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Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding

Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding

13 March, 2016

What is the method that can double student learning gains? Based on 250 empirical studies, the answer is formative assessment, defined by Bill Younglove as “the frequent, interactive checking of student progress and understanding in order to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately.”

Unlike summative assessment, which evaluates student learning according to a benchmark, formative assessment monitors student understanding so that kids are always aware of their academic strengths and learning gaps. Meanwhile, teachers can enhance the effectiveness of their instruction, re-teaching if necessary. “When the cook tastes the soup,” writes Robert E. Stake, “that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.” Formative assessment can be administered as an exam. But if the assessment is not a traditional quiz, it falls within the category of alternative assessment.

Alternative formative assessment (AFA) approaches can be as simple (and important) as checking the oil in your car — hence the name “dipsticks.” They’re especially effective when students are given tactical feedback, right after the time to practice the skill. One of the famous techniques are those with simple directions, like The 60 Second Paper, which asks students to describe the most significant thing they learned and determine any areas of confusion in under a minute.

Observation: A Key Practice in Alternative Formative Assessment

A fundamental element of most AFAs is observation. Rebecca Alber says there is much to learn by taking observational notes as students work in groups. “However,” she clarifies, “if it is quiet during this talk time, and they are watching you watch them, they are most likely lost.” Another blogger, Elena Aguilar witnessed “a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher” who instructed his students to respond to a story by making hand gestures and holding up picture cards. “In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and provide corrective feedback.”

By methodically watching and recording student performance with a focused observation form, you can learn a lot about students’ levels of understanding in just a few moments. Pre-planning methodical observations allow instructors to efficiently and effectively intervene when it counts most — the instant students start down the wrong path.

New to Alternative Formative Assessment? Start Slow

The National Capital Language Resource Center suggests the following when introducing alternative assessment for the first time:

  1. Incorporate alternative assessments gradually, while still using the traditional assessments.
  2. Assist students through the rubrics and discuss expectations when you introduce assignments.
  3. Learn to score alternative assessments yourself, and then gradually introduce students to self-evaluation.
  4. Teach students how to kindly give each other feedback as you introduce them to peer-response.

A Simple Way to Gain Information from Your Students: Ask Them

When pre-service teachers are confused as to why their students performed poorly on an assignment, they should ask the students why. After all, having learners use their own vernacular to articulate why they are stuck can be profoundly useful for determining where to target support.

According to the American Institute of Nondestructive Testing, the simplest tool to encourage student self-assessment is evaluative prompts:

  1. How much time and effort did you put into this?
  2. What do you think your strengths and weaknesses were in this assignment?
  3. How could you improve your assignment?
  4. What are the most valuable things you learned from this assignment?

Learners can react to those prompts using Padlet, a virtual corkboard where many computer users can simultaneously post their responses, followed by a focused whole-class discussion of students’ answers. The instructor doesn’t always have to develop prompts — students can invent and submit one or more potential exam questions and answers on related content. Tell them that you’ll include the best contributions on a forthcoming quiz.

Portfolios are a more complicated form of ongoing self-assessment that can be featured during student-led conferences. James Mule, principal of St. Amelia Elementary School in New York, describes how children benefit from the student-led conferences that occur at his institution: “With the student in charge and the teacher acting as a facilitator, the authentic assessment gives students practice in self-evaluation and boosts accountability, self-confidence, and self-esteem.”

The biggest benefit of integrating AFAs is that students will internalize the habit of monitoring their comprehension and adjusting accordingly.