Our last professional development day was a joint PD day with our colleagues from Drew Charter School. I am a fan of many of our colleagues at Drew because of my interactions and learning with them through the Center for Teaching, so I had a great day. The big learning themes were formative assessment and project based learning. As a precursor to our day, we were asked to read a two-page summary of Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam.
In Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment Black and Wiliam say
“There is a body of firm evidence that formative assessment is an essential component of classroom work and that its development can raise standards of achievement. We know of no other way of raising standards for which such a strong prima facie case can be made.”
Some of our colleagues got caught up in the statistics and questioned if these data are pertinent to our work since we serve an academically enabled population. Others tweeted that they needed examples of formative assessment and how to do this in their classrooms. Some educators say their kids need grades; they want grades.
I think our learners will respond to feedback as well or better than they do to grades. How many times have we handed graded papers back and a child says “Why did is miss this? Why did you count this wrong? What am I missing here?” Aren’t they seeking feedback? And, since they didn’t get it, they have to ask for it.
And what happens to that graded paper next? How many students use that graded paper to seek understanding, to learn more, deeper, better? How many students stick it in their notebook to, maybe, pull it back out to prepare for an exam?
To grade or not to grade, that is not the question, right now. Black and Wiliam state
“For assessment to function formatively, the results have to be used to adjust teaching and learning; thus a significant aspect of any program will be the ways in which teachers make these adjustments.”
My team tried an experiment last week with our learners and their graded exams. Our goals were simple. We wanted them to identify their strengths and find their needs and questions. We wanted each learner to analyze their exam to determine where simple mistakes occurred and where they need additional support. We wanted to give them the opportunity to seek advice, support, and learning. We wanted to differentiate and individualize the feedback and instruction.
In addition to completing the table of specification to determine their proficiencies for each essential learning, we asked our learners to complete their exam corrections on color-coded post-it notes.
We expected for students to use 2 post-it notes for every question where they missed something. The first, green or pink, would have the correction, and the second, yellow, would have a descriptive note. The yellow post-it note is our attempt at increasing students’ metacognition. Can they think and write about what they were and should be thinking? Wouldn’t that be great? To see and hear what they were thinking instead of having to guess.
Each learner had to analyze their work individually to determine if a simple mistake occurred. We hope this is good reflection and self-assessment. It is interesting to consider how much they wanted to use the green post-it notes rather than the pink ones. “But, Ms. Gough, all I really did was drop a negative. I just needed someone to help me find my careless error.” Nope. If someone had to help you find it, then it was not so simple.
Learners are encouraged work together to complete these corrections, thus their interaction opportunities and feedback increased. Their questions are so much better crafted when they got to the level of needing the “teacher’s” help. Their questions were refined during their self-analysis and by their peers.
What we did not expect was the number of yellow post-it notes on problems that were not missed on exam day, in other words, there was no accompanying green or pink post-it note. When asked, they uniformly explained that they still did not feel confident about solving this type of problem and wanted/needed to write themselves a note about their work and check their understanding. Now that’s some really good feedback. If we want our learners to know and feel confident about their work, we should assess their confidence and disposition as well as their success.
Again, from Black and Wiliam,
“Thus self-assessment by pupils, far from being a luxury, is in fact an essential component of formative assessment. When anyone is trying to learn, feedback about the effort has three elements: recognition of the desired goal, evidence about present position, and some understanding of a way to close the gap between the two.”
If we, as a team, believe that the big ideas on our exam are essential for our children to learn, then we must find a way to coach our learners to close the gap between where they are and where they need to be. If I needed additional evidence of how important it is to close the gaps for my learners, I can read Final Exam postmortem by Quantum Progress. He is working with my previous set of learners; they are struggling with concepts I was responsible for during the previous school year. They are still my kids; they are our kids. We want them to be successful; they want to be successful. I certainly want my current learners to be well prepared when they move to physics in August.
This assessment experiment, we hope, involves student self-assessment, formative assessment, and team-assessment. We want our students to know where there gaps are and recognize what they need to do to hit the targets. We want to know what each learner needs so that we can intervene individually and collectively. We want to analyze where our team’s strengths are and where we need to improve.
The combination of the table of specifications results, a numerical representation of progress, and the color-coded post-it notes, a visual representation of needs, can help us differentiate to meet our learners’ needs.
Can we undo the long-standing habit of sticking graded papers away, rarely to be seen again? Can we help our learners grow and increase their confidence by helping them use graded papers formatively? Will our work be easier, and will we save time if we incorporate self-assessment and peer assessment into our daily habits?
Will the number of pink post-it notes decrease over time? Will this color-coding method work for others?
Can we coach our learners to seek, find, and close the gaps in their learning?
Are we willing to experiment and learn by doing?