Gas station without pumps

2013 August 4

What teachers need to look for

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:29
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Grant Wiggins, in his post Better seeing what we don’t see as we teach, gives some good advice to teachers about observing their students.  It is wrapped in too much sports metaphor for my taste, which makes the condensed summary a bit hard to understand:

  • Look beyond the “yesses” and head nods. 
  • Look “off the ball.”
  • Spot the “first foul.”
  • Listen for the ‘dog that does not bark’.
  • Look for what the quiz does not show.
  • Who are my “starters”?
  • Feedback on your feedback.
  • What notes do they take?
  • Call a time-out.
  • Assess formatively every few minutes.
  • Ask for feedback.

There was no pithy quote to pull out to summarize the post.  The basic idea is that most teachers do not pay enough attention to the students who are not actively providing feedback, and that it requires concerted, conscious effort to become aware of the students who are either not participating or who are giving the feedback that they think you want, rather than honest assessment of their understanding.  For the past few years I’ve been working on improving my awareness of the students having trouble with the material and involving them more in the class, but I still have a ways to go.

For me, the biggest change I could make is to ask for formative assessment from the whole class every few minutes. (Grant suggests roughly 10-minute intervals.) Although the logistics of clickers, cards, or hand signs is pretty simple for getting feedback on multiple choice questions, I find it difficult to come up with multiple choice questions that tell me anything useful—coming up with them on the fly during a class seems particularly challenging.

The classes I teach are unusual enough that there isn’t a big body of predigested teacher support material for me to lean on—I have to come up with everything myself.  This doesn’t cause me any difficulty for lectures—I know the material well enough that I generally only need a couple of words of notes to remind me what to talk about, but building assessments takes me a long time.  I may spend a week or more full-time devising and writing a programming assignment or a lab assignment, and I’ve mostly given up on writing timed tests (though I used one in the Applied Circuits class and will do so again next year).

I particularly find it difficult to come up with small questions, of the sort that students can reasonably answer in a minute or two, which is what I’d need for in-class feedback of the type Grant Wiggins suggests.  The homework and lab assignments are almost always of the size that it takes 3–10 hours to do them.  I’ll be trying in the coming year to devise at least one tiny question for each class session—which will probably take me longer than the class sessions themselves.  I’ll record the questions in this blog after I’ve used them in class, so that I’ll be able to use them in classes in future.


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