Sunday, February 06, 2005

Formative Assessment Tools

Specifics for Chris Willems question:

In “Finding Answers to Questions” I indicated that my own frustration with trying develop fly fishing skills had led to a greater empathy for my student’s frustrations with learning biology. Here, I will lay out a few of the changes that I have implemented in my classes over the past 3 years to create an environment that helps students to work on their own models and strategies for improved learning. Generally, I have tried to increase non-threatening student opportunities for formative assessment. A caveat: earlier, I indicated that I was no where near becoming an expert fly caster but I have developed the ability to appraise my own casting more effectively which greatly speeds up my own progress. The same can be said about developing a classroom environment for learning—I’m no where near finding the right environment for every student but I do know I’m on the right track.

At a school board meeting, four years ago, I listened to a presentation by our art coordinator, defending funding for art education. She cited research that indicated that students in the arts are uniquely self-motivated to practice and critically evaluate their own work. I began to take umbrage with this claim but the more I thought about it the more I had to agree. My first conclusion was that perhaps there is something fundamentally different (regarding motivation) about the subjects normally taught in the arts and the academic core. But the more I thought about it I decided that the real difference was in how the arts are taught—they practice and practice and practice some more. In the core academic course we generally make assignments that help students develop skills but usually each assignment is graded and there is very limited opportunity for iterative practice to polish the skills needed. I decided to add more opportunities for practice in my class.

Some Specifics:

Years ago, I decided to create a grading system that weighted all test scores as 50% of the final grade and daily/lab work as 50%. Traditionally, my summative tests are difficult while I have usually been more lenient on the daily/lab grades, allowing students multiple opportunities for satisfactory completion. I mention this, only because this grading system pre-adapted my class so that the following strategies work well within my classroom structure.

Also, each of these strategies relies on technology. Technology allows me to extend my interaction with students beyond the classroom space and beyond the classroom schedule.

Online Practice Tests:

Three years ago, I started preparing online practice tests for students. I’m convinced they have made a big difference in student learning—or at least their ability to indicate their learning to me. Many test generating software packages have web-based tests as one of their options. Early on I simply posted these tests on my own private site. Later I used the school’s web servers and now I publish these practice tests within our school’s Blackboard environment. For every test I prepare a quick practice test (sometimes two) that the students can take as many times as needed. No one receives a grade for these attempts. This is very important. Students are instructed to focus on the questions—and not the answers. To encourage and reward them for taking the practice tests I use the questions on the summative test they have later (along with unique, new questions). This works in a similar manner to the old teacher strategy of letting students create their own “cheat sheets.” The difference is that the students develop their own test taking strategies that also pay off when it comes to the standardized testing environment we are in, now. After we take a test, I want my students to be able to tell me how they did on the test. Confidence is huge in testing success. One caution: students themselves are not used to this environment, yet. It takes about a semester before the majority of my students start using this opportunity.

Online Web Activities:

I am fortunate in that I have co-authored a biology curriculum (Exploring Life, Prentice Hall) that features specific web activities coordinated with each concept of each chapter of the text. These online activities open up a number of possibilities for student learning. The obvious examples of animations and interactive are the key advantages but the 24 hour and nearly universal access are very important advantages as well. I’ve had student keep up with their assignments while traveling overseas or on long family trips. Most importantly, students can return to the web site multiple times to review the concepts. It is pretty easy to spot those students who suddenly realize how important the web site is—their test performance spikes.

Individual Student Response Systems:

I’ve been using these in my classroom for three years now. The system I use is eInstruction’s: CPS system. ( ) These systems should be part of each classroom’s toolkit. They allow for anonymous (non-threatening) student input in the classroom. The data is immediately available and is useful for helping students evaluate and reflect on their own learning. I’ve utilized these to introduce topics, imbedded in instruction, as review and to explore controversial topics. I’m convinced that this technology is here to stay. In my classroom we use the iterative process of Peer Instruction developed by Eric Mazur:

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The students are presented with a question (on overhead, by LCD projector, or orally). The classroom is polled as the students enter their individual answers to the question without discussion. The results of the poll are presented to the class in the form of a histogram for all to see. As the instructor I evaluate the results and decide how to proceed. If the class has mastered this concept we move onto the next concept. If the class is divided (the usual) I ask the students to form groups and discuss the possible answers to the question. This peer group interaction is very revealing and constructive. A new poll is taken—usually with positive results and powerful learning. Occasionally, the results provide feedback to me that I need to re-teach the material. Almost always the re-teach concepts are concepts that are very prone to preconceived models of the world that students bring to class. The ISR systems have truly changed the landscape of my classroom.

One caution: Like any tool the ISR systems can be overused and abused but taken in moderation and properly applied they are very powerful formative learning tools.

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