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A few days ago I happened to be walking through the library before school. Two female students were sitting at a table doing homework.

One of the students was working on a Math assignment. I heard her ask the other student, "Did you already do your Math homework?"

The other student replied, "No. I wait until after the 'check-up' and then decide if I need to do the homework."

Not knowing the class, the teacher, the exact content, the student, or the student's progress, I can't say definitively that the student was making the wisest decision for herself. However, I LOVE the fact that the student's teacher has obviously been training his or her students to use assessment-elicited feedback to guide their decision-making. It's evident that the "check-up" (what I would assume to be a quiz in traditional educational lingo) is viewed by this student not as an assessment FOR a grade but instead as an assessment FOR learning. Perhaps the student made the wrong decision to not do homework in this instance, but this student is being guided by her teacher down an important path. This student is being taught to assess herself and make decisions based on that assessment.

Are you providing your students with opportunities to assess their learning so that they are aware of what they know and what they do not yet understand?

Kudos to the Salem High School Math teacher who is providing his or her students with regular check-ups!
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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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The "Oh, I'm getting it!" moment

I think I'm finally, after 6 years of teaching, having an "ah-ha" moment that should really be an "oh, duh" moment! In working to use AFL more and more in my daily class activities, I have really been focusing on using technology to reinforce learning.

Yesterday in one of my Algebra I Part 2 classes, I had a student say, "Oh, this is totally making sense now." He wasn't using technology at the moment, but merely working out of a textbook while at one of my station activities. I loved it! Today in my Algebra I Part 1 class, I heard a girl say, "Oh, I'm getting it." She was using an online game to review solving multi-step inequalities. We had worked the two days prior on learning this material and today was a chance for me to watch each student individually work at their own pace to reinforce what had already be taught. It wasn't for a grade, but for me to see what I needed to do on Monday before their Tuesday test.

It isn't hard to use AFL - I bet you are already using it! And let me tell you how rewarding it is to see a student have that lightbulb moment after you have taught it and they are practicing their skill in your classroom. I rarely have a student say, "Oh, I'm getting it" or "Oh, this is totally making sense now" in the midst of my typical class lecture.

Use AFL and get the chance to watch your students have those "Ah-ha" moments!!!

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A great reminder for students

Kudos to Salem High School math teacher, Erin Stenger, for thinking to put a sign like this right next to her doorway where students will see it each day as they leave her class.

It has been noted before on this website that for AFL to truly have its greatest possible impact, the students need to be using assessment-elicited feedback to measure their own progress and guide their own learning. Like most things that we want students to do, though, we must train them to do it. This is especially true for AFL since most students (just like most parents and most teacher) tend to look at grades from a summative position.

If we want students to view grades as feedback that guide their learning rather than just get averaged together to determine a grade, then we must 2 things:

1. We must grade and assess in a formative manner rather than just collect a bunch of scores to average.

2. We must train our students.

This picture in Mrs. Stenger's room is a subtle but important example of this. Most importantly, it reveals the fact that AFL is a core philosophy that permeates the way Mrs. Stenger runs her classroom.

Here are some other blog posts that deal with the same idea of students knowing what they know:

1. Do They Know If They Know?

2. Did AFL Guide My Instruction Today?

3. Assessment FOR Learning - A quick and easy indicator

4. AFL - It's about students taking ownership of learning

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How do you really know if you taught "it"?

Note to teachers from Salem High School: This is a post about teaching, teachers, and students in general as opposed to a post about specific situations at Salem High School.

So after all the lesson plans have been created, all the class time has been spent, and all the papers have been graded, how do you really know if you've taught your content well?
I might get under some people's skin with this post, but I want to get us to really think about our profession and WHY we teach.
So what's the answer to the question of how we know if we have taught our content well? If we're really going to live up to our calling, we must answer it this way: We know we have taught our content well if all our students have learned it and their grades reflect this.
Let's clear up one misconception before it has a chance to grow - our job is not to make sure all students get good grades. Our job is, however, to make sure that all students learn our content. That's the whole point of being a teacher - to get students to learn. It's also our responsibility to grade in a way that reflects the amount of learning. So while good grades are not our focus, learning is. And when learning occurs, if we grade properly, good grades will follow.
Ok, let's clear up another misconception before we proceed - saying that it's our job to make sure that all our students have learned does not absolve students of their role in the learning process. Obviously poor decisions by our students will end up impacting the amount of learning that occurs. However, we cannot control their decision making. We can, though, control how we teach and how we grade. Therefore, if what we are doing is not leading to the mastery of content, and if our grades are not accurately reflecting the level of mastery reached by our students, then it is incumbent upon us to do something about it. There is no room in education for complacency. Our attitude must be that IF THEY HAVEN'T LEARNED IT, THEN WE HAVEN'T TAUGHT IT.
I remember taking Macro-economics in college. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that while the professor may have "known his stuff", he was an absolutely lousy teacher. There must have been about 400 students in the class. I was only taking the class Pass/Fail. I really felt bad for my classmates as I looked at the posted grades after each test we took. I remember earning a 60 on the mid-term and having it curved to a B+. I really didn't care since it was Pass/Fail, but I remember thinking what a joke it was to say that this person was teaching. Obviously many of the students - myself included - were not putting the amount of effort into the class that we should, but how could that professor be satisfied with himself knowing that almost none of his 400 students were mastering the content in his course?
I envisioned this professor sitting with his colleagues in the departmental office complaining about "college students these days". While I wasn't around in his day, I really doubt there ever was a time when college students enjoyed boring lectures, no descriptive feedback, and undecipherable tests. We didn't learn it, and he didn't teach it.
So what is an appropriate level of failure for your students? Should you be satisfied if 70% master your content? 80%? 90%? While it's important to keep a certain level of reality mixed in with your idealism so that you don't go crazy, WE MUST HAVE THE ATTITUDE THAT WE ARE GOING TO STRIVE FOR 100% MASTERY. Notice I said strive. This means we will not be complacent. We will continue to tweak, change, try, experiment, etc. to always try and bring more students to mastery level.
This is where Assessment FOR Learning has it's greatest power. To some degree, it saddens me when teachers have difficulty incorporating - or worse, don't try to incorporate - an AFL philosophy into their teaching. The reason is because an AFL philosophy will lead to greater content mastery. To not incorporate AFL strategies into one's teaching is to be satisfied with the fact that you're not doing the best that you can to teach your students. Let me give an example of what I mean:
If you "teach" content and then give a summative assessment (a traditional test, for example) without lots of assessment along the way, you know what will happen. The students who are very dedicated workers and/or the students who can sit in class and "get it" will do very well on the test. The students who do little to no work outside of class or who can't just sit in class and "get it" will do very poorly. Another group of students will score somewhere in between. For years, teachers have satisfied themselves with this outcome by "blaming students". In other words, because some students almost always do well, the teacher convinces himself or herself that all students could have done well if they had either worked harder, paid more attention, or were more academically gifted. The teacher "knows" he or she taught the content because SOME students have mastered the content. This is a convenient defense strategy for teachers as it absolves teachers of the responsibility of making sure that students learn. YES, students have a role in it (as stated earlier), but we can't control all of their decisions. We CAN control how we teach, though.

The scenario in the above paragraph is very common in schools. Essentially, it is being satisfied with the bell curve of life. As educators, we have the privilege of smashing the bell curve. We have the opportunity to be the "difference-maker" in a kid's life. Too often this opportunity is squandered as we sell short our ability to alter the outcome of a student's learning. AFL - formative assessment - can be a powerful tool in our attempt to maximize that opportunity. And it really doesn't require much additional work on our part.
Take the example from 2 paragraphs above. If instead of "teaching" and then giving a summative assessment, the teacher would instead assess EVERYDAY, then an incredible difference could be made in the typical bell curve outcome. For example:
  • If everyday the students left class knowing what they know and being aware of what they have not yet mastered - this happens because of specific classroom assessment activities led by the teacher - then students will perform better on the summative assessment. Have you ever experienced a situation as a student where you thought you knew what was going on until you took the test? You studied, and you thought you understood the content. Then you took the test and realized you didn't know it at all. This is all too common - but it shouldn't be. If this is happening to students in your class then you need to apply more AFL strategies. This is a clear sign that you need to provide activities that require your students to assess themselves throughout the learning process so that they are acutely aware of how well they're doing and what they need to do to prepare for the summative test.
  • If students were quizzed/tested/assessed repeatedly leading up to the summative assessment, then the summative assessment would not catch them by surprise. Do you ever hear your students complain that they understood the content but were surprised by the types of questions on the summative test? Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence as well. It's a clear sign that a teacher has not employed an AFL philosophy. AFL is about using assessment FOR learning. Teaching and then giving a summative assessment only is AFG - Assessment FOR Grading. It's using assessment to find out how much people know. While this has to happen eventually - there is nothing wrong with a summative assessment - it does little to help the learning process. If students are assessed regularly - DAILY - then the feedback from the assessments will actually help them learn - thus the name, Assessment FOR Learning.
Let's clear up 2 more misconceptions:
  1. But what about students who still refuse to work? They could still come into class completely unprepared and fail the assessment? Of course. But they are also the outliers. Let's focus on the majority of students - the ones who do what we ask. Let's not lose a good strategy just because a few students continue to make bad decisions. HOWEVER, I would contend that those poor decision-making students would learn more if they were assessed daily and provided with opportunities to assess themselves - even if they didn't work hard outside of class.
  2. But what about rigor? Shouldn't a rigorous class by its very nature lead to a bell curve of sorts? The rigor in a class should not be demonstrated by the student grades that result. The rigor of the class is inherent in the difficulty of the content. However, assuming that the students who are in the class have been properly prepared and have academic strengths on par for the class, then there is no reason that students shouldn't enjoy great success in a rigorous course. Our job as teachers is to get students to learn. That is no less true in a rigorous class than it is in a "general level" course. Unfortunately, it is common for teachers in rigorous classes to feel that the rigor of the course justifies the lack of success of some students. Again - grades aren't the goal. Learning is. But if AFL strategies can lead to students in rigorous courses getting higher grades that are reflective of increased learning, then how could we not employ those strategies?
So, how do you know if you've taught your content? You know it if your students have learned it. And AFL strategies will help increase that learning - which is, after all, WHY we teach.
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