Checking for Understanding

This post is written by guest blogger Stephanie Ryon, 8th grade mathematics and Algebra I teacher at A&M Consolidated Middle School in College Station ISD.

Mrs. Ryon was asked to share her thoughts in response to the following 4 questions: (1) Why is it important to have a grasp of where all kids are in the content? (2) In what ways do you monitor and keep tabs on your students (favorite apps, strategies)? (3) What do you do with the data you collect? and (4) What’s next?

Throughout her post, Mrs. Ryon articulates specific examples of how she captures student feedback and utilizes this data to impact her instruction.  This exemplifies the premise within Assessment for Learning within Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas:

III.c Assessment should be used primarily for obtaining student feedback and informing the student and the teacher about the level of student conceptual understanding or skill development so that the teacher has accurate information to consider for designing additional or different learning experiences.

Why is it important to have a grasp of where all kids are in the content?

Checking for understanding; a very cliche, ‘best practice’ that every teacher does every day, yet rarely puts emphasis on how to organically build this into the daily routine without “adding more” to the regimen. As an educator in my 8th year of teaching, I feel like I’ve finally grasped not just the WHY, but the HOW in making it work in a fast paced, standards-heavy subject. Instead of pushing through a typical math-class routine, I have chosen to break up content discovery and synthesizing information through frequent, engaging checks for understanding. Thankfully, the checks for understanding in my classroom also serve as a brain-break, which is a win-win for all involved! Without the checks for understanding, I would be consciously leaving learners behind. Although I love sticking to my daily prepared schedule, I have had to “let it go” and redesign on-the-fly to make sure my learners are making the connections necessary to move forward with the scaffolding curriculum.  

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In what ways do you monitor and keep tabs on your students (favorite apps, strategies)?

I start out every class with some sort of continuation from the previous day’s content. Sometimes this is as simple as a quick formative assessment strategy as “my favorite no,” a quick card-sort, or, when I have the opportunity to throw in technology, I will always use my trusty, Plickers, or an interactive feature within Nearpod. The instantaneous results from these resources let me know as a facilitator if it is appropriate to move the class forward. Nearpod might be one of my favorite apps (also web-based) to use; it allows each kid to become individually engaged and interact (be formatively assessed) without the pressure of “everyone else”. I get live/instant data and know where to stop/rewind, or differentiate for a small group as we move forward with the content. Changing the learning environment in my classroom was probably the biggest factor that contributed to being successful with my daily checks for understanding. My learners are constantly out of their seats, interacting with each other as they learn through collaborative activities. This allows me to take a more non-traditional role as a facilitator in the classroom to be able observe my learners as individuals when I monitor progress — and not just assume that the actions of a few speak for the whole. I think that it is really important to “stop” relatively often during each lesson/activity to take a “temperature check” to have students reflect on their own level of understanding, too (which is easily done by showing number in the air on hands or doing a quick Plickers scan).  

I run a lot of stations in my room as well – which allows me to spread the levels of rigor for any given concept. I can intentionally plant myself at the station that my struggling learners might need to most support with. I will always provide my students with a way to see the solutions to the problems we encounter so that they can self assess as they work through the concepts. Afterall – how can we learn from our mistakes if we don’t know we are making them? I most often do this by revealing the answer through a QR code scan after the work has been attempted. I also ask all of my learners to justify not only their right answers, but the wrong ones as well. This turns the understanding of math into more than just a rote rehearsal of numbers and steps. It becomes a true conversation with justification backed by evidence, prior knowledge or spiraling concepts, and theorems. I utilize Class Dojo to keep tabs on each learner as they engage in activities in my classroom. Going back to reevaluate progress (or lack thereof) after teaching 130 kids a day becomes VERY easy once it is recorded under a monster avatar with specific +’s and -’s! I have even customized my own  positive and negative points that are specific to my classroom – and sometimes the specific activity. Having this app handy on my phone or iPad supports my active facilitation around the room when my learners are engaged in a collaborative activity.

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What do you do with the data you collect?

Every ounce of data that I gather – results from a poll, a look of thumbs up/thumbs down across the room, or individual student responses mid-way through a nearpod facilitated lesson – allows me to plan my next move in class. Sometimes it turns into how I can plan my next day, but more often than not, it allows me to plan (or redesign!) the next 10 minutes following the check for understanding. If all is well and everyone seems to be in a good place to move forward, we move forward. If more than half of my learners haven’t grasped the content at the level of understanding that is needed to move forward, we stop and rewind. Rewind for me means re-design. Clearly, the first way I taught the content didn’t work, so I always try to have a few strategies in my class pocket that will work on the fly. I frequently pull what would have been homework in a traditional setting and turn it into a collaborative activity, breaking down the questions to reiterate the gap in understanding that was evident from the initial check for understanding. This could be as simple as taking a pair of scissors to a question and its 4 answer choices to create a visual representation that will help a more visual-learner understand the question better than when paired with just words and numbers. I keep a Nearpod lesson handy that has several blank “draw” slides that allow me to back up and break-down concepts without any prior prep. This data, whether in my Nearpod archives or noted on my Class Dojo avatars, justifies how and when I can summatively assess my learners.

If I don’t have class data to back up the WHY behind the appropriate time to assess, then the assessment is nothing more than an item to check off on my calendar for things to do. I also use this formative assessment data to note the different strengths of my learners so that I can group by mixed ability and push peer-tutoring as a re-teach strategy.  This is one of my favorite things to do, especially when my struggling learners become very successful with one specific concept. Allowing those learners to be the “expert” in the group is a huge confidence-booster, which is sometimes all they need to be able to move forward with concept mastery in their weaker areas.

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What’s next?

Just as any other ambitious teacher, I want to be able to bring in as much appropriate technology to formatively assess my learners. The top of my list to dive into next is Quizziz (math symbols available – yay!) & repurposing not-so-brand-new open white space resources like Padlet. Without overusing technology, I want to also make sure my students are making genuine connections between the real-world and the content in my classroom as we move through our curriculum. I want to turn my focus on checking for understanding into the hands of the learners; peers interacting with peers for their checks for understanding, fostering discussions with each other, and peer-tutoring to close the gaps that will allow us to move forward to the next scaffolding concept. I am excited to bring in resources from companies like Nepris, who can connect us with professionals across the world to expand my content beyond the 4 walls of my classroom & engage my learners in relevant discussions that solve real-world problems. I will continue to use the best digital formative assessment tools in conjunction with the non-technology strategies that best assess the level of understanding of each learner. Regardless of the method/resource, this will always continue to be my biggest challenge as an educator. No learner is alike, and no strategy will ever remain the “best”.  The best thing I can do for my learners is to continually adapt to their ever-changing needs and appropriately differentiate so that meaningful connections & understanding is a non negotiable as we move through our school year.

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To keep up with the latest happening in Mrs. Ryon’s classroom, follow her on twitter: @MrsRyon.

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