Monday, January 4, 2010

Does everyone get it now?

Traditionally, when I'd finish up on a lecture, a unit, a something, I'd address the class with a generic question like, "Are there any other questions?" or "Anybody still need help?"

Here's the thing. I'm not actually asking those questions and waiting for an answer. My students and I have entered into an implicit agreement that when I ask a question like that, silence is the only correct response. If they're silent, I get to move on and they get to see something new. Clearly, it works out for everyone.

Unless by "works out" you mean "students actually learn something." If that's the case, my traditional method sucks.

Ignore the fact that students don't like revealing their ignorance to their peers, especially as teenagers. Also, ignore the fact that my question is so broad that clearly everyone should have a question about something. The real problem is that I waited all the way until the end of whatever I'm doing to figure out if my students know what's going on.

The old me would just teach through and try to fix the problem at the end of the assembly line. The new me designs in hinge points (edit: Ok, they're actually called Choice Points, which is an excellent blog name btw).

The term hinge points is used in a number of ways in education. John Hattie in Visible Learning uses that term to specify at what point an educational innovation would have a discernible affect of educational outcomes. For his purposes, an effect size of d = 0.4 is his hinge point.

I'm referring to hinge points as it refers to formative assessment. I first came across this idea in an article by James Popham. I only have a dead tree version so I'll point you to a pretty interesting book by him that also mentions them.

Pretend you're driving somewhere, perhaps to school. You have two routes you can go. You get to the intersection and each day, depending on the traffic, you decide whether to turn left or right. This is what hinge points are. They're stopping points you design into your day/week/month/year. You perform an assessment and the results determine the route you take next.

We are all familiar with reteaching after everyone bombs a test. By designing hinge points in to your day you can avoid that. Instead of fixing problems at the end of the assembly line, you're fixing as you go.

I think we're all familiar with adjusting the instruction the next day based on exit slips or the results of in class practice. That's pretty easy.

What about hinge points in the middle of class? This is a little tougher but something I've been working on.

Let's say I'm teaching a new concept in class, like the structure of atoms. The first twenty minutes of class we've been working on the idea that most of the mass is located in the nucleus. Ahead of time, I've designed in a question to determine how well my students understand that idea. I've also pre-determined what percentage of the class needs to get it right for me to move on. That percentage depends on the importance of the concept for learning whatever is next. If you're outta luck without it, then I might decide 80% of the class needs to get the question right. If you can muddle through and the next concept might help you understand the first, I might say only 20% need to get it.

In this case, because it's pretty early I'm only looking for surface understanding. So I put up a multiple choice question that says something like, "Which action would change the mass of an atom the most?"

Using whatever response system you prefer, determine the percent of the class that got it right.

In the world of Keynote/Powerpoint you can easily change up what happens next. You can either go to slide 10 and try to reteach this idea in a different way or skip to slide 20 and continue on to whatever is next. Of course if you're feeling saucy you can plan separate activities depending on the results.

You're making adjustments as you go. Going back to the driving analogy. Our old way of teaching is like getting directions and following them regardless of where it takes you when you're driving. When the directions are finished, then you figure out where you are and make corrections. Now, you're constantly making adjustments based on what's happening as you drive.

Three key points to remember:

1. Design them in.
2. Decide ahead of time what percentage of the class needs to get it for you to move on.
3. Try to use hinge points during class, not just between classes.

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