Thumbs up! Grades Down: What makes checking for understanding work?

This will not be a lengthy or well written post.  I am a woeful sharer of ideas and posts lately due to the recent addition to our family.  I promise to write more regularly once Tallulah grants permission (i.e. sleeps on a schedule).

The past two weeks we have worked on checking for understanding during our whole staff PD.  We chose to work on this after seeing some real classroom results from our work on aims and criteria for success.  I chose not to share a list of tools and strategies and instead focus on the qualities of successful checking for understanding.  In other words the self evaluation tool of thumbs up/thumbs down can be incredibly effective or meaningless based on other teacher decisions.

I am not a big believer in rubrics for teachers but this was a helpful exercise for me in thinking through the content.  I have my checking for understanding rubric and TFA’s pasted below for comparison and contrast.  Comments, thoughts, and arguments are welcome.  I will try to post the accompanying documents soon.  A few goofy attempts at showing the perils of checking for understanding can be found here and here.  Special thanks to Ms. DeAngelo and the Michigan class for playing along with the gag.

The perils of self evaluation http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CuqfvcoMoec

Why reading body language can lead you astray http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bl4JL4SXrKQ

Rockstar Rubric: This rubric attempt is based somewhat on my own practice but mainly on the observation of the teachers I know whose students grow the most. Thanks for JZ, AB, and AD for the shared thinking on this.

Checking for Student Understanding Beginner Skillful Rock Star
Frequency

Once or twice At each turning point in the lesson Almost constantly, literally checking dozens of times per hour
Accuracy of Reading

I know where some of the kids are. I know where 75-80% of the kids are at in relation the aim and CFS I know where 100% of kids are at in relation to the aim and CFS at multiple points in the lesson
Matching

Uses strategies without intention or strategy. Uses a variety of planned or spur of the moment strategies strategically but not necessarily in concert Uses a variety planned and spur of the moment strategies in concert to maximize visibility of student thinking.
Student Attitude/Classroom Culture/Teacher Attitude Scared to be wrong

Teachers won’t catch why I am uncomfortable.

A wrong answer is ok but I am unlikely to self advocate if the teacher moves fard without checking for understanding. A wrong answer is ok.

I will get it and my teacher won’t give up.

I am willing to be the one hand down.

I don’t  want to move on without understanding.

As teacher I react to a wrong answer without negative tone or body language while at same time make sure right is right.

Follow Through Teacher may check for understanding but does not adjust or change instruction in any way. Teacher checks for understanding and adjusts instruction in a few ways.  For example: Offers an alternate explanation/example to the whole group or pulls aside confused students during independent practice Teacher adjusts often and in a number of ways. For example: Offers an alternate example, pairs students up strategically after a CFU, and brings together a small group during IP.

What might Rockstardom look and feel like?

Arena Rock Star

Looks/Feels/Sounds Like
Frequency Almost constantly. Literally a dozen or more time an hour.
Accuracy I know where 100% of kids are at in relation to the aim and CFS at multiple points in the lesson

There is a deliberate broad check for understanding about the aim (not just the task) at every major transition.  Teacher has a system (mental or physical for tracking results)
Matching Uses a variety planned and spur of the moment strategies in concert to maximize visibility of student thinking. 

Teacher defines and gives an example of the vocabulary word.

Checks for understanding using a direct content check.

Teacher:  On your whiteboard, name two things that are glazed.

Scans the room sees 80-90% of the kids have written down donuts or pastries.  Feels that they are on the right track but decides to use a probing question to check for depth of understanding.

Teacher: I see everyone has food on their mind.  What’s the difference between a glazed and regular donut?  Offers wait time for kids to raise their hand, plans to call on a shy middle skilled student, a high skilled boy, and a low skilled girl to get at a few representative subgroups.

Classroom Culture/Teacher Attitude/Student Attitude Students believe…

A wrong answer is ok.

I will get it and my teacher (and I)  won’t give up.

I don’t want to move on without understanding.

As teacher I…

I am frustrated more by students not sharing thinking or taking risks than I am by any wrong answer.

Failure is not students misunderstanding.  Failure is me not knowing if they are misunderstanding or knowing and not doing anything about it.

Student is willing to be the one thumb down if the teacher asks “Does this make sense?”

Students  (in particular struggling students) raise their hands and ask for another example or clarification.

Students don’t look around during direct content checks and are unfazed if their answers are different.

The Teacher reacts to a wrong answer without negative tone or body language, in fact the teacher may smile, thank the student for illuminating a common confusion and then will make sure right is right.


Teach for America’s Rubric

Teacher Action Beginning Proficiency Advanced Proficiency Exemplary
STRAND 1: Whom teacher checks for understanding. Directs questions to a random variety of students and can identify individual responses Directs questions to a representative subset of students and can identify individual responses Directs questions to all students and can identify individual responses
Teacher ensures responses from an assortment of students (e.g., using popsicle sticks or a chart method) but may not attempt to strategically select students from the full range of performance subsets. Teacher makes informed and intelligent decisions about how many and which students to check for understanding by deliberately selecting students from the full range of performance levels, resulting in a reliable assessment of class knowledge. Teacher demonstrates ease, speed, and resourcefulness in ability to meaningfully and strategically check every student’s understanding to obtain a comprehensive and accurate assessment of both class-wide and individual knowledge. Systems for checking understanding may be built into class structure
STRAND 2: The quality of a teacher’s questions in isolating student misunderstanding. Crafts questions that would reliably discern whether students understand Crafts questions that would reliably discern the extent of student understanding (e.g., scaffolded questioning) Crafts questions that would reliably discern the extent and root of a student’s misunderstanding
Teacher’s questions, if universally answered, would determine whether or not students “get” the basic ideas but may pass up opportunities for follow-up questions that would identify the extent or cause of understanding/confusion. This strand addresses the quality of the questions the teacher asks in terms of how well the questions isolate students’ specific misunderstandings, the quality of the questions themselves and the neutrality of the tone in delivery. Teachers who ask questions in a tone that reveals answers to students are novice on this strand. Teacher’s questions, if universally answered, would determine (through open-ended, Bloom’s-inspired lower- and higher-order follow-up questioning) the degree and scope of comprehension, pushing students by rephrasing questions to identify both knowledge and knowledge gaps. Teacher’s questions, if universally answered, would uncover the causes of confusion and provide insight into a student’s line of reasoning so that a teacher eliminates present and future confusion.
STRAND 3: The frequency and thoroughness of checks for understanding of key ideas. Asks questions about the most important ideas occasionally Asks questions about the most important ideas throughout the lesson Asks questions about the most important ideas at key moments throughout the lesson
Teacher sometimes checks students’ understanding of the key ideas aligned with mastering the presented content, but also questions students about only marginally important ideas. Teacher will often employ lower level questioning, and/or rely on random, tangential, or “easier” questions instead of the ideas most important to mastering the objective Teacher checks for understanding with consistency and regularity, gradually increasing cognitive demands of checks for comprehension as more and more instruction has occurred, while focusing on information that is most relevant to mastering the objective. Teacher checks for understanding at opportune moments and maximizes effectiveness with a strategically crafted mix of lower and higher order questions. Teacher times checks skillfully to anticipate and prevent confusion or to take advantage of the moments at which students are most primed to respond or to make intellectual leaps.
STRAND 4: The extent to which feedback improves students’ understanding. Upholds high expectations for successful responses and tells students whether they have met the standard Upholds high expectations for successful responses and tells students why they have or have not met the standard Upholds high expectations and teaches students how to evaluate and articulate the success of their responses
Teacher may tell students whether they are right or wrong, offering students little explanation about why. Teacher does not equivocate or mislead students into thinking their answer is stronger than it is in an attempt to make students feel good (i.e., “that’s sort of right…”) — a novice tendency. Teacher tells students what part of an answer was right or wrong. Teacher often returns to confused students to ensure that additional support succeeded in addressing misunderstandings. Teacher empowers students to use a variety of techniques (e.g., teaching students to edit or check their own work, instituting peer review routines, and using rubrics to help students self-assess) to self-identify gaps in knowledge and the root causes of their confusion, rendering them capable of independent critical self-judgment and self-evaluation.

Other Checking for Understanding Resources

  • RBTeach.com.  This is Jon Saphier’s organization.  Jon narrates a 12 minute video about checking for understanding with classroom clips.  If you get past the non-Kippness of the teachers shown this video makes some valuable points.
  • Teach for America’s site: http://teachingasleadership.org/ Steal a password from a TFA alum and log onto to the rubric site that includes video and documents about effective checking for understanding.
  • A book recommendation: http://www.amazon.com/Assessment-Learning-Putting-into-Practice/dp/0335212972
  • W. James Popham is supposed to be a guru of formative assessment.  The book Transformative Assessment is not a fun read but one idea that stuck is his description of how teachers can plan strategically to check and alter instruction to improve understanding.
  1. Identify adjustment occasions.  In other words when in the lesson does it make sense to stop and adjust if kids don’t understand.  For instance: I can offer more examples of the vocabulary word before we move into guided practice so I should plan to check for understanding then.
  2. Select assessments.  Decide what check(s) for understanding are aligned to your aim/CFS and fit in the lesson plan.
  3. Establish triggers for adjustment.  This is a fancy way to say: figure out what would make you stop and adjust your instruction.  This could look like…If 90% of the kids have it right on their whiteboards we are ready for the IP and I can check in with the few straggles.  If only 60% have it right then we need to do another example together.
  4. Make instructional adjustments.  Match the adjustment to the situation so I could offer a different example, try to connect the idea to something in the confused student’s life/experience, or pair the student with student who gets it.  Non-examples of instructional adjustment include repeating the content over again to the confused student or having two confused students talk about it.
  • From Rick Stiggins and the Assessment Training Institute: This checklist is a really helpful way to think about when self-evaluation will work.

Self-assessment Readiness Checklist A

Does the student have a clear vision of quality (what’s expected)?

Can the student describe the intended learning?

Can the student differentiate between strong and weak examples and/or levels of quality?

Has the student practiced using the language of quality to describe attributes of strong and weak examples?

Self-assessment Readiness Checklist B

Has the student had experience giving and offering feedback?

Has the student received descriptive feedback using the language of quality, with opportunity to act on it?

Has the student practiced offering peer feedback using the language of quality?

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4 Responses to “Thumbs up! Grades Down: What makes checking for understanding work?”

  1. Mike G. Says:

    Um, yeah. That’ll happen.

  2. Mike G. Says:

    Sorry: I meant Tallulah sleeping on regular schedule

  3. jsmith6 Says:

    “I am not a big believer in rubrics for teachers”- I’d be curious to hear more about this. Especially after spending so much time with the TAL rubric last summer…

    • mrdolan Says:

      My worry with rubrics is that they can be limiting. What happens when I hit advanced? Given that so many teachers, particularly KIPP and TFA teachers, feel a pressure to think about what’s next after teaching I wonder how to build more lifelong teachers.

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