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thinking visible

5 ways to make thinking visible

Alan November webinar gives advice on how to incorporate new ways of determining whether students have understood what they were taught.

The high-stakes nature of state exams means that schools need to assess student understanding in real time rather than wait for scores at the end of year or even the end of a unit. And simply relying on more tests as formative assessments is likely to cause students psychological stress and prompt them to disengage from learning. What’s needed are ways to engage students that also enable educators to determine how and what those students are thinking.

Education researchers have discovered that back and forth communication leads to greater student engagement, deeper understanding, and increased retention (it appears to be particularly true of peer-to-peer collaboration). Also, talking about their work helps students develop critical learning skills that prepare them for future challenges and opportunities.

A Teacher’s Role in Making Thinking Visible

Listen to students talk: How can teachers encourage student communication and collaboration? In a recent webinar, noted education expert Alan November recommended that teachers find ways to speak less and listen more. He also advised teachers to have specific goals for listening to what he called “student voice.” One of his suggestions was that listening to students talk can alert teachers to any misconceptions those students may have and give ideas on how best to correct those misconceptions.

Encourage peer learning: In order for students to reveal what and how they’re thinking, teachers need to create opportunities for peer learning as well as environments in which students feel it’s safe to take risks. For example, the itslearning platform has an array of student-to-student communication tools as well as incorporate student-to-student tools such as discussion boards, surveys, peer assessments, course group folders, etc. Some of these, such as e-portfolios, blogs, messaging, and communities, are designed to be used outside of courses so that learners have ways to work and experiment together without worrying about the grade they’ll receive. And in all cases, teachers can easily see what and how each student thinks.

(Next page: More ways to make thinking visible)

Provide chances for explanation: Another benefit of facilitating student-to-student communication is that if one student has misunderstood a concept, there’s a good chance that another student will provide the needed correction. Even better, the second student will explaining things in terms that other first-time learners can understand.

Have students design problems: During the webinar, November talked about another tactic for making student thinking visible: having students design problems. He said research shows having students as problem designers make for a much more engaging classroom than one where the teacher presents all the problems. He gave the example of Jessica Caviness, a Texan geometry teacher who has

students design their own problems as an out-of-class, no-credit activity. During the webinar he showed attendees a photo of a soda cup that she used in her ‘design your own problem’ activity. November noted that this would be a great activity to perform with the itslearning platform.

The first of Caviness’ students designed a problem that required not just an understanding of geometry but also of buoyancy and ice displacement: “The height of the soda in this right cylindrical cup is 5 inches and Mr. Caviness wants to add 3 cubes of ice to the cup, can he do so without the cup overflowing?”


“There’s no way you would cover that in the curriculum, there’s too much to do,” November commented. “But as a stimulus to get kids to think, it really works.” He also informed attendees that the class’s test scores have gone up and that Caviness was named 2015 Texas Teacher of the Year.

Admit not knowing: While student-designed problems are an excellent way to gauge students’ understanding of a concept, November acknowledged that some attendees might be worried about being embarrassed by problems that are beyond their expertise. However, he pointed out that most students have never seen their teachers learn, and actually think that when they struggle with a problem, they’re failures. He recommended that teachers admit when they don’t know something and then show how they learn so that their students can change their attitude to “It’s ok that I’m struggling. My teacher’s struggling.”

Plus, seeing teachers struggle can prepare students for another useful approach: “messy problems” (also called “ill-structured problems”), which do not have one clear-cut correct answer. Because of that ambiguity, messy problems require students to justify their chosen solutions with reasons and evidence as well as confront their underlying assumptions. That critical thinking approach enables educators to teach for understanding (versus teaching for memorization).

Are there any other approaches you use to make thinking visible? Do you have any messy problems to share with fellow educators? Talk about it in the comment section.

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