Our team at WestEd, Formative Insights: Assessment for Learning, has been working with teachers in formative assessment to increase student agency for the last 10 years. Recently, we’ve had our ears to the ground to learn with and from teachers about how formative assessment and student agency translates to, and enhances, online learning. This post shares insights and ideas to cultivate collaborative classroom culture based on what we’ve learned from teachers using formative assessment practices.
One of the biggest questions that educators ask about online learning is how they can know where students are in their learning. What counts as reliable evidence of what they know and can do? Two Tulsa high school English teachers, Joe Nelson and James Ballew, have given this some serious thought.
Joe and James’s big takeaway? Start by leveraging students’ existing competence in online writing, e.g., texting, tweeting, commenting on social media, etc. This means that even if kids won’t speak up, they may write out their ideas in chat. Students can use the online chat function in virtual classrooms to build off of one another’s ideas, ask questions, agree and disagree, and overall extend their thinking. Students who want to share sensitive ideas can also message their teachers privately through chat. This engagement provides an important window into the current status of student thinking, either about the content of the lesson or reflections on the process of learning itself. In one lesson, Joe shared with his students a suggestion that one of their peers had: to form stable groups when they meet in breakout sessions over a period of time to encourage greater participation. While some students expressed their opinion verbally, others needed the chat function to be able to contribute. In answer to the question, Should we have the same people in our breakout rooms for a while, students wrote in chat:
Student 1 : I agree with her because maybe stability would help us interact with one another better
Student 2 : (Privately) : I have trouble talking to people so i believe being with certain people each time would be good to help me open up better
Student 3 : Np
Joe and James also use the chat feature to do frequent polls – asking such things as how much students understand a new idea, how interested they are in a topic, and what preferences they have for how to work together. A key, James says, is to ask students to type in their responses at the same time and then wait for the “go signal” to all submit their answers simultaneously. In this way, students are more likely to share their true thoughts, rather than reflect those already expressed by peers. In other instances, they ask for the students to send their responses privately. In the chat log example below, Joe asked his students How many of the success criteria do you feel comfortable completing? (There are 2 success criteria.) This process gives the students an opportunity to reflect on and share where they are in their learning. It also provides Joe with the information he needs to follow up with specific students to see where they need support to move forward.
12:47:03 CH(Privately) : 2
12:47:07 DV(Privately) : 2
12:47:17 LM(Privately) : 1
12:47:20 JY(Privately) : 2
12:47:21 EB(Privately) : 2
12:47:25 KG(Privately) : 2
12:47:27 WH(Privately) : 2
12:48:12 AN(Privately) : 1
Part of making these online conversations and polls successful is asking students to think about ideas that are compelling to them and to ask questions that provoke their thinking. Questions may include reflecting on the content, how the lesson is going for them, or how they’re experiencing online learning.
Building off of this existing student competency of ongoing, short form writing, Joe and James developed another strategy to engage students simultaneously in learning and demonstrating their thinking. They call it a module artifact. It is a collaborative document (e.g., a google doc) that the students write in during the lesson. It includes the lesson’s learning goal and success criteria, a section for students to input their funds of knowledge pertinent to the lesson topic (to draw on existing competencies), any needed reference information for the lesson, and tables for students to input their ideas during each activity. As the teacher says when it’s time for them to write in the module artifact, “Claim a line and write your thoughts.”
In the example module artifact table below, students are writing in the midst of a lesson on argumentation using the novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. At this point in the unit, students aren’t yet discussing the book, but instead, are learning the elements of an argument. They begin with drawing on their funds of knowledge – something they already know about and have an opinion on – to consider the role of audience when developing an argument. Notice how the related success criterion is listed in the first comment. This gives students a clear idea of what’s expected of them and how to be successful in their learning.
In this activity, students are first asked to select a row in the table and write their position and reasons in response to the question, “Should we return to school?” Next, using a different color text in the same row, students write who they think their audience could be. Finally, using the comment feature, students select one of the audience groups they mentioned, and write what they think the beliefs and values are of that audience group towards learning. While students will, as members of a “challenge committee”, ultimately write their own expanded argument on why The Handmaid’s Tale should or should not be banned in schools, the record of student daily understanding of the target skills and concepts through the module artifact, helps the teachers to build on where students are in their learning, address misconceptions that come up immediately, and tailor subsequent lessons to keep students in their zone of proximal development.
For those familiar with formative assessment, many of the teacher moves in these lessons will be familiar to you, for example, communicating the success criteria to students. Some of you may also note how the teachers attend to planning for, noticing, and making sense of daily evidence of learning through what students say, do, make, or write. This is a key aspect of the formative assessment process. Teachers practicing formative assessment ask themselves throughout a lesson, What are my students demonstrating to me right now about where they are in their learning? How can I know more?
These teacher actions, including transparency with students about the intended learning, developing structured opportunities to collect evidence, and using evidence to inform next steps in teaching and learning – are what separates the example above from just good teaching. One student shared that, “The module artifact I feel really helps me sort of learn, because I can see what my peers think. And also, it gives me another perspective of what answers are to my teachers questions and stuff. So I find them really helpful, personally.” In formative assessment, there is tremendous attention to detail, to the small ways that students let others know everyday what they are thinking, feeling, and learning. Clearly, Joe and James’s lessons are built on a solid foundation of good teaching practice, but the framework that informs their daily instructional decision making is formative assessment – making sense of evidence and engaging students in that process.