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How Do We Know What They Know?

by Julie D. Ramsay
 | Oct 23, 2013
In today’s world, the topic of using technology in the classroom can be intimidating. In this monthly column, join one teacher on a quest to discover the best way to meet the needs of her digital-age learners…moving beyond the technology tools to focusing on supporting each student’s learning.

Testing. Assessment. Data-driven instruction. In the world of education, we are surrounded by mandates. It is unfortunate that in many cases, high-stakes testing drives what teachers are required to do in the classroom with their students. I’ve heard people say, “Testing is the name of the game in schools today.”

p: cwasteson via photopin cc

However, when you stop to think about it, one can’t help but wonder—are we getting the data that we need? Do we really know what our students are learning and where their gaps are?

Today’s students are savvy. They are masters of subterfuge. Because of the educational world in which they’ve been schooled, our learners have become adept at convincing us that they understand concepts and standards. Many of them have even become skilled enough to play “test.” How do we get to the heart of the matter and know what they know?

The Mystery
It is the practice in many schools and districts for teachers to be given common assessments to administer to their learners. As teachers, it is imperative that we really look at what those test are assessing. Is it truly assessing the standards that our students need to master? Are the questions equitable and free from personal interpretation? Do they accurately measure true growth? Chances are they are not.

Although we still administer those tests, we need to be sure that those tests are not the end of our data collection. As teachers, it is imperative that we take the time to look at each of our students. What does each learner need? How does each student learn? In what manner should students be able to demonstrate their learning? We need all of this data in order to provide the instructional support and challenge each student needs.

Overwhelm can quickly set in, whether we teach one class of students many different subjects, or we teach over one hundred different students each day. When you think about all of that information, it can be enough to send up the white flag of surrender. The good news is there are some very simple tools and strategies that can aid you in collecting all of these clues in order to solve the mystery of what each one of our student’s needs to learn.

Collecting Clues
Sometimes the simplest way to discover something about our students is just to ask them. When students understand that there is no judgment in the answers they give to your questions, but that you are just looking for better ways to educate them, you would be surprised at all they will tell you. This can be done in different ways. One way I gain insight into their thinking and perspective is just to give them open-ended prompts. Sometimes I ask my learners to explain what is going well in class and what changes in class would enhance their learning. Other times, I ask them to share their struggles.

Warning: Your students will be brutally honest. I have found that sometimes it is difficult to hear their evaluations. However, one thing that helps me maintain clarity is knowing that it is my job to facilitate their learning.

Sometimes I do these prompts as surveys on Google Drive. I set up a simple form for the students to complete as a starter or exit ticket. It takes very little class time yet yields great returns in pertinent information. All of the information is immediately saved in a spreadsheet for me to read at my convenience.

Instigating Investigation
Once we learn of students’ needs and help them set personal goals, we need to do formative checks along their learning journey. All of us are pressed for time in the classroom. These checks can be quick and simple, providing you with enough information to feed your instruction for the next day.

One of our favorite tools is TodaysMeet. This is a free online tool where you can open a chat room that lasts from hours to days to weeks to a year. No accounts are needed. If you have a guest speaker, conduct a demonstration, show a short video clip, or engage in a simulation, you need to know what your students are actually learning from that activity. Yes, those activities are enjoyable for everyone involved, but if they are taking valuable instructional time, they must also be relevant in moving students towards their learning goals.

Through TodaysMeet, every student has a voice as they discuss or backchannel, sharing their thoughts and ideas. As the teacher, you can follow the conversation in real time or go back later to review where there may be any misconceptions that need to be corrected. Because we have designed a supportive learning environment, students often correct one another’s misconceptions in the chat. It also provides students with a meaningful and authentic way to share and reflect upon their learning.

Another favorite tool of ours is Padlet, formerly called Wallwisher. I know that this tool may not be new to many educators, but it provides us with an opportunity to get quick and simple input from our students. Padlet is a digital wall where users can add posts of short bits of texts or embedded content. This is a fantastic way to have students do a diagnostic assessment of their understanding of a new standard. It can be revisited throughout a unit of study with students adding their new learning or questions they still have to the board.

I love that Padlet can also be embedded into our class wiki, blog, or website, giving the students and me an opportunity to easily access it from school, digital devices, or from home. Thanks to Padlet, I not only get important, easily-accessible data, there are no more Post-it notes falling off the chart, onto the floor, and sticking to the bottom of my shoes!

Another of our favorite tools for investigating each student’s depth of understanding is Poll Everywhere. Poll Everywhere enables users to actively engage in answering questions in different formats and provide real time results. The questions can be a poll, multiple choice, true-false or open-ended.  Responses can be given through cell phone texting or using online devices.

My learners love that they can use their devices to text answers. If your students don’t have devices at school, this can easily be done through classroom computers or Internet capable devices.  This is a great way to gather quick data on each of your students either at the beginning of class, in the middle of a lesson, or as an exit ticket.

We use the free version, which allows up to forty responses per poll. Since I teach multiple classes, I set up a different poll for each class. Creating a poll is very easy, so if you need to do a quick check to assess understanding, it will only take a few seconds.

Case Closed
As teachers, we know that for us to provide the best learning activities for our students, we must investigate for their strengths and weaknesses. Although this task can seem monstrous at times, by employing these few tools and practices, we’ll be on the road to solving the ongoing mystery of what our students know and what they need to know. Case closed.

Julie D. Ramsay: Plugged In

Julie D. Ramsay is a Nationally Board Certified educator and the author of “CAN WE SKIP LUNCH AND KEEP WRITING?”: COLLABORATING IN CLASS & ONLINE, GRADES 3-8 (Stenhouse, 2011). She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She also travels the country to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog at

© 2013 Julie D. Ramsay. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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