OMA – Oh My Alligators!
These past 12 weeks have been so hectic that it at times felt as if I were working in a pool full of alligators. Without going into a lot of detail, there is a very true and useful saying about this sort of work existence worth mentioning. The demands of a new school year, daily teaching activities, after school club commitments, and COETAIL course requirements have made for some very busy days and nights. Those familiar with the rigors of classroom teaching know that sometimes you get so caught up in the forward energy of the school year that sometimes you do things without remembering the reasons why. In moments like these you have to find a quiet moment to pause and reflect about: where you started, where you are, and where you want to go. I feel like I am at that place right now with COETAIL as I begin to put closure to my final course project and program.
An Idea is Born
I started to develop the idea of using digital exit tickets in my classroom last spring. I first wrote about it in a post titled Making Withdraws from the Bank of Reflection. My goal was to successfully implement a system of using digital exit tickets, a.k.a. formative assessments, as a means improving instruction and student learning. My rationale for pursuing this goal included capitalizing on the teaching and learning power of formative assessments and my never ending search for the silver bullet method of working with a manageable system of exit tickets in the classroom. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics identifies the role and benefits of formative assessments as follows:
“Formative assessment is an essential process that supports students in developing the reasoning and sense-making skills that they need to reach specific learning targets and move toward mastery of mathematical practices, such as those set out in the Common Core State Standards. It serves to inform both the teacher and the learner, enabling the teacher to change what he or she is doing and the student to understand where he or she is in relation to the learning goal.”
“Formative assessment produces greater increases in student achievement and is cheaper than other efforts to boost achievement, including reducing class sizes and increasing teachers’ content knowledge.”
I had to choose from a long list of online formative assessment options, and in the end decided to use Formative as my digital tool of choice. It offered: a stable and user friendly operating platform, options to globally share assessments, and an efficient means of collecting and analyzing assessment data. Additionally, unlike any other free product of its kind, I can remotely observe my students digitally “ink” their solutions in real-time.
Applicable ISTE Standards for Students and Teachers targeted during my project work were:
- Students use technology to seek feedback that informs and improves their practice and to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.
- Teachers design, develop, and evaluate authentic learning experiences and assessments incorporating contemporary tools and resources to maximize content learning in context and to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitutdes identified in the standards.
A Glimpse into the Mathematical Mind of a Student
When I checked back in with my COETAIL cohort in early September, I was already well underway in implementing my final project plans. My efforts over the summer researching and experimenting with Formative by trial and error using self-made fictitious student accounts reaped huge benefits at the start of the school year. Less a few small start up challenges, after a couple of brief introductory lessons and some practice opportunities, my students were comfortably accessing, completing, and submitting online formative assessments. Much like peering into the working minds of my students, it is the closest that I have ever come in 20 years of teaching to being able to instantaneously observe, analyze, and compare an entire class of students’ thinking and problem solving strategies.
The Chicken or the Egg?
Throughout my work of implementing digital exit tickets, I did have an opportunity to share my work with members of our school’s math department. With one of my colleagues in particular, it became an exercise in discussing the sacred question, “which came first – the chicken or the egg?” Our grade 6 math teachers decided to use Formative as a means of assessing student learning and teaching effectiveness at the start of each class. They implemented a system where students completed a short homework-based formative assessment during the first five minutes of class. This scheme allowed students time to practice and refine their own understanding prior to assessing mastery of learning content or teaching effectiveness.
Meanwhile in grade 7, my teaching colleague and I decided to focus on more immediate feedback in the form of digital exit tickets. At the end of each 45-minute learning segment, students answered two to three questions that assessed mastery of the day’s
learning targets. While most exit questions were written as multiple choice like those on the right, some were occasionally formatted as free response so that student could use Formative’s online inking function. The benefit is that you can observe the thinking processes of an entire class, albeit sometimes sluggish, in real-time as they work through a given set of exit questions. To better understand this concept, open the Formative home screen and look to the right under the login area. Below is a screen capture of my own students’ online inking work on a single exit question. Teachers can only view students’ work one question at a time using this format.
The drawback to the format above is that you can’t as readily assess content mastery or make comparisons within a single class of students or across multiple classrooms and questions of the same subject. The left most image below is from one of my early trials with multiple choice formatted exit questions where students initially submitted their responses using pen names for data privacy. The results show a stark contrast in the presentation of student content mastery. While the online inking function is a nice option to occasionally exercise, we found that a similar result can be obtained by having our students first ink solutions to multiple choice questions in their teacher accessible cloud-based notebooks and then later transfer their multiple choice responses to Formative. In a manner of speaking, we get the best of both worlds.
So does the chicken or egg come first? Which is better, formative assessments before or after the homework? In the end, I don’t think it really matters so long as the teacher and learner are able to receive meaningful and immediate feedback regarding the success of their teaching effectiveness and mastery of learning.
The Quest Continues
No matter what the subject or need, teachers always seem to be in a never ending search to find the best way to manage their classrooms and meet student learning needs. While I may have come close this time to achieving formative assessment nirvana, my own quest in finding the proverbial silver bullet will continue. Despite some remarkable initial successes in implementing a system of digital exit tickets using Formative, my work did not come without its challenges and consequently some necessary plans for future improvement.
The more manageable challenges that I encountered over the past several months using Formative were mostly technology based. For example, while trying create my second formative assessment, I discovered that complex mathematical expressions can not be directly entered into the question design space. Thanks to the friendly assistance provided by the Formative technical support team, I learned that an online equation editor called HostMath.com can be used to generate the expressions I needed in a compatible format. While working back and forth between Formative and HostMath.com can be at times tedious, see the GIF below, the system for me has worked since flawlessly. My students and I also discovered that if responses to multiple choice questions are entered too soon while exiting Formative, their last response will not be retained. This is evident in the image above where gaps exist in the multiple choice responses on the left. As a result, the data I was hoping to gather from individual classes was sometimes incomplete.
Type Feedback Here
The simple technical glitches mentioned above are bound to happen using any web-based learning application. The only condition required to finding necessary fixes is that the user has to be resourceful and persistence. Unfortunately, this did not apply when I tried to establish a method of providing students with meaningful and timely learning feedback nor did it apply when I wanted to analyze student formative assessment data beyond a quick scan.
While Formative does offer an option for students to see instant scoring of their exit questions, there isn’t a way that I am aware of where feedback can be automatically provided regarding the appropriateness of selecting one answer choice versus another. I can, however, just like a paper document provide feedback to students on multiple choice and free-response questions. Unlike handwritten comments, teachers using Formative can electronically send feedback to each individual student enrolled in a particular class by typing feedback for each individual question answered correct or incorrect.
While quick and easy to read data displays are available to determine the number of multiple choice questions answered correctly, highlighting individual students, and identifying trends, Formative doesn’t provide the reasons why students get some questions correct and others incorrect. No matter what format a question is written in, carefully analyzing the work that students produce takes precious time. If you really want to understand students’ learning progress in math, you simply have to pick apart the work that students show one question at a time and provide lots and lots of feedback. It has too much value in the teaching and learning process not to do so. Education researchers Drs. John Hattie and Robert Marzano have both published works that show significant increases in student achievement by measure of effect size and percentile scores as a result of providing learners with meaninful feedback. In the end, no matter how good Formative or any other similar application is, the challenges of time management when writing and analyzing completed formative assessments are still and will likely always be present. For now anyway, while Formative is the best I’ve found so far, discovering the next silver bullet of formative assessments in education will remain best described as “still elusive.”
My goal going into the new school year was to apply yet another approach to try and successfully integrate a consistent system of formative assessments that ultimately improved teaching and learning outcomes. Without conducting formal research, it’s hard to definitively quantify the effects of my work with GoFormative and digital exit tickets. Nevertheless, do I feel that my instruction is more well-informed and that my students’ learning and mastery of content have increased? Yes. When formative assessment results revealed that large numbers of my students or in some cases individual students were struggling with content mastery during specific lessons, I was able to successfully intervene and remediate by a measure of relative success on subsequent assessments, e.g. quizzes and tests. Looked at through the lens of Dr. Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model, I would even go so far as to say that the means taken to meet the desired outcomes of my project have reached the level known as redefinition. This is where a teacher’s integration of technology allows for the creation of new tasks previously held inconceivable.
In hindsight, there are certainly some aspects of my integration plan that I would approach differently. For example, I would be more purposeful about providing greater and more timely assessment feedback to my students. Additionally, I would write and share exit questions in a more global sense that could be re-purposed by other educators in a wider variety of learning environments. The ideal changes mentioned above will not happen overnight nor will they happen without additional and unforeseen challenges. To be certain, however, my teaching practices and the learning experiences of my students will be positively impacted by my continuous efforts to digitally go formative.
Course 5 Final Project Video
Please note that all named production resources and music and image credits appear at the end of this video.