Formative assessment aids explanations

The always-stimulating Maryellen Weimer has a post in the teaching professor blog this week in which she gives suggestions for crafting better explanations.

Although Weimer is writing primarily from the position of the teacher-as-lecturer, what she has to say is appropriate to anyone who is teaching, regardless of the setting, subject, or level.

Unless feedback from students comes close on the heels of our explanation, we often don’t realize that our “explanation” was a problem rather than a solution.

I never cease to be surprised (and dismayed and often appalled) by the misinformation students learned in elementary school that they continue to rely on when their own children are in elementary school age.

  • I’ve seen mid-career professionals who, even though they were able to use fire as a verb and a noun, insisted that fire is only a noun.
  • I’ve seen a 60-something read definitions from a dictionary whenever he gave a speech because he’d been taught as a youth to define his terms.
  • I’ve had a library aide tell me that “Joe the plumber” was a sentence because it had a subject (Joe) and a verb that showed Joe’s state of being (the plumber).

Our students may understand our explanation well enough to repeat what they heard, but not well enough to put the idea into some other wording or some other context.

As teachers we need multiple ways of phrasing formative assessments that force students to tell us what they understood from what we said.

Getting that kind of feedback from clickers or multiple choice items is tough.

It’s a whole lot easier (although not actually easy) to craft an informal writing prompt that reveals what students thought the teacher said.