I just finished reading Checking for Understanding by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher.  It is one of the most practical books I have read in a while. In it I found techniques that I could immediately apply in my classroom.

Assessment is a huge challenge for me.

I see most of my students 45 minutes a week and I teach about 300 students over the course of a week. As a previous post discussed, I have recently been working on the learning goals and focus of my lessons and projects. Now that I have semi-solved that issue I am now working on assessment.

This year I also have a new classroom setup with an Interactive Whiteboard (IWB) at the front of the room and the computer facing it. This makes it impossible for me to see the student screens if I’m demonstrating something at the front of the room (we don’t have wireless, so a wireless computer controlling app for the iPhone is a no go).  In my former labs I didn’t even have a wall to project on, so all demonstration had to happen through Apple Remote Desktop on the students screens. As a result, part of the challenge this year is getting used to a new classroom configuration.

These changes and realizations have caused me to be extra reflective in what I do and why in the classroom.

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After reading Checking for Understanding I decided to use the ‘thumbs’ method to pace my demonstrations. As we move through the steps, for example, to insert an image into a project, I stop and tell students to ‘show me your thumbs.’ A thumbs up means “I’m with you and ready to move on” and a thumbs down means “stop, I need to catch up or I’m lost.”

It has worked wonders for checking that everyone ‘gets’ what we are doing. I have found more of my students retaining the steps and more capable of applying their knowledge to other functions of the program. One of my 4th graders exclaimed today, “Ms. Hertz, I can insert a picture all by myself! I did it!” 

Of course, even a simple sounding procedure such as thumbs up/thumbs down needs to be practiced, so I’m excited at the possibilities for ensuring that my students are getting the base skills I want them to have so we can begin to push toward more complex, content-based projects.

Another goal of mine has been to have an assessment clipboard on which I have each child’s name and a skill I want them to master. Today I walked around while my 2nd graders were practicing typing lowercase letters and uppercase letters using shift as well as sentences with capital letters and and periods. I was able to go student to student, checking that they knew how to make a capital letter and write a sentence with a period and a single space between their words. I now feel that I have a true snapshot of whether they have mastered the learning goals for the lesson.

In addition to these assessment goals, I have been clearly stating the learning goals at the beginning of the class period and restating them at the end. For instance, “Today you will…..” and “Today we……” I’ve found it makes ME even better reflect on what we accomplished for the day.

A big factor, I believe, in my ability to implement these new practices is that, now in my 4th year teaching in a lab, I have most of the big stuff down so I can now focus on more reflective practice than before. I also have a school climate that is more organized and more predictable than my previous 5 years. This gives me more time to focus on my students, not on the fact that there are 5 teachers out and I have to cover a class for 3 hours.

I’m excited to keep trying new ways to check for understanding and to focus on how and what my students are learning in a more organized, deliberate and meaningful way.

14 Thoughts on “My First Experiment with Checking for Understanding”

  • Excellent example of a quick assessment. What I like about thumbs up and thumbs down is that it makes the students think about their own understanding. It holds them accountable and allows them to relate their own opinion, where verbal could make them pretend they understand. This is a bit less intimidating.. And it works well for any age. My 1st graders use it to some extent as well! Excellent!

  • Instead of an assessment clipboard why not use a google form and a smart phone? Not that a clipboard is bad, but I prefer to keep everything digital and I think the phone is less obtrusive.

  • This is a great post! I help teachers implement these strategies and I find that they are harder to implement than it first seems. Your post touches on that and also addresses the benefits. Thank you- it helped me see what teachers I work with are experiencing!

  • I considered the whole digital thing, but with so many different classes and considering screen size, even the best app for record keeping would be difficult for me to maintain. However, should I invest in a tablet of some kind I think I would definitely do things digitally. Another issue is that my online gradebook is very isolated and does not allow for importing or exporting, so I'd have to transfer any assessments I make manually anyway.

    Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Thumbs up/thumbs down is one of my favorite strategies with younger students. I found myself doing it with seniors earlier this week while subbing, and was very much surprised and happy to note that it worked well for them too LOL. One of the tips I learned from my mentor is to use a page protector for your assessment sheet and mark with wet-erase markers. At the end of the day, save the notes into the computer and wipe clean. Saves a lot of paper printouts!

  • Mary Beth…Thanks for sharing your learning/assessment strategies. I also teach over 300+ and they come through the Lab in 4 days…whew! I use the thumbs up and down, we ring bells for transitions, think-pair-share with partners and students verbalize "'where are they, what they learning and how did they get there" to demonstrate navigation as a way to collaborate their learning as well. One advantage I have this year is the IWB. An effective teaching method (I found) is demonstrating *mini-lessons* with student in small groups in the front of the room.This was something I did not do last year and I have seen rapid growth using this method. I have a lot to learn, as this is my second year in a Tech Learning Lab and very different than a classroom environment. I enjoy following you on twitter and you have contributed to my learning *Lots* Thank You!

  • Great post, MB – would love to borrow this book from you when you are through if possible!

    I like the thumbs up/down strategy and think I will try that – but I have a question – say you have all thumbs up but 2-3 kids. What then? Do you re-teach and make the others wait?

    I am experimenting with a strategy like Trisha's – small groups in front of the IWB. This has helped tremendously because I can clearly see which kids GET it (or not.) I also make them STAND during these lessons and find this helps them focus. The rough part is teaching the same mini lesson 3-4 times. I get pretty good at it by the end…

    Looking forward to seeing you at Edcamp NYC – we should take a moment to talk shop (though I doubt we will get the chance!)

    -kj-

  • I can definitely lend you the book on the 10th. It is awesome.

    I don't teach the mini-lessons because I like to be available to move around the room the whole period. My students require A LOT of scaffolding and help. They've never really had a tech teacher like me before 😉

    As for the thumbs, I use it when we are working through steps together. To make sure everyone is at the same place while we're working. I have the kids log in and 'do as I do' when we're learning something brand new. While the students are working independently, they have flags with velcro on them to put up on their computer. I then move around and help those students with their flag up.

    Looking forward to Edcamp NYC too!

  • I like the page protector idea. However, I have a spreadsheet for each class with a column for each skill. I then note whether they have attained the skill in that column. That way I don't have to update my gradebook every day. I also don't technically 'grade' them on these things, they are more like informative observations.

  • Thanks, Trisha 🙂 It is a completely different experience to be in a lab rather than the classroom! I find that I still have a lot to learn. I may need to try the small group method. How do you manage the time?

  • Hey, MB!

    I've been thinking about this post lately and was thinking along the same lines of Kevin. What I like to do when all but a few get it — and I know the few who don't just need a quick reteaching — is to ask 1 or 2 at most evaluation questions about what we've been doing for the other students to think-pair-share with while I reteach. "What would be a different way to do what you just learned? How would that way be easier or harder?" something like that.

    Just a thought.
    -Russ

  • Thanks for the reflection and tip, Russ. I like the idea of asking a deeper more insightful question. When I am pressed for time and I only have a few students answer there are always at least 5-10 hands up. I tell these students that since their hand is up that means they're thinking about their learning. I've come to find that I am content that at least many of my students are at least thinking about what they did for the last 40 minutes or so. Of course this is only effective if I am constantly checking with my students over the course of the period and set small learning goals for the period.

    Thanks so much to both of you for your feedback and ideas and for your valuable input into this adventure!

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