Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Formative Assessment: Every Teacher's Best Friend

A few months ago, I wrote about using formative assessment and small groups to inform instruction.  Today, I realized I should listen to my own advice...

Today in math, we focused on adding and subtracting fractions.  Students first learn how to do this in third grade, then are reminded again in fourth. By fifth grade, most students come to me knowing how to add and subtract fractions (so I thought).

To start today's lesson, I taught a quick review session about adding and subtracting fractions.  I especially focused on fractions with different denominators.  Most students were nodding and giving nonverbal cues that they already understood the concept.  Due to this, I assumed that they all knew how to do the assignment, so I set them free to work.

My assumption was wrong.  All of them did not know how to accurately add and subtract fractions.  As I walked around the room watching them work, I noticed a good handful of them really did not fully understand how to add and subtract fractions.  So, I invited students to meet me over in the corner of the room at our big group table for further explanation.  The table was crowded with 11 students!  After we went through the concept using a couple different strategies, I decided to stop everyone.  I realized that I went into the lesson without really knowing where my students' understanding was with the concept.  So, I wrote the following math problems on the SMARTboard to formatively assess everyone.  Simply put, I needed to know which students truly understood the concept before moving forward.

I asked everyone to take out a piece of paper and complete the two problems.  Once students finished, they brought me their papers.  I quickly sorted the papers into four groups as my students left for recess: 
  • Students who completely understood the concept.
  • Students who understood, but did not simplify the fractions.
  • Students who correctly answered just one of the problems showing some understanding.
  • Students who missed both problems and showed little understanding of the process in their work.
The process of sorting took less than five minutes.  Using two basic problems to formatively assess was a quick and easy way to see who knew how to add and subtract fractions and who did not know how to do it.  Here's what the quick and easy formative assessment told me:
  • 9 students completely understood the concept.
  • 6 students understood the concept, but did not simplify their fractions.
  • 3 students correctly completed one of the two problems showing some understanding.
  • 5 students did not show any understanding of the concept.
  • 1 student was absent and not assessed.
Today's lesson was a big reminder that I should never make assumptions about what my students know or don't know.  I can't believe I blindly went into this lesson at first.  I know better!  I was reminded today to always assess to inform instruction before the actual instruction takes place.

Tomorrow's lesson will be differentiated to reflect the different understandings of the four groups.  Formative assessment is truly every teacher's best friend.

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