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Formative assessment that ‘clicks’ with students

clik3wWilliamsburg Collegiate Charter School, a member of Uncommon Schools, is the only school in New York City where every student in grades 5-8 passes the state exams. In grades 6-8, 75 percent of the students pass with advanced scores.

Mathematics teacher Eric Green attributes this success to high student motivation and engagement. “The traditional procedural approach to math education doesn’t get the students thinking and therefore doesn’t lead to a full conceptual understanding,” said Green.

“At Uncommon Schools we’re much more focused on the conceptual component than just showing students how to do it. Supported with direct instruction, our students explore problems and think critically.”

The research: Student response systems

This approach to instruction is most effective with the introduction of new classroom tools. In their effort to increase student motivation, engagement, and participation, Williamsburg and other similar schools have adopted student response systems (SRS). A growing body of research points to the effectiveness of this technology as it capitalizes on the technological ability and interest of students today while providing an important tool for informed instruction. SRS not only increases student engagement, but also offers more efficiency for classroom administration.

Extensive research suggests that these systems promote learning gains when coupled with appropriate pedagogical methodologies. Understandably, technology alone cannot bring about improvements unless it is used in conjunction with exceptional teaching strategies. But, when used skillfully, the potential is extraordinary. For example, a compilation of many recent independent research studies demonstrates that classrooms using SRS were found to deliver the following benefits:
•    Greater student engagement
•    Increased understanding of complex subject matter
•    Increased student interest and enjoyment
•    Heightened discussion and interactivity
•    Increased student awareness and increased levels of individual comprehension
•    Increased teacher insight into student difficulties

While SRS technology has been widely used in higher education for the past 20 years, there is growing interest in these systems by K-12 professionals. After all, this new student generation is entering the elementary school years with the skills and interest to use technology. Research conducted specifically on the K-12 population offers some promising findings.

In a 2009 study (Kay and Knaak, 2009) of high school students, the following statements expressed the students’ impression towards using SRS, often referred to colloquially as “clickers”:
•    Using clickers was a good way to test my knowledge (74 percent)
•    I was more engaged in the lesson when clickers were used (70 percent)
•    I was more motivated when clickers were used (63 percent)
•    I participated more than normally when clickers were used (62 percent)
•    I would prefer to use clickers (62 percent)

In the same study, teachers noted that SRS technology helped them know immediately when the students were grasping a concept, or not. If not, they were able to better adapt their teaching to meet the student’s instructional needs.

An inside look: SRS in the classroom

Williamsburg Collegiate relies on student response technology, which Green believes is largely responsible for strong engagement. Students use “student response pads” to wirelessly transmit answers for impromptu questions or quizzes directly to the teacher’s computer. Teachers get a compilation of responses within seconds and capture real-time assessment data to gauge student comprehension while teaching.

“Teachers can immediately see if students are making errors on a certain type of problem,” said Green. “The real-time data coming back on tests and quizzes helps teachers modify their instruction real-time to meet the needs of their students.”

One glance at aggregated responses can immediately convey whether the class in agreement (a peak), generally undecided (a random spread), or highly polarized (two distinct peaks).

“It’s helped tremendously with scores and motivation. Today’s students are very technologically advanced, intuitively understand how to use the clicker, and are excited to use it,” Green said.  “They feel supported in their learning. Particularly, struggling students know that this will get the teacher over to them right away and they’re not in a frustrated holding pattern.”

The technology also automates and streamlines time-consuming administrative tasks like taking attendance, grading, and recording the results. The fact is, teachers have limited time to assess each student’s individual performance and technology helps solve that problem.

Struggling students can also get extra practice time by using the clickers outside the classroom. Green told the story of a student who entered in sixth grade and therefore missed the charter school’s fifth-grade catch-up year.

“She lacked the foundational math skills to complete sixth-grade work,” he said. “She needed more time and coaching. It was actually her idea to build in the extra time using the response system. She would practice during lunch and enter the answers with the clicker for immediate feedback. If she got it wrong she could reflect on her answer, correct it, and not make the mistake a second time. After catching up quickly, she passed the sixth grade and is currently passing seventh grade. While she had earned only a level 1 on the state exam for her fifth grade at the previous school, she earned a level 4 for sixth grade. She did all the work but the response system gave her the confidence and the extra time and practice she needed. The technology is an intervention that works. It’s not a gimmick, it’s not a trick. It verifies your thinking or challenges your thinking.”

Before the school’s adoption of student response technology, teachers would walk around the room while students were practicing their problems. “They say practice makes perfect,” said Green. “But it doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Students might be practicing incorrectly for quite some time before the teacher got around to them.”

He also noted that student response technology keeps everyone participating. “No one can hide,” he said. “For a teacher, that’s a phenomenal thing. You know if a student is actually working to the fullest of their ability and speed. Better yet, students actually want to participate because it’s fun to use the devices.”

For students, answering via the response pads removes the embarrassment factor. They no longer need to be called to the front of the class for all to see if they got an answer or concept right or wrong. Students who normally remain silent in class now answer every question with confidence. However, Green sometimes projects the results from his computer to a whiteboard for all the students to see.

“Correct answers will pop up green, wrong answers are red,” he explained. “The students can reflect on their responses and rework the problem before moving on to the next. They’re usually able to find and correct the error themselves without any teacher intervention. Seeing their name associated with the answer on the interactive whiteboard is good social pressure. They work their problem much more meticulously.”

This year, Green will open his own school, Brooklyn East Collegiate Charter School, as the principal and plans to use student response systems in the classrooms. “When students come in and see the technology, they feel special and they pay closer attention because they’re using something that’s on their level technologically,” he said.

Enhanced data analysis

Administrators can use the data from the systems to benchmark student progress against proficiency goals. Then they can trend performance and progress over time for classes, demographic groups, and individual teachers and students. Spotting trends, they can drill down to delve into problems and design timely interventions. With accurate, real-time performance data at their fingertips, teachers, administrators, and districts can work more efficiently and make better decisions.

A new learning culture

Derrick Driscoll, a mathematics teacher at Westminster Secondary School, London, Ontario, Canada, has compared the mean performance and failures rates of students in an instant-response enabled classroom with students taught in the traditional manner. In his sample, 1 out of every 3 students in traditional classrooms received a failing grade for the course while only 1 out of 10 students failed classes where the teacher used instant student response data.

When he looked at only formal exam performance–quizzes and tests–the failure rate for traditional classes was 23.5 percent, but only 4.9 percent for classes where the teacher was using instant student response data. Mean performance for classes using student response pedagogy was 73.3 percent, while mean performance for traditional classes was 64.1 percent.

“When used appropriately, technology maximizes learning,” Driscoll said. “The real-time information provided by student response systems changes the entire culture of the classroom. It’s no longer a one-pony show where certain students raise their hands while others have disengaged. Everyone answers every question. This is absolutely critical to moving the class’ knowledge forward and also making the students feel that they are getting one-on-one attention. The act of posing a question and getting their responses via the devices creates the perception in the students’ minds that I care about them more than other teachers.”

Sometimes students disengage out of boredom because they have already heard the things that are being taught. Driscoll mitigates that risk through a streamlined process of pre-testing, assessed remediation, and post-testing. “My focus is on information they don’t already know,” he said. “The pre-test establishes a baseline. Here the class average may be 45, but it’s not punitive.

Driscoll said he tells his students that they will work together on remediation until they reach scores of 80 percent, and then they will be ready for a post-test. And during that process, Driscoll takes measurements to judge the effectiveness of his teaching.

“When you’re sharing with the students that you’re not always perfect, that you’re striving to help them attain a concept while measuring yourself, you’re communicating to them that you’re a different person. Performance is the guiding principle. These pre-test, remediation, and post-test scores are not part of their formal grade, but they participate because it’s part of the process,” he said.

In traditional classrooms, teachers instruct and then give a chapter test at the end of the week. The problem is that if students have misconceptions along the way, the teacher cannot address them until the following week when the class is already into the next chapter. Clearly, assessments such as Driscoll’s pre-test, remediation scores, and post-test have to be seamlessly integrated with instruction. They allow teachers to see throughout the week how students are progressing and to review material as necessary.

In the remediation phase, Driscoll’s students set the pace. “As a group, math educators don’t reflect often enough upon performance,” he said. “For me the standard is attainment of the concept, not the time it takes me to get there. It might start off slow, but if your total delivery is always about attainment of a concept, they attain it. My students have their foot on the accelerator or the brake; I’m just responding to that and helping them steer.”

Continued assessment using student response technology also ensures that teaching is based on real-time accurate information. “As I explored the technology, I discovered that what my gut was telling me wasn’t always true,” said Driscoll. “I’ve learned not to rely on my gut alone, but to assess and then move forward with confidence. My class average speaks for itself. It’s in the 80s for a lower level grade nine math class.”

In assessing classroom performance, Driscoll takes both a macroscopic and microscopic view. “I can look at a bar graph of the incoming responses and make a decision on whether or not they understood the concept,” he said. “I can also look microscopically to see which students had trouble with the concept, so that my focus can be honed on those particular individuals. In addition, the response system immediately groups the misconceptions for me. That’s very critical because I can then discuss the most consistent wrong answers. We don’t do enough of that in math classrooms. We always discuss what the right answer is, but there is a lot of learning that can be afforded by taking a look at where students go wrong.”

When to test is more important than what to test, according to Driscoll. “I test when they’re ready, not when I’m ready,” he said. “If you’re in tune with what’s happening through the pre-test scores and you see the remediation scores increasing to 80 percent as you flush out the misconceptions, then you post-test. If your post-test matches your remediation phase, the concept is learned.”

Driscoll encourages teachers to think about why they teach the way they teach. “What tools do they use to check their effectiveness?” he asked. “What tools do they use to judge whether their students comprehend? Student response pedagogy is a basic change from the usual teacher-centered, lock-step class. In my classroom, learning difficulties are revealed to all by real-time data, and my students and I are engaged in a continuous process of improving performance. There is no blaming and there are no excuses. We are all detectives.”

Student response technology enables daily formative assessment integrated with instruction so that teaching can be informed and adjusted to students’ needs. Classrooms become high-performing, fun, interactive learning environments that keep all students engaged, motivated, and participating.

From elementary to higher education, SRS technology represents a valuable resource for education professionals. As part of a system for frequent and timely formative assessments, SRS facilitates focused and timely feedback while providing the real-time tools teachers need to meet the educational requirements of their students. As a bonus, teachers can use this technology to lessen their administrative burden and channel more time into classroom instruction. As the research suggests, SRS technology has the potential to revolutionize the 21st century classroom.

Eileen Shihadeh-Shald is a vice president with eInstruction.

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