Monday, September 8, 2014

Day 10: On Testing and Feedback

"What is the purpose of this test?"

I am becoming a firm believer that every teacher NEEDS to ask themselves this question before every test or quiz.  Doctors run tests to determine the state of health of their patient.  They use the results of that test to form a plan to improve that state, either through diet, exercise, medicine, or therapy.

I want my tests and quizzes to serve the same purpose as tests in the medical or scientific domains.  I want my tests and quizzes to be a diagnosis of mathematical skill and knowledge.

I don't ever want my tests or quizzes to be a punishment.  I don't want them to be a vehicle for my students to feel poorly about themselves, or about math.

Math is portrayed as the enemy in TV and movies all the time!  In The Neverending Story, when Bastian is late to school, he decides that it would be better to hide in the school attic for an entire day than to go to class and take a math test.
"Math test! Oh no....!"

In a perfect world, I want my students to be excited about tests and quizzes.  I want them to think "Awesome! A chance to show off what I know!" or, even better, "Awesome! A chance to demonstrate my productive struggle!"

In my current reality, I would like my students to see tests as a road map for their next steps.  When I hand the test out, I want the students to say "Awesome! A chance to know where I am!"

That will never happen with the traditional way that I've been grading my tests and quizzes.  Students, especially ones in lower-level classes, have a tendency to look at the grade and throw the test away, never to think of it again.  With traditional grading of tests, there's no need to look at it again.  The scores indicate one of three things.

1) A or B: You know most of the stuff. Keep up the good work.
2) C or D: You don't know enough stuff. Study more.
3) F: You know nothing. Give up. Go play in traffic.

I believe that these grades and lack of meaningful feedback are what lead many students (and the people) to the idea that they are "bad at math."

And so I am changing how I grade my tests.

My district "strongly encourages" the use of multiple choice tests to "prepare them for the standardized testing that they will receive."  I don't disagree with this, but just because I'm giving multiple choice tests, doesn't mean I have to give binary feedback.

When a student gets a test back with items marked right or wrong and nothing else, they learn nothing except which problems they got right or wrong.

I am no expert at giving meaningful feedback, but I would like to be.  To this end, I came up with a tw-part plan.

Part 1: I spent an absurd amount of time grading my 21 questions quizzes.  Instead of just marking the answers right or wrong, I did something else.

On the questions that were right, I left smiley faces!

On the ones that weren't, I tried to see why the student got the answer and left them encouraging comments on their strategies as well as hints on where they made their mistakes.

 Part 2: Today's assignment was to take the feedback that I gave and correct the mistakes.  I didn't just want corrections though, so for each problem, they needed to write two lines explaining why they got the questions wrong ("What was my mistake?") and then give them correct answer while showing all of their work.

A large portion of the students did not use this time wisely.  They looked at it as an opportunity to sit and talk about the weekend.  When I asked them about their work, the typical reply was "I don't know what I did wrong."  It took much of my patience and questioning abilities to keep them on track.  I will admit that I didn't put as much into this as I could have or should have.  I allowed myself to think "these are the choices they are making. I can encourage them to work, but I can't force them."

I fully believe in the efficacy of this tactic over time.  Even if the majority of the students didn't do the revisions well, it was the first time that they were asked to complete such a task.  They were given a good amount of freedom and responsibility and many did not use it well, but it was their choice.  Tomorrow, we are going to talk about how those choices impact their knowledge and grades.

I believe that as I get better at providing them feedback, they will be better at knowing what I'm looking for and expecting of them.  Hopefully, that will translate to knowing what they should expect of themselves.

I have to keep reminding myself of my purpose here.  I have to remind myself that they don't automatically know what I want them to do and how I want them to do it.  I have to remember that it will take time.

I also have to remember that if I want them to improve with their work, I need to improve with my feedback.  I'm not sure how to do it since I'm incredibly lazy and this takes an insane amount of time, but I think it's worth it.  I'm asking them to do something that they've never done before.  And my asking is something that I'VE never done before.

I'm looking forward to learning with them.


  1. Heyyyyyyyyy I'm back!!!! So look you are bored and I get it I mean I am too so...find a way not to be. You are a very, er, high energy person and part of the reason you were such a memorable teacher last year was because you were trying something new too. Learning with us. So. Learn something new.

    1. Thank you. This is incredibly good advice. Thank you!

  2. I wonder if asking the students to figure out where they went wrong for all their mistakes is too overwhelming. Maybe asking them to choose one or two would feel more doable. They'd still have to look at many of them to figure which would be the easiest to correct so you'll have them thinking about it.

  3. I like that idea. What if they each were only responsible for one, but had to present it to the class?

    1. This is a great idea! I want them to be doing more presenting anyway!

  4. Dude, you and Michael Pershan should write a book or host a Global Math Department or give each other high fives on Twitter or something for writing so much about how to give meaningful feedback on routine quizzes. Between the 2 of you I imagine you'll have this nailed by January.

    It looks like the hive mind agrees that giving back all the wrongs and rights at once might be overwhelming.

    I have a slightly different suggestion with the goal of 1) saving you time and 2) helping the kiddos learn a new thing.

    Suggestion: read the quizzes. Think about them. Write down what you need to write down for yourself about how each person did or how the class did or whatever. Maybe make copies so you can give them more feedback on this same quiz later. Then for each kid pick two problems and highlight them. Highlight one they got right and one they got wrong. Use different colors. Tell them, "for the yellow one, there was something I really liked about your thinking. Write me 2 sentences about your thinking about that problem so I can bask in your brilliance and share it with others." Tell them, "for the orange one, I specifically highlighted something that I think if you go think about it again, you might want to change, add, or revise something. For some of you I wrote a note, too. For that one, revise your thinking and write me 1 sentence saying if my highlighting/note was helpful to you and why or why not."

    That gives every kid something they can do, and it's worthwhile.

    If the 2 sentences you get are good, you can use them to make a student generated answer key and they can check and revise their own quizzes the next day if they want to see "what they got". There's no rule that says you have to be the one to tell them which are right and which are wrong!

    1. I love this suggestion. I should try it on some quizzes in my class. Thanks, Max!

  5. I think getting the kids to recognise and communicate their own mistakes is an awesome idea. It's so much more meaningful if students can figure out for themselves where they went wrong (by talking to friends, looking through their notes...) then to just have it written on the test in front of them. And hopefully it will stick more so they remember not to do it next time.
    I agree though that it could be overwhelming if a student did really poorly, and that highlighting a few questions that they could really learn from would help overcome that.
    I'm definitely using this next week when my seniors get their exams back!

  6. Max is onto something, in terms of making things more digestible for students. Another (radical?) possibility is this idea that I proposed to a teacher a couple of years ago. Instead of leaving them room to write IDK (and I mean cultural room, not physical room), set the expectation that they write some ideas for every question. For every one for which they write nothing, it's negative points. Seriously. Naturally, you will want to have practiced in class what one might do when one has no idea. Like notice and wonder, or write a few things they are pretty sure are true. But make it clear that you believe that everyone has ideas about every problem. And give them ideas about how to share some of those ideas.

    (The teacher I proposed this to loved it, but since he was required to give students a 60 for any paper they turned in - not kidding - he was pretty sure it wouldn't fly in the school.)


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