "Can You".  It's very encouraging to see teachers using strategies like this that empower parents to assist their children and that train students to assess themselves and to take ownership of their own progress.   


(For some other similar examples check out Using a Review Sheet in an AFL Manner and A Self-Assessment Rubric for Math.)

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