In an in-person classroom, teachers can walk around and take a look at student work, listen in to learners’ conversations, and quickly confer to clarify misconceptions. But in virtual classrooms, students sit behind cameras turned off, too shy sometimes to even type responses to their teachers, much less ask for help. Even in socially-distanced settings, where students are in the classroom, they sit spread out, facing forward, with limited chances to interact. This is an unbelievably challenging situation for teachers and students.
So what are some ways teachers might bring learning to life and hear student thinking in this new reality? How do teachers know what students understand in a virtual setting? How do learners know? What are some effective tools for checking in with students across a class period that might transfer from virtual learning to in-person person learning? These are some of the questions PEBC Lab Host, and high school Social Studies teacher, Ryan McKillop was grappling with when she started exploring ways to find out what her kids really knew across her 90 minute workshop. Ryan teaches three classes a day with an average of twenty seven students in each class. School has been virtual since the start of the year, but in a few weeks, students will return to school in a hybrid setting.
At the heart of Ryan’s inquiry is seeking ways to use formative assessment to uncover what and how well her students are understanding key content across her workshop. Formative assessment, frequently referred to as feedback to inform learning, is an ongoing process of gathering evidence to help us understand how students are progressing towards learning targets aligned to standards. While summative assessments represent graded, end of unit standards based assessments, like a final exam, the process of formative assessment represents ongoing checks for understanding. As Moss and Brookhart note, “The primary purpose of formative assessment is to improve learning, not merely to grade it. It is assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning” (2019). Quick check ins to inform instruction might include:
- “do now” problems at the start of class
- answering questions
- drafts of writing
- exit tickets, and more.
Formative feedback goes both ways. When students are clear about learning targets, they are better able to set goals and self advocate when confused. They can articulate what they know and ask for what they need- especially important in virtual and hybrid learning spaces. Reflecting on how their thinking is growing as they deepen their understanding of content is one of the most important skills students develop as they become agents of their own learning. This cycle of feedback between students and teachers helps Ryan continuously learn from students and adapt her teaching to ensure that all students are getting the instruction they need to achieve learning targets and meet content standards. Formative assessment helps Ryan:
- Focus feedback that nudges students to expand ideas beyond the obvious.
- Create opportunities for building relationships and supporting social emotional needs.
- Increase student discourse across the workshop from the mini-lesson to the reflection at the end of class.
- Create intentional structures for students to listen and learn from each other.
- Refine lesson plans as a result of student learning including student feedback from exit tickets and self reflections.
During her virtual workshop, Ryan sets out to recreate the process of formative assessment, like she did in her regular classroom, through a “barrage of interactive check-ins” to gather evidence of understanding. Some of these tools for checking in with students include apps like Pear Deck and Nearpod which allow Ryan to create engaging presentations that incorporate polls, exit tickets, making a word splash, etc., to increase student engagement. Of these tools, Ryan found Google Forms to be one of the most helpful for gauging student understanding because it's a familiar format that she and her students have used over the years in her traditional classroom. Free with a Google account, Google Forms provide a quick way to create surveys, ask reflection questions, upload readings for in depth analysis, gather student feedback and more. Another benefit of Google Forms is that it’s a tool easily transferable back to the regular classroom setting when students return to regular in-person learning, providing Ryan with specific data to inform instruction across her workshop.
By aligning the instructional flow of her workshop using Google Forms, Ryan is able to layer the questions she asks on the form to increase cognitive challenges. As students answer questions on their Google Form, the information is automatically summarized onto a spreadsheet giving Ryan an overview of students’ understanding of key content. She is now more equipped to:
- Track students’ thinking across her workshop in light of learning targets, from the opening Do Now to the closing reflection.
- Help students organize ideas so they can add to class conversations.
- Learn from students about what is working and where to differentiate.
- Ask students to clarify and expand their thinking.
- Collect a record of how student thinking is growing and evolving.
- Support students to reflect on their growth towards meeting learning targets and establish next steps.
Getting smarter about formative assessment in a virtual space has brought renewed energy to Ryan’s instruction as she and her students built a dynamic learning community of student engagement, agency, and understanding. As she prepares to transition back to the classroom, it’s exciting to bring in tools from virtual learning to extend opportunities for student voice within her collaborative workshops. Building relationships when everyone is much easier when we use tools to support formative assessment to think, talk, and laugh together - getting back to the heart of learning and why Ryan loves teaching.
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In her classroom, Ryan McKillop, PEBC Lab Host, leverages the workshop model, thinking strategies, and discourse to foster the thinking skills that all social scientists need to understand history, the world and its people from multiple perspectives. Ryan has found that simply “covering content” is not enough, she must create a learning environment that fosters behavioral, cognitive, and emotional engagement that is built upon relevancy. She teaches AP World Geography at an urban high school in Denver, Colorado and helped create the school’s “AP for All” program. When it comes to supporting agency and understanding, Ryan believes that each and every student should have access to honors level work and the scaffolding to be successful.