Letting Students Grapple: Formative Assessment

Editor’s Note: Math teachers across the country are learning about the power of formative assessment in their classrooms. In this video series, we bring you an opportunity to see formative assessment in action, with the help of math consultant Ann Shannon and resources from the Mathematics Assessment Project (MAP). Ann provided the initial training for teachers in Kentucky’s Kenton County on how to implement MAP and frameworks from the Math Design Collaborative. She observed teachers in the classroom, gave real-time feedback, helped facilitate the after school meetings to analyze student work, and helped build capacity in the district so that the work would be sustainable.

As teachers, sometimes we talk too much. We might do more of the telling, and have kids do less of the doing. Personally, I’ve always been someone who loves explaining things to people, so as a teacher this was an easy trap to fall into. I might get halfway through a unit of study, sense that my students are struggling, and decide that the best way to solve their misconceptions was to talk even more. Telling them what to do seemed easier, faster, and more direct. But in fact, that was my own misconception! Sometimes, the best way to help our students is to subtly guide them through their own struggles.

In our series Engaging Students with Productive Struggles, we took you inside two middle school math classrooms that are using formative assessment to do just that. We saw seventh graders deepening their understanding of proportional relationships, and eighth graders tackling the work of linear equations. Now in this new set of videos, we visit Meghan Mekita’s geometry classroom to watch her tenth graders deepen their understanding of transformations.

In these four videos, you’ll see Meghan’s students engaging in a formative assessment lesson that addresses their misconceptions and moves them forward in their learning.

In Understanding Transformations, you’ll notice that Meghan begins with a mini lesson that includes teacher modeling and student practice, followed by a pre-lesson assessment that gives her students time to grapple. She reviews the student work with her colleagues, checks for misconceptions, and plans for the next lesson. This collaborative review of the work is a powerful part of her process.

For more on teacher collaboration during formative assessment lessons, check out this blog.

In Common Issues with Transformations, Meghan releases the responsibility of learning to her students by doing much less talking, and much more guiding and observing. Students work collaboratively on a challenging task, learning from their own struggles and with the help of their peers. You’ll see how the formative assessment lesson encourages Common Core Mathematical Practices, especially MP.1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. To get an even closer look at Meghan’s students collaboratively working through math, be sure to check out the video Collaborative Work with Transformations, which closely follows one group of students.

Finally, in Deepening Understanding of Transformations, we see Meghan and her colleagues review the student work from the post assessment. Meghan sees the true power of letting the students struggle through the work when she realizes how far each student has come in their learning.

By the end of these lessons, Meghan’s students have shown what they’re capable of accomplishing when given the opportunity to work through tough tasks and explain their thinking. Check out Meghan’s blog to read more about how she uses these formative assessment lessons to find and address students’ misconceptions, as well as how she gets her students to do more of the talking.

How do you encourage students to grapple with a concept? Watch the videos and share your own ideas in the comments section below.

Gretchen Vierstra taught middle school for ten years in the San Francisco Bay Area. During her 15+ years in education, she’s also been a department chair, new teacher coach, curriculum developer, and policy analyst. She is an Education Content Manager at Teaching Channel.

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