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A teacher watches her student take an assessment that will give her valuable data

How I use data in my classroom

Guest Author: Chris Bakke and Dan Stasiewski

For teachers to improve their students’ learning, they must use formative assessment — discovering what students know while they are still in the process of learning it. But it is not always easy for teachers to adopt. The concepts I teach as a math teacher are complex, so I need my formative assessments to point me to the exact spot where students are struggling. I need to know which students do not understand a problem and why. And I need it in real time so I can give immediate feedback or change my instruction.

Over the last few years, I have settled on a few favorite and relatively simple to use routines that give me actionable data that I can react to in real time. At the school where I work, our math classrooms are physically structured for “360 math”.

As a result, I am able to stand in the middle of the room and instantly see all of my student’s work in real time. I can provide positive feedback to students completing the problems correctly, targeted feedback to students if I see a mistake, group students together if I see one is struggling while another seems to have mastered the objective. The real-time data I gain from watching their process allows me to facilitate a much more effective classroom.

The do-now

One of my most effective tools is to start each day with a targeted Do-Now – a “rewind” or warm-up problem — that the students need to solve as soon as they enter the classroom each day. The problems I choose are always centered around skills or background knowledge they will need in that day’s lesson to master the objective.

For example, if I know we will be diving fractions that day, I ensure one of my rewind questions involves dividing by fractions. If my objective will require them to calculate the equation between two points, my rewind will involve finding the slope between two points. With all student’s completing these problems at the start of class on their public whiteboards, I am able to instantly know which students walked in the room with the pre-requisite skills needed to be successful that day. I also instantly find out which students lack those skills and will need support before tackling the full rigor of that day’s objective. If enough students are struggling on the Do-Now, I know I need to do a quick mini-lesson on that skill before jumping into that day’s lesson.

Formative assessment, for me, is most effective when it allows me to know who is struggling in real time, and why, before the end of the lesson

Christopher Bakke

Data: Trial and error

A second technique I frequently use involves trial and error. After I complete a direct instruction, I facilitate a discussion around an error analysis problem. I post a problem that we were just discussing and I solve it two ways: one way with the correct answer and the other with a specific mistake that I predict will be the most common. I have the students talk about which method is correct and which method is wrong. I also push them to discuss the error in the wrong solution.

After giving them time to discuss, I call on four to six groups to get their “vote” for which one is correct, and this gives me a great deal of data. When half of the votes go to the correct method and half of the votes to the incorrect method, this tells me there is still some confusion and misunderstanding that needs to be addressed before moving forward in the lesson. It also allows me to push them to justify to each other which one is correct and why. After the debrief, they leave with a solid explanation for why the correct one was right and what the error was in the wrong one.

The takeaway

Formative assessment does not have to be a complicated process. In fact, it can be as simple as asking students to solve problems on the wall (or somewhere within the teacher’s line of sight) so teachers can instantly see their work. Or creating a targeted warm-up that gives the teacher information on skills they need for that day’s objective. Or prompting students to complete error analysis to see what level they are able to explain their learning. Formative assessment, for me, is most effective when it allows me to know who is struggling in real time, and why, before the end of the lesson.

Chris Bakke is a math teacher based in Denver. He has a degree in Economics and Philosophy from the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill.