Efficient vs. Effective Environments: Testing the Testing Environment

Efficient vs. Effective Environments: Testing the Testing Environment

Where students take a test can make a difference in their ability to perform

"I didn't do very well in the library, I was distracted," one of my sixth grade students told me a few days after completing a math progress monitoring test in the school library. An uncomfortable testing environment can lead to distracted test taking, anxiety, and unreliable test scores.

Progress monitoring tests are an important tool for education personnel to assess academic achievement of all students. Teachers and schools utilize these test scores to improve instructional practices, to accommodate instruction for students' needs, to measure academic growth, and to determine if adequate yearly progress is being met. Since these tests are used to improve instruction and academic growth, it would make sense for students to take these tests in a comfortable environment. The answer may seem simple, but there is more to it than just a comfortable environment.

Our school utilizes a computer-based test that students have access to anytime and anywhere if there is an Internet connection. The school district requires three testing periods where all students must take the test to help measure individual student growth in reading and math. The first test is taken in the fall at the beginning of the year, one in the winter after the holiday break, and finally in the spring before the end of the year. Scores and instructional recommendations are received instantly as students finish their test. Since students are able to take the test anytime throughout the year, I decided to have students take the test after completing the expressions and equations unit. I was shocked to see a majority of my students regress.

As a first year teacher, this broke my heart and almost sent me running out the door. I was wondering what I did wrong, and how I could fix it. During a monthly Math Professional Learning Community meeting, the other math teachers and I analyzed the test scores across the grade levels and found that numerous students regressed in their scores. Many of which were students who typically would not regress. This led us to many questions: Are students effectively learning the math concepts? Are students anxious to take this test? Are students taking this test seriously, or just trying to finish? Are students taking this test in an effective testing environment?

Traditionally, high stakes tests are taken in school computer labs, cafeterias, gymnasiums, or other large areas where multiple students could test in the same quiet area. This is an efficient way to test multiple students at a time, and reduce the number of testing days, but is it the most effective? I decided to do some investigating to find an answer.

The Concern
It's a cool Friday morning in March. Students are flocking through the school hallways as the morning bell rings. Slowly, students show up in my classroom and notice the desks are rearranged in an odd, but familiar fashion. They look over at the daily agenda board and instantly complain. "Testing, today, on a Friday?" And just like that, the motivation for the day is ruined and students' anxiety sets in.

As math class starts, I prompt students to find a desk. Some of the desks face the walls and the rest are spread out around the middle of the classroom. They were organized this way so I can walk around and monitor students during the test. This desk arrangement would be considered typical progress-monitoring testing conditions in my classroom. Once all students were organized and instructions were given, they opened up their personal computers, logged into the test website, and started the test. I used this score as a baseline, focusing specifically on the percentile rank out of 100. Once I had the baseline scores, I was ready to manipulate the testing environment.

The Change
I wanted to see how my students would react and how test scores would differ in different testing environments. For the second progress-monitoring test, students took the test in the school library. From a teacher standpoint, it was such a hassle to get and keep students' attention when we were in the library. They were so used to the routine of finding their desk, opening up their personal computers, logging in, and completing the test.

When we got to the library students couldn't decide where to sit, who to sit by, and were distracted by what was going on around them in the library. I watched two students in particular: one student who has a difficult time focusing, and the other who has had many negative behavior incidents during the year. The student who could barely focus was too distracted by the new environment and never completed the test, receiving a percentile rank of zero. The student with behavior issues raced through the test, receiving a percentile rank of seven, and then started to distract and disturb other students who were still testing. These scores did not show the progress they made throughout the year. Clearly, the library was not the most effective place for those two students to test.

The final testing environment was back in the classroom, but the desks were in a different arrangement. I had various seating arrangements for students to choose from. I had some groups of desks, some desks spread out around the classroom, and some flexible seating options including pillows, chairs, and even floor spots. I gave students the freedom to choose a smart spot, meaning a spot that they thought they could do their best in.

Again, I watched the same two students as in the library and observed their actions and behaviors in the flexible seating environment. The student who has a difficult time focusing found a spot on the floor in the corner of the classroom and moved some chairs around him, almost like a fort, to keep distractions from the classroom out. This student received a percentile rank of 35. The student with behavior issues chose a desk facing out the window. When he completed his test, with a percentile rank of 75, he closed his computer and watched everything happening outside the window. Both students achieved their highest percentile rank in this environment.

The Results
As anticipated, on average, students had higher percentile ranks when taking the test in the classroom they learn math in. However, I found that there is more to it than just the classroom environment. When students had the choice to find a comfortable spot within their math classroom, they achieved their best scores on the test.

By giving students the choice of seating, they felt more comfortable and less anxious to take the progress-monitoring test. Each student has a unique learning style and learning preference. Allowing them to choose their preferred testing environment will help them achieve what they are capable of.

Katie Houdek is a sixth grade teacher at Valley Middle School, Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Published March 2018

Author: Katie Houdek
Number of views (1180)/Comments (2)/
Topics: Assessment
Feedback for Students, by Students

Feedback for Students, by Students

Developing student efficacy and engagement.

Four Ways to Help Students Take a More Active Role in the Feedback Process.

Much has been written about feedback in recent years that most educators are acutely aware of the powerful influence it can have on student learning. Educators likely know that there is wide variation in the effectiveness of feedback. Many middle level teachers spend hours providing feedback to students that is only sometimes put to good use. Feedback is meaningless if it does nothing to improve student learning. Teachers know this, but are often exhausted by the endless cycle of teacher-driven assessment and feedback. It can be difficult to step back and change what is a widely accepted system of summative grading and commenting.

When feedback on student learning is primarily the job of the teacher, we miss valuable opportunities to inspire active learning in our classrooms. It is not enough to lament the fact that students infrequently apply the carefully crafted feedback of their teachers. Educators must create opportunities for students to take a more active role in the feedback process. Here are some steps to take to make feedback more valuable to students.

1. Expect to Work Together

AMLE and Rachael Williams about Student Feedback in the Middle Grades

At the beginning of every school year, middle level students arrive in classrooms laden with prior knowledge of how schools and classrooms work. When it comes to feedback, this more than likely means that students expect teachers to offer feedback in the form of a grade and written comments on their work, both of which occur most often at the end of the learning process. Students may have little perception of how this feedback plays a more active role.

In the first few days of school, most middle level teachers spend time establishing classroom expectations and, in the more student-friendly classrooms, this is a collaborative task. Often the end result is two lists of expectations: one for students and one for teachers. Imagine if there was only one list that established both students and teachers as co-facilitators in the learning process. Students need to consider themselves pivotal to their own learning and understand that feedback is not just the responsibility of the teacher.

2. Make Sure Everyone Knows Where They are Headed

For students to be more than passive recipients in the feedback process, they must have a clear understanding of the learning path. This means that learning targets are communicated to students in clear, student-friendly language, and that all students understand what successfully meeting those targets looks like.

Understanding a learning target means more than writing it down or reading it aloud. Students must begin by acknowledging what they know or do not know. One way to offer students an opportunity to consider their starting point is to use "traffic lights" before students embark on the learning. After recording the learning target, students use red, yellow, and green stickers to indicate their current level of skill or understanding in relation to the learning target. In order to do this, students must carefully consider what they are being asked to do or know—a critical starting point. The teacher also benefits from this formative snapshot of students' prior knowledge before the lesson begins. Giving students the opportunity to self-assess from the outset lets them know that their teacher expects them to engage in their learning toward the established goal.

Students also need a clear idea of what successfully meeting the learning target looks like. Once students explore and discuss what it means to successfully meet the learning goal, they should examine samples of student work and practice writing relevant feedback.

Within this process, there are opportunities for paired or group discussion of the feedback. As they wrestle with the success criteria and debate the strengths and limitations of the student samples, students vastly improve their own understanding of what success looks like. Student ownership of the learning begins with a shared understanding of the learning targets and success criteria.

3. Empower Students to Take Control

An effective middle level teacher plans strategically so students have frequent opportunities to self-assess throughout the learning process. Rather than receiving most feedback on their learning at the end
of the learning journey, students should view feedback as critical to their incremental progress toward the learning target. Once students have a comprehensive understanding of the success criteria, they can reliably be asked to evaluate their own learning or the learning of peers.

Peer evaluation can be an effective method of delivering feedback but is often undervalued by teachers and students. One possible reason for this is that many students need to develop skills essential to providing constructive criticism. In the world of a young adolescent, where status among peers is paramount, it can seem unwise to do much more than offer vague assertions of brilliance. At the other end of the scale, the overzealous peer might offer feedback that is of little relevance to the learning target. Most middle level students will have been the recipient of this kind of feedback in the past and may be sceptical about the value of peer feedback.

Education experts, such as John Hattie, advocate that students should be specifically taught what effective feedback looks like. He outlines different levels and types of feedback and suggests the use of prompts or sentence stems to guide students in giving feedback to their peers (See Figure 1).

Figure 1.
Student-Friendly Formats for Peer Feedback
1) What worked well (WWW)…
2) Even better if (EBI)...
3) I noticed…
4) I wondered…

One way to ensure that feedback is constructive and focused on the established learning goal is to ask students to look for specific features in the work of their peers. For example, in a writing lesson where the learning goal is to construct a balanced argument, students might highlight where a peer has offered her opinion and also where she has acknowledged the perspectives of others.

This kind of focus builds the skills of the student offering feedback and provides his peer with relevant evidence of his progress toward the learning target. When students have difficulty identifying the nominated features, this leads to focused and constructive dialogue about what constitutes a balanced argument and allows students to gain important information about where they are in their learning.

4. Give Less Feedback

This does not mean that students take full responsibility for the entire feedback process, but it does mean that we think more carefully about how to engage students in evaluating their progress toward the learning target.

We should provide feedback when students need prompting. If they can identify where they are in their learning on their own, why would we do that for them? It signals that we do not expect them to be responsible for their learning. It might also suggest that we do not think they are capable.

Many teachers and students see the value of one-on-one conferencing but the balance of responsibility for feedback is often heavily weighted toward the teacher. When the primary goal of conferencing is for the teacher to offer feedback to the student, the student has no real reason to participate actively in the process. By shifting to a more equitable distribution of responsibility, student self-efficacy increases.

A more balanced approach to the one-on-one conference is to ask students to self-assess before meeting with the teacher. The students analyze their work against the success criteria and use an established format to assess the evidence of learning progress. Students bring evidence of their learning and self-assessment to a discussion with the teacher, allowing them to view themselves as valued and effective agents in their learning.

This approach also offers teachers a chance to give students feedback on their feedback. Questions such as "Does this feedback help you to understand what you have mastered?" and "Does this feedback show you what you need to do next?" can indicate to students whether or not they are focused on the success criteria and offer teachers formative evidence of a student's progress. If a student's self-assessment is vague, he more than likely needs more help to understand the success criteria and how to move toward it.

Instead of feeling like the teacher is the omniscient critic whose job it is to point out mistakes, students critically examine their work for evidence of learning progress. For students, the identification of their errors and missteps becomes a sign of successful learning progression and their efficacy as active learners.

Rachael Williams is year 9 coordinator, chair of LINKS faculty, and head of Larritt at Ballarat Grammar School in Wendouree, Australia.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2017.
Author: Rachael Williams
Number of views (15869)/Comments (2)/
Topics: Assessment

Assessments: A Key Ingredient in Our Practice

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously remarked that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself"—and the same is true for middle level education. No transformative educational meal was ever created based on fear. I understand that fear is a natural emotion in the schoolhouse; however, we must not let our fears dictate the nature of our classrooms.

In This We Believe (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 2010), we are reminded that the young adolescents in our educational kitchens deserve an effective and amazing middle school meal that is propelled by "educators [who] use multiple learning and teaching approaches" (p. 22). While all of the words in that characteristic are critical, the verbal ingredient that truly resounds with my palette is "use" because it communicates a commitment to turn away from fear and try something new.

Many educators and leaders know about "multiple learning and teaching approaches." Just like chefs who watch cooking shows or read about cuisine, we, too, hear about new and innovative ways to teach and learn. However, when it comes time to enact them in our edu-kitchen and transfer professional knowledge into progressive pedagogical action, fear often steps in and whispers, "Wait a minute. Are you sure you want to try that?" We consider this question and begin to doubt ourselves.

As a result, we often serve the educational dishes we always cook, the ones with which we are most comfortable. At the same time, we ironically ask our students to take risks and embrace challenges. How do we overcome the fear of new "teaching and learning approaches" in order to "use" them to reach every student, grow professionally, and create great schools?

An important element in the teaching and learning process is assessment. Great middle grades programs understand that "Varied and ongoing assessments advance learning as well as measure it" (NMSA, 2010, p. 24). One compelling part of this characteristic is the order in which the two components appear; in particular, I am elated that "advance learning" comes before "measure it."

As wonderful middle level educators, we must remember that the primary purpose of assessment is not to measure; rather, assessment is meant to fuel learning forward for our young adolescents—to advance it, create change, inform innovation, and give direction. In regards to food, cooks evaluate their dishes and have others critique their food in order to enhance their culinary creations. The assessment of teaching and learning should be the same: to build and advance our pedagogical menus.

If we simply use assessments to "measure" our educational "meals" without truly understanding why we are measuring, then we may be data rich, but we risk being instructionally poor. Further, when we do not see the empowering purpose of assessment, both teachers and students learn to fear what the data could communicate and how the results could be used against them.

How do we create and use assessments that advance and move learning forward? Here are some ideas to get us started on the path beyond fear:

  1. Love learning, and embrace the fact that failing is part of learning.
  2. Treat yourself with kindness when you struggle, and surround yourself with people who also want to learn so you are not alone in the process.
  3. Look at the world from a place of curiosity rather than from a judgmental, fearful, or deficit perspective.
  4. No one is going to tell you when to start, so begin now.
  5. Boldly go beyond lists about teaching and learning.

Dru Tomlin, Ph.D., is director of middle level services for AMLE.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2017.
Author: Dru Tomlin
Number of views (3816)/Comments (1)/
Topics: Assessment
Assessing Assessments: Six Useful Strategies

Assessing Assessments: Six Useful Strategies

Diverse ways for students to show their thinking.

The need for effective assessment is an important topic for both school administrators and classroom teachers. Practical ideas and fresh concepts are essential, and meaningful assessments require both of these elements. The following six assessment strategies may be used in any middle school classroom where student achievement, awareness, and authentic feedback are valued.

#1: Pinch Strips. A pinch strip is a creative way to assess learners while also encouraging student engagement. Students create a pinch strip, made of paper, which looks similar to an oversized ruler. On one side of the pinch strip, the teacher may have students write the letters A, B, C, and D. On the other side of the pinch strip, the teacher may elect to have the student identify four modes of mathematical operations; addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Another example could be having students list multiple forms of figurative language (e.g., simile, metaphor, alliteration, and onomatopoeia).

Regardless of the content that you select for the pinch strip, direct students to listen to your question and then pin the appropriate answer without showing anyone. Then have them hold their pinch strips in the air so you can assess answers from the entire group.

AMLE talks with James Davis about Assessment Strategies

#2: Create a "Make, Take, and Talk" Collage. Having students create collages to demonstrate their knowledge is often implemented in middle schools, yet having students "make, take, and talk" about their creations with peers provides additional opportunities for young adolescents to learn from peers and continue to develop their speaking skills. It also gives the teacher a chance to assess student learning in a different manner.

After students create collages, design an experience where students engage in conversations about their work. Allow time for students to think about "talking points" and explanations about their work prior to discussing their work with peers. Consider having multiple sentence starters and probing questions outlined and available for students before and during these conversations.

#3: Journal Scribe. Many teachers integrate journal writing as a part of the learning process. Journal writing is traditionally a practice that is completed by an individual who writes her responses in her own journal. The Journal Scribe strategy requires students to work with a partner. In this scenario, one student verbally responds to a prompt while his partner records his response.

After scribing is completed, students engage in conversations about their responses as well as read the written responses composed by the scribes to determine whether or not their thinking was accurately interpretated and represented.

This strategy provides students with the chance to develop their speaking, listening, processing, and writing skills. Students are also afforded opportunity to collaborate with peers while the teacher is able to read written responses and listen to conversations to gauge students' understanding.

#4: Scrabble Tile Toss. For this strategy, you can use either actual scrabble tiles or create your own tiles with letters on them. Provide each student or group of students with random tiles or pre-determined tiles, based on the learning objectives. The teacher poses a question, and students use the provided tiles to formulate their responses. This method encourages students' critical thinking skills to demonstrate their knowledge within the parameters of only using the tiles to communicate their thinking.

#5: Apps. As we strive for purposeful integration of technology into the teaching and learning process, various apps can help you reach this goal. Consider using "Show Me," "EduCreations," "Kahoot," or "Plickers." Take time to experiment with apps in order to use them effectively to enhance teaching and learning.

#6: Time to Sign. This strategy uses sign language as a formative assessment strategy in which students "sign" their replys. Students and teachers are able to learn sign language while also sharing and assessing understanding. With this strategy, students sign their replies to a multiple choice question or sign a reply to a question. Signing as a form of assessment, to a partner or a small group, affords teachers a chance to see responses and then guide their future instruction.

One important goal of assessment is to generate useful data in order to provide relevant feedback to students. In addition, assessment strategies should help students develop self-awareness and the ability to self-assess their development. These six strategies may help contribute to accomplishing these goals.

James Davis, Ed.D., is an associate professor and program coordinator at High Point University, in High Point, North Carolina where he works with the elementary, middle grades, and educational leadership departments. He has been named both teacher of the year and principal of the year.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2017.
Author: James Davis
Number of views (7601)/Comments (4)/
Topics: Assessment
Scaffold for Individual and Group Success

Scaffold for Individual and Group Success

Supporting students' cognitive development.

As a first year teacher in a seventh grade classroom, I had several experiences that made me question my practice, try new strategies, and learn from my students. One particular problem seemed to reappear frequently throughout the year: students seemed to understand content during whole-class work, but then had difficulty transferring and communicating their knowledge in their individual work.

This wondering about students' difficulties, and my confusion about the possible reasons, became the focus for my action research project. After conducting a literature review on similar topics, I created a four-tier scaffold to help students' individual development.

The first tier of the scaffold consisted of some direct teaching with student volunteers and discussion, when appropriate. The second tier was teacher assigned small-group (four to five students per group) activities to work on the skill we practiced as a whole class. The third tier included working with a partner who was chosen by the teacher.

Both the second and third tiers involved some peer teaching and reviewing of each other's work. The last tier of the scaffolding required the student to apply the knowledge and skills that were developed in the first three tiers to his or her individual work. After students participated in the tiered experiences, they were formally assessed by either taking a test or quiz or completing some form of an "exit slip."

Implementing the Framework

At the beginning of my action research study, students brainstormed expectations for themselves and peers when working collaboratively with a partner or in a small group. They created a list of several relevant expectations, yet had difficulty upholding these expectations during partner and small-group experiences.

After noticing that several students became upset and frustrated with their peers, I started asking for students' opinions and observations of how they were doing individually and how their peers were performing by having them complete feedback and rating slips.

Students anonymously rated group members and partners using a numeric rating scale of four, three, two, and one. A rating of four meant they were extremely satisfied with their experience and experienced meaningful collaboration and productivity. On the opposite end, a rating of one indicated that their experience was not meaningful and that not all group members participated. A rating of two or three indicated that either the experience was less meaningful or it was not a collaborative experience.

Students also wrote comments to more fully explain their ratings. Their feedback helped me better understand students' perspectives regarding whether or not expectations were met. Based on their feedback, we set goals and determined a plan of action to develop skills needed to enact all expectations during future group and partner experiences. Students completed rating slips after each group or partner activity because this method provided students opportunities to reflect on and assess their learning experiences, as well as provide meaningful feedback to peers and the teacher. Student ratings increased as we continued using this framework and discussing our expectations.

At the end of the action research study, I asked students about their thoughts regarding the process we used to become better group members and partners. One student stated, "It benefited me and my classmates because I learned how to work slower and help my partner." Another student commented, "I think I have greatly improved and our whole class has learned to work and get along with new people."

The students' responses indicated that the scaffolded approach helped students learn how to collaborate and learn from peers, as well as value working with others.

Insights from Implementation

An important point learned from this experience is needing to model our expectations for students. For me, this meant that I needed to help students learn what positive peer interactions look like in both partner and group work. In addition, we needed to set up group and partner expectations as a class for each other and ourselves. As their teacher, I needed to be responsible for reminding the students of these expectations and ensuring that they enact them, yet also help students develop autonomy and the ability to regulate themselves and others.

Next, I learned that students were more authentic when they were able to provide feedback anonymously. If a student was not working hard in his or her peer groups or hurting the rest of the group, he or she usually told me. I also learned from student feedback that there was almost always one person not fully participating, no matter how many times we addressed this issue as a class and through individual reminders. Moreover, this taught me that smaller group sizes (three or four students) are more effective because students are likely to have more opportunity to participate and interact with peers.

Last, I learned that I have the ability to help students develop different perspectives about peer work, as well as value collaborating with peers. Our class had several discussions about motivating oneself and encouraging peers to work positively, collaboratively, and effectively. We also had discussions about how their ability to collaborate with any type of person would translate to real-world experiences.

Paige Ferguson is a teacher at Red River High School in Grand Forks, North Dakota and a former middle school teacher.

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2017.
Author: Paige Ferguson
Number of views (6795)/Comments (0)/
A Discussion on Grading? Let Me Get My Helmet

A Discussion on Grading? Let Me Get My Helmet

It's time we get on the same page

Although based on a ridiculously small data set, my scientific opinion, given the available information, is that teachers are almost completely pacifistic, choosing discourse and debate over confrontation and conflict when a difference of professional opinion occurs.

The one exception: the subject of letter grading. Try to open a full faculty discussion on grading ... I dare ya.

The hint of speculation on a rumor is enough to drive the weak into hiding behind vocabulary quizzes while the strong suit up in their philosophical armor, ready to battle to the death over the impact of plusses and minuses.

I myself have held nearly every possible position on the subject, seeing letter grades as motivational tools (the old carrot and stick theory); a way to rank my students from most to least successful (anybody remember norm reference?); meaningless feedback to disinterested parents (except when recording a B+ on a traditional A achiever's report card); a holistic and impressionistic judgment on the work and behavior of a student; a poor adaptation of a point system (the cursed 100-point scale as well as the better, but still unsatisfactory, 4-point scale); and most recently, as codes signifying some level of satisfaction in the achievement of standards.

But, honestly, I'm not really sure what they mean any more.

The reason I'm writing is because I don't think that we can go much further with the improvement of education in America without clarifying the meaning of letter grades. A colleague whom I love and respect once told me that an A equaled 90 percent. I asked simply, "90 percent of what?"

Another colleague, whom I also love, helped, "It's 90 percent of the points available." Why does 90 percent display exceptional understanding instead of 89 or 91? Thank goodness the bell for the end of lunch rang, or I'm sure I would have been wearing someone's leftover alfredo sauce

Now, I know me, and I know that some of that interaction was for my own personal entertainment, but I think all of the questions I asked are legitimate points for discussion.

Where in life, other than school, do we qualify success? You either do the job or you don't. You fulfill your obligation within an agreed upon length of time or you don't. You follow the rule of law or you don't.

This is not to say that life is black and white. Life is an infinite shading of grays; but aren't grades supposed to measure achievement? In the Boy Scouts (I was a City Scout but it still kind of counts.) we were rewarded with merit badges only after fulfilling specific requirements. How could you get a C in Fire Starting (large cloud of white smoke without discernible flame would have to be the rubric description)? You can't. If you're measuring achievement letter grades make no sense.

Perhaps we're not measuring achievement. Perhaps we're measuring a student's progress along the educational continuum. This is where standards based definitions for the letters make sense. In this case the C student has not reached satisfactory levels of understanding but they have shown evidence of some learning. Awesome, I get it. They're close to understanding something but aren't quite there yet.

Cool ... so ... why ... do ... we ... send students on to a new grade—with new content and performance benchmarks—when they haven't learned the stuff they needed to know before they could learn the new stuff if they haven't learned it yet? I'm sorry. I know. Please don't say mean things about me. My mom might read this.

You know what? I'm ready for a Grade Czar. That person we put in charge of learning about something who then decides on the best actions to serve everyone's needs. He or she should be some Green Beret, Ninja, Morgan Freeman principal-type person who can take in all the different points of view and make everyone do the exact right thing…like we did for drugs and terrorism.

Or, we can get the word out to everyone: teachers, parents, students, the media, politicians, labor unions, and business leaders. "Hey everybody!? We've got this fundamental problem with the way we judge our children. What do you want to do about it?" I'm cool with anything. I just want us all on the same page.

Guy Gambone is a sixth grade social studies teacher at Konawaena Middle School in Kealakekua, Hawaii. He has taught middle level students for more than 20 years and values the uniqueness in his students.

Author: Guy Gambone
Number of views (8005)/Comments (2)/
Tags: Grades

How do I help students develop the ability to engage in self-assessment? What can we do?

A teacher's ability to facilitate self-assessment and student reflection on (independent of you) is essential during the middle grades years. Self-assessment is a student's ability to check and understand his or her own progress toward a learning outcome. Students who self-assess are involved in personal check-ins, checkpoints, and goal reflections that are student centered, student initiated, and student executed.

For example, in a writing workshop, students can read their drafts against the lens of a checklist and self-identify opportunities for revision. In a project-based learning scenario, students can use a rubric's details to guide project work sessions as they move toward learning goals.

When considered in the middle school, self-assessment is an especially important endeavor. Middle schoolers are in the midst of doing the difficult (and sometimes confusing) work of developing greater independence from others. Independent thinking toward self-assessment would certainly fall under the umbrella of lasting behavioral changes that students will carry far beyond middle school.

The following suggestions might serve as scaffolds in helping students develop the ability to self-assess:

Model the Behavior

Demonstrate behaviors associated with self-assessment. Consider engaging in a role-play scenario to help students visualize the processes and hear the language and questions one might ask. Modeling provides opportunity to explain and exemplify the self-assessment concept and guide students through this process.

Provide the Tools

Create checklists, rubrics, and goal-setting graphic organizers that match the learning outcomes which align with your curricular standards. While you might find many ready-made supports online, there is value in tailoring specific self-assessment tools to closely match your tasks and standards. These tools may provide useful support to help students self-assess their progress toward the goals of their learning.

Guide from the Side

As you model the behavior and provide students with the tools necessary to self-assess, you may be tempted to step in and rescue your middle schoolers from themselves if they encounter difficulties. However, it is important to remember to guide them from the side. Your goal as the teacher is to help students develop their autonomy; provide students with opportunities to grow and work through challenges.

Kristie Smith, Ph.D., is a literacy instructional specialist for Gwinnett County public schools in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She is also an adjunct professor for Mercer University's Atlanta Tift College of Education.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2016.
Author: Kristie Smith
Number of views (4982)/Comments (0)/

Classroom Tech for Learning Checks

In its keys for educating young adolescents, AMLE calls for educators to use a variety of assessments in an effort to both advance and measure student learning. Daily, teachers are using assessment to guide instruction and to provide data about student achievement. In a teacher's busy day of balancing teaching loads, meetings, and managerial tasks, it is sometimes difficult to provide students with timely feedback on assessments, yet tech for quick learning checks can assist.

Assessment technology has the capability of providing teachers and students with instant results and feedback.

Technology also has the power to increase engagement in the learning process. In order to connect with students, it is important for middle school teachers to find meaningful ways to incorporate elements of the outside world within the context of modern-day standards and curricula.

Why Technology?

Technology and digital resources are a part of the landscape of millennial life. According to the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, "to be effective in the 21st century, citizens and workers must be able to create, evaluate, and effectively utilize information, media, and technology." Also, as Marc Prensky notes in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, "today's learners have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, video games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age." For many 21st century learners, it would seem that the use of technology is as natural as breathing, walking, text talk, or instantly posting one's thoughts to social media.

Making Decisions about Classroom Technology

Technology and digital literacy are important facets of authentic learning, yet some teachers find themselves questioning the amount of technology that is appropriate in the classroom and the role tech tools should play in their students' learning. Will these tools be supplements to a primarily hard copy, print-based lesson, or will teachers choose for tech tools to be constants that are integrated regularly into students' learning cycles?

One way to respond to these questions is to focus in on key areas of learning that naturally align with the use of tech tools. Assessment—specifically formative assessment—is one such area of opportunity.

Tech Tools for Formative Assessment

In looking to incorporate tech tools for formative assessment, a number of questions will arise. Where does one find them? How does one choose them? Which ones are most effective? The truth is, there are endless digital tools available to the classroom teacher who is seeking to integrate technology and formative assessment. Many are user friendly. Many are free and easily accessible. Finding the right tools requires a combination of trial and error coupled with tuning into available resources and student needs.

Below are descriptions of a few formative assessment tech tool standouts that are especially classroom friendly for the middle grades classroom.

Kahoot is a game-based formative assessment tool. Its colorful graphics and playful music and sound effects make it a perfect choice to engage middle school learners. Teachers can load quizzes and invite students to join a virtual classroom using a game PIN. There are options for multiple-choice and other response formats. Data is collected on student responses and displayable in bar graph format after each question.

Plickers is another tool that classroom teachers can use for quick check formative assessments. Unlike Kahoot, Plickers does not require students to have their own devices. Rather, students have scannable response images that a teacher can access from a single device. Teachers tailor the formative assessments, launch them, and collect real time data that can transform instruction.

Today's Meet

Today's Meet is a back channel platform that teachers can use to allow students to ask questions and to carry on topic-specific discussions in the background of other learning. Teachers create a virtual chat room and allow students to sign in. The teacher can act as chat room moderator and participate in the back channel discussion. This is an effective tool to help teachers quickly respond to pop-up questions that students may have during a lesson. It is also useful for helping teachers to identify learning gaps sooner rather than later.

The Fear Factors

While there are many options for formative tech-based assessment tools in today's middle school classroom, for some teachers there is still a lingering fear factor with the prospect of using tech tools.

Some teachers shy away from the use of technology because they worry about issues of equity—What if all students don't have access? This is certainly a real issue. However, there are many options. In many cases, district, government, and private grants might be available toward the purchase of school-based digital devices. A little research in this direction could go a long way for the teacher seeking technology options. In some cases tech tools allow for multiple students to share one device, which can also help to alleviate concerns in this area.

Additionally, many teachers worry about how the use of tech tools can become a distraction for already highly distractible middle grades learners. While many of the Generation Z cohort are intimately familiar with the use of technology tools for recreational purposes, it takes the touch of the 21st century teacher to move this appreciation for technology's possibilities into the classroom.

The Final Case for Tech

The goal of a relevant and integrative classroom is good teaching and engaged learning. Along the way, an effective teacher should check for progress and understanding as an indicator of instructional changes needed. There are many ways to do this, but using tech tools to do so is one way to reach the 21st century learner.


Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital (Digital Immigrants, Part 1) On The Horizon, 9(5), 1. doi:10.1108/10748120110424816.

Framework for 21st Century Learning–P21. (2015). Retrieved August 17, 2016, from http://www.p21.org/about-us/p21-framework.

Kristie Smith, Ph.D., is a literacy instructional specialist for Gwinnett county public schools in Gwinnett County, Georgia. She is also an adjunct professor for Mercer University's Atlanta Tift College of Education.

Kristina N. Falbe, PH.D., is an instructor of middle grades education at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2016.
Author: Kristie Smith, Kristina N. Falbe
Number of views (8152)/Comments (3)/

8 Digital Formative Assessment Tools to Improve Motivation

The silver bullet for closing the achievement gap these days seems to be formative assessment. In simple terms, formative assessment is any ongoing activity that helps teachers gain information about student learning—information they can then use to adjust their instruction and provide more specific feedback to students who are then motivated to reach their learning goals.

Although the definition is relatively simple, the complexity in practice is challenging—good formative assessments provide feedback, are motivating, allow for instructional adjustment, and are ongoing. That's a lot for any classroom teacher to do and to do well amidst the chaos of a room full of seventh graders during the month of May.

Digital formative assessment tools can help you motivate students to practice learning goals as a natural and ongoing part of their daily workflow.

Here are eight free tools to help you integrate technology into your classroom, motivate students to learn, collect some data, and reduce your Tylenol consumption bills during spring—or for that matter, throughout the school year! For step-by-step how-tos for integrating each of the different tools into your curriculum, visit https://goo.gl/jpmele.

Tool 1: Padlet

Padlet (padlet.com) is a virtual wall that students use to express their thoughts on a topic. In addition to written expression, you can embed audio and video and have students respond in the form of a threaded discussion. With password protection, you can use different padlets for different classes or groups of students.

For example, I have students define key terms and discuss areas of agreement and disagreement with what their peers have written.

Tool 2: Recap

Recap (https://app.letsrecap.com) is a video-based formative assessment tool that allows you to pose a question, have students respond with a short video they've recorded on their cell phone, then provide them with feedback.

In the math classroom, have students explain how to solve a problem and then give them strategies they can use to improve their accuracy. Or if you are feeling a little daring, share the class videos and have students identify incorrect answers and analyze where the computations went wrong.

Tool 3: Today's Meet

Today's Meet (https://todaysmeet.com) is a type of "backchanneling." Backchanneling is a conversation that takes place alongside an activity or event. It's perfect for use in the classroom when you are showing a video and want to find out what the students are thinking. Simply show the class a video clip and have students respond to a question via their device; students can even pose questions to you as they are watching.

Use it in the science classroom as a way to track understanding during a lab procedure. For example, ask students what will happen before they add chemical A to chemical B.

Tool 4: Active Prompt

Active Prompt (http://activeprompt.org) looks like a website from the early 1990s, but its power is amazing. Upload any image of your choosing and ask students a question about it. Students move a dot on their device to indicate their answer.

For example, in social studies, you might show a map of Africa and ask students where they think the Nile River is. In language arts, display a complex text and have students indicate where they found their textual evidence.

Tool 5: Google Forms/Sheets and Flubaroo

Flubaroo (www.flubaroo.com) is a great plug-in for Google Sheets that will help you quickly score student quizzes. Design a Google Form, share the link to the form with students, and have them answer the questions. When they are finished, go into your account and have Flubaroo grade students' responses in less than a minute. Use the report feature to get all kinds of quick data about the students' responses.

In the classroom, use this as a quick warm up and then break students up into stations with differentiated activities based on performance.

Tool 6: Zaption

Zaption (http://zaption.com) allows you to take already-made videos, such as a YouTube clip, or your own videos, and publish interactive lessons and track student understanding.

Simply add questions to a video clip: multiple choice, check boxes, free response. You might even have kids draw a response. If you're doing a whole-class lesson, you can use the Live mode so students can ask you questions while you are presenting. Want students to complete independently? No problem! Give students a link.

Use the reporting feature to analyze the data and find out where you are headed next in your lesson. (Please note that the free account gives you a limited number of reports.) You can also use Zaption's database to find premade lessons.

Tool 7: Nearpod and Pear Deck

Nearpod (www.nearpod.com) and Pear Deck (www.peardeck.com) are similar tools that allow you to embed interactive formative assessment elements into a slide deck. Take an existing PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slide show and add upload it to the app. Give students the link—from your end, you can ensure that all students are on the same slide. In Pear Deck, you can even add a question on the fly. Question types range from drawing answers to multiple choice (the paid app gives you a few more choices).

Want to increase student involvement? Have them create the slideshow on a topic (a great review for final summative exams) and present to the class. You can use the data reports to track student mastery.

In PE, try uploading the steps to throwing a perfect curve ball. As students watch each step, ask them to demonstrate the step, then use the questions you've created to get their thoughts about the technique and why it will improve their pitch.

Tool 8: Quizlet Live

Teaching vocabulary? Using Quizlet Live (http://quizlet.live), students practice teamwork and communication skills while you check their understanding of important academic vocabulary.

Simply create an account, search for a premade deck of vocabulary terms or create your own (a minimum of 12), and give students the link. The app will group them into teams once they have logged in. Press "go" and the teams will compete to show their understanding of new terms. Students must be careful, as one wrong move sends them back to the beginning.

Fun and Informative

In my own practice as a teacher and curriculum director, I have seen the power that formative assessment can bring to improving student success in the classroom. Using digital tools such as these not only motivates students, it also gives teachers valuable information with which to diagnose student learning.

While I can't promise you that these digital formative assessment tools will close the achievement gap entirely, I can promise that you will have fun interacting with your students.

Bryan R. Drost is director of educational services for Firelands Local Schools in Ohio.

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2016.
Author: Bryan R. Drost
Number of views (15271)/Comments (0)/
Tags: Formative
Show What You Know: From PBL to Digital Portfolios

Show What You Know: From PBL to Digital Portfolios

One student's enthusiasm can open new doors to teaching and learning.

My son's birthday party this year was at one of those bounce house places with children hopped up on orange soda and birthday cake. In the midst of the chaos, one of the workers approached me—not with the news of some disaster, as I immediately feared, but with a smile and a huge hug. "Mrs. Chandler!"

Teachers who live in the community where they work experience this all the time—hugs and greetings from past and present students. However, this was different. This time the student was Austin.

I had Austin in seventh and eighth grade almost a decade ago. He was the unreachable brilliant one who would ace a test but never seemed to be listening and certainly didn't bother with homework. He never cared to impress me or anyone else—that is, until I assigned my first project-based learning activity.

We were wrapping up two years together and needed to shake things up, so I announced, "You are going to present to our class a 'How-To' of anything you'd like. You can teach us to make brownies. You can teach us to juggle. You can inspire us to try something new! You must create a PowerPoint to go with your presentation."

Of course there was a barrage of questions, which I expected. But I was not prepared for Austin to raise his hand. He never raised his hand. When I called on him, he asked, "Can I build a website?" I was so taken aback that the honest answer came out: "Well, I guess you can. But I don't have a clue about that."

Shining Star

On presentation day, using our brand new whiteboard, my students showed us how to do all sorts of things utilizing PowerPoint presentations with too much animation and too many sound effects. At times the presentations were overwhelming. This was new to all of us, so I took it all in stride.

When Austin's turn came, I asked, "Are you ready?" which was unfortunately what I used to say to students whom I thought had not done the project.

Austin approached my computer and quickly typed in a website address. His website—which he created—was designed to teach us how to play the game Minecraft, which no one had heard of yet. To say that we were in awe is an understatement. I watched my students sit up a little more and lean in, amazed by what an eighth grade student—a decidedly non-academic student—knew and could do.

Given the chance to do something he knew and loved, Austin (or AJ as his nametag now read) opened my eyes to the possibility of digital learning before I knew there was a name for it.

Learning Together

Every year after that, when we launched into the project-based activity, I shared Austin's website as an example, saying, "You can always give something like this a try." Student interest in "going digital" was slow at first. A few students created a website and others did Prezis instead of PowerPoints. Then these digital projects really caught on and everyone wanted to do them. Unfortunately, I really didn't know enough about digital presentations to help them.

I knew that had to change, so I taught myself how to use Prezi, and Haiku Deck, Canva, and other presentation tools, and was able to guide my students who wanted to use them for their presentations.

Then I tackled the website-building project. Thanks to the ease of Wix (a free website builder that is quite intuitive) I was able to create a pretty decent class website, which I used to communicate with parents and students. The more I used it the more comfortable I was with the idea of incorporating a website into a project.

"Austin, you will be so proud of me!" I gushed. "Guess what my kiddos did for their final projects this year? Built a website. I mean, we only used Wix, not programming or coding or whatever you call it, but you inspired this. Remember your Minecraft project?"

AJ did remember, and he told me he was "a full-on computer geek" in college. "Websites are a great start for eighth graders," he went on. "Like a portfolio, you know, like art students. You need to get them into this stuff. It's the next language."

And, there you have it. Once again, a student showed me the way. It was in that noisy moment that I decided my students in the fall must have a digital portfolio because if nothing else, isn't it my job as an ELA teacher to make sure they are able to communicate—with a "new language" nonetheless?

Going Digital

Based on my website lessons learned, I'm launching my yearlong Digital Portfolio Website assignment for my new eighth graders this year. In these first few weeks I'm helping students set up an e-mail account (which most don't have) and a Wix account, and teaching them some basic aesthetics of web design. Now that I have a little more confidence in this digital realm, I am happy to share my "cheatsheet":

  • Less is more. Too many pictures and/or too much text is distracting.
  • Use a color scheme and be consistente.
  • Cut and paste from Wix into Word for spell check.
  • (A major downfall of Wix is the lack of spell check.)
  • Use animations and music sparingly, and don't loop it. Once is appealing; more than once is annoying.
  • People read in an "F" pattern, so avoid placing important text or information in the bottom right-hand corner.
  • Drop-down menus are great. We are going to have pages for Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, Creating, and Innovating. Students will decide as we move through the year where to post their assignments.
  • Videos are a great way to capture a learning experience. I'll record and send to my students to add to their webpage.

The website becomes the tool by which to tell their "learning story." We'll end our year by reflecting and setting new goals for high school.

Lessons Learned

I survived my first website assignment. Here are my primary lessons learned (with many more to come, I am sure!):


  • They were so engaged that it was hard to pull them away.
  • Mini-lessons work well. The old "I do, we do, you do" works great.
  • They actually asked for more time to present their websites because some made videos that they wanted to include.
  • They had a super quick learning curve, as they quickly surpassed my Wix skills.
  • The high school teachers I know are excited that they are coming to them with this type of tech savvy.
  • Students are more than willing to help each other.


  • You can't assume they know anything about web design. Remember how I mentioned too many animations and sound effects? It is even messier when they start experimenting with web-builder tools.
  • There's a balance between the "have at it" approach and direct instruction, and this balance is different for every class.
  • Finding the technology and technology time they needed was a full-time job. I was careful to never assume they had technology at home.

Speaking the Language

As I get beginning-of-the-school-year butterflies thinking about 100 eighth graders creating websites, replete with the positives and pitfalls, I'm forcing myself to remember AJ's observation: "It's the new language."

I've heard that the best way to learn a new language is immersion, so here we go...

Amber Chandler is ELA department chair at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York. She is the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tips for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4–8.

Published in AMLE Magazine, September 2016.
Author: Amber Chandler
Number of views (12677)/Comments (0)/

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