Formative Assessment: Learning to know what you don’t know

I’m a big fan of brain research, and one of the favorite maxims that I truly utilize is giving an idea “simmer time,” meaning that you pose a question and let your brain think about it without you actually focusing on it. You’ve done the same thing, maybe unknowingly, when you can’t remember a song title or person’s name, and eight hours later, seemingly out of the blue, the answer pops in your brain.

A few year’s ago, after a particularly annoying hour of grading quizzes, I absentmindedly posed the question to myself, “How can my students NOT know that they don’t know this until they take the quiz?” I recorded grades, jotted down some notes about the patterns of questions that most students were getting right and which they were getting wrong.

A few days later, in the middle of class, I blurted something out that was the AhHa! to the question that had been simmering. One of my students was struggling through a review question, when it hit me: BAM!. Maybe, just maybe, middle school students (and I’d venture all students) don’t actually know what they don’t know. If my hypothesis were true, it would explain so many frustrating parts of teaching, and best yet, I’d figure out a way to help them know what they don’t know.

As I began viewing the learning process through this new lens, I was able to teach my students a few things that have helped them become better students—and less frustrated themselves. First, I taught them that they needed to quiz themselves on the frontside, before they even started to study. All my tests have review on Quizlet, so they knew where to go. The twist: if you already know the answer, delete that question. Why plug your brain with information that you already know? It was a complete waste of their study time to keep trudging through all the notecards when they perhaps only needed to review half of them. They reported huge leaps with this study method.

But, I wasn’t thoroughly satisfied. This still didn’t help them in class. I made two adjustments that were minor, but also very significant. First, the week before a summative assessment, I gave a “quiz.” The sole purpose of the quiz, I explained was for them to find out what they didn’t know and get help ASAP, either from me, or a friend. Again, this helped narrow down the scope and frame their learning.

However, it was my last idea—the “metacognitive minute” that I instituted, that was the game changer. I reserve one minute—and I mean literally only one minute—to ask students a question that should indicate for them if they are in one of three categories 1) Got it. Could teach it. 2) Getting it. Review. 3) No idea. Get help. On a daily basis, the “Metacognitive Minute” became a great barometer of their learning for them,thus helping them know what they didn’t know. Now, when I conference with students, I can ask, what day did you get lost and they actually know the answer. Read an extensive explanation here.

Other teachers have, of course, figured out formative assessment in far more subtle ways. For example, this 2nd grade math lesson uses questioning techniques to elicit multiple answers, with phrases like, “Are there other possibilities?” The most amazing part is that the lesson has included in it a 10 minute reflection time for students when they are given a variation of what they have already learned, and they must reflect (metacognition in second grade!) if they are to solve the problem in the same way.

I am in the middle of my own Giver unit right now, and I am going to change mid-plan and make sure to incorporate some activities that will better allow me to check in with every student—especially difficult in classes of 28 or 29. The first strategy is called the Whiparound. It is another innovative way to measure student understanding—and to get them to recognize both their knowledge and their deficits. This activity is a great formative assessment tool for teachers, but I plan to use it as my “Metacognitive Minute” for several of the upcoming passages.

Teachers are expected to differentiate. Teachers are expected to be culturally responsive. Teachers are expected to monitor student learning. These are no small tasks, and as educators we must support each other as we empower our students with strategies to help them know what they don’t know.