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How do you really know if you taught "it"?

This was originally posted on Assessment FOR Learning.

Note to teachers from Salem High School: This is a post about teaching, teachers, and students in general as opposed to a post about specific situations at Salem High School.

So after all the lesson plans have been created, all the class time has been spent, and all the papers have been graded, how do you really know if you've taught your content well?

I might get under some people's skin with this post, but I want to get us to really think about our profession and WHY we teach.

So what's the answer to the question of how we know if we have taught our content well? If we're really going to live up to our calling, we must answer it this way: We know we have taught our content well if all our students have learned it and their grades reflect this.

Let's clear up one misconception before it has a chance to grow - our job is not to make sure all students get good grades. Our job is, however, to make sure that all students learn our content. That's the whole point of being a teacher - to get students to learn. It's also our responsibility to grade in a way that reflects the amount of learning. So while good grades are not our focus, learning is. And when learning occurs, if we grade properly, good grades will follow.

Ok, let's clear up another misconception before we proceed - saying that it's our job to make sure that all our students have learned does not absolve students of their role in the learning process. Obviously poor decisions by our students will end up impacting the amount of learning that occurs. However, we cannot control their decision making. We can, though, control how we teach and how we grade. Therefore, if what we are doing is not leading to the mastery of content, and if our grades are not accurately reflecting the level of mastery reached by our students, then it is incumbent upon us to do something about it. There is no room in education for complacency. Our attitude must be that IF THEY HAVEN'T LEARNED IT, THEN WE HAVEN'T TAUGHT IT.

I remember taking Macro-economics in college. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that while the professor may have "known his stuff", he was an absolutely lousy teacher. There must have been about 400 students in the class. I was only taking the class Pass/Fail. I really felt bad for my classmates as I looked at the posted grades after each test we took. I remember earning a 60 on the mid-term and having it curved to a B+. I really didn't care since it was Pass/Fail, but I remember thinking what a joke it was to say that this person was teaching. Obviously many of the students - myself included - were not putting the amount of effort into the class that we should, but how could that professor be satisfied with himself knowing that almost none of his 400 students were mastering the content in his course?

I envisioned this professor sitting with his colleagues in the departmental office complaining about "college students these days". While I wasn't around in his day, I really doubt there ever was a time when college students enjoyed boring lectures, no descriptive feedback, and undecipherable tests. We didn't learn it, and he didn't teach it.

So what is an appropriate level of failure for your students? Should you be satisfied if 70% master your content? 80%? 90%? While it's important to keep a certain level of reality mixed in with your idealism so that you don't go crazy, WE MUST HAVE THE ATTITUDE THAT WE ARE GOING TO STRIVE FOR 100% MASTERY. Notice I said strive. This means we will not be complacent. We will continue to tweak, change, try, experiment, etc. to always try and bring more students to mastery level.

This is where Assessment FOR Learning has it's greatest power. To some degree, it saddens me when teachers have difficulty incorporating - or worse, don't try to incorporate - an AFL philosophy into their teaching. The reason is because an AFL philosophy will lead to greater content mastery. To not incorporate AFL strategies into one's teaching is to be satisfied with the fact that you're not doing the best that you can to teach your students. Let me give an example of what I mean:

If you "teach" content and then give a summative assessment (a traditional test, for example) without lots of assessment along the way, you know what will happen. The students who are very dedicated workers and/or the students who can sit in class and "get it" will do very well on the test. The students who do little to no work outside of class or who can't just sit in class and "get it" will do very poorly. Another group of students will score somewhere in between. For years, teachers have satisfied themselves with this outcome by "blaming students". In other words, because some students almost always do well, the teacher convinces himself or herself that all students could have done well if they had either worked harder, paid more attention, or were more academically gifted. The teacher "knows" he or she taught the content because SOME students have mastered the content. This is a convenient defense strategy for teachers as it absolves teachers of the responsibility of making sure that students learn. YES, students have a role in it (as stated earlier), but we can't control all of their decisions. We CAN control how we teach, though.

The scenario in the above paragraph is very common in schools. Essentially, it is being satisfied with the bell curve of life. As educators, we have the privilege of smashing the bell curve. We have the opportunity to be the "difference-maker" in a kid's life. Too often this opportunity is squandered as we sell short our ability to alter the outcome of a student's learning. AFL - formative assessment - can be a powerful tool in our attempt to maximize that opportunity. And it really doesn't require much additional work on our part.

Take the example from 2 paragraphs above. If instead of "teaching" and then giving a summative assessment, the teacher would instead assess EVERYDAY, then an incredible difference could be made in the typical bell curve outcome. For example:
  • If everyday the students left class knowing what they know and being aware of what they have not yet mastered - this happens because of specific classroom assessment activities led by the teacher - then students will perform better on the summative assessment. Have you ever experienced a situation as a student where you thought you knew what was going on until you took the test? You studied, and you thought you understood the content. Then you took the test and realized you didn't know it at all. This is all too common - but it shouldn't be. If this is happening to students in your class then you need to apply more AFL strategies. This is a clear sign that you need to provide activities that require your students to assess themselves throughout the learning process so that they are acutely aware of how well they're doing and what they need to do to prepare for the summative test.
  • If students were quizzed/tested/assessed repeatedly leading up to the summative assessment, then the summative assessment would not catch them by surprise. Do you ever hear your students complain that they understood the content but were surprised by the types of questions on the summative test? Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence as well. It's a clear sign that a teacher has not employed an AFL philosophy. AFL is about using assessment FOR learning. Teaching and then giving a summative assessment only is AFG - Assessment FOR Grading. It's using assessment to find out how much people know. While this has to happen eventually - there is nothing wrong with a summative assessment - it does little to help the learning process. If students are assessed regularly - DAILY - then the feedback from the assessments will actually help them learn - thus the name, Assessment FOR Learning.
Let's clear up 2 more misconceptions:
  1. But what about students who still refuse to work? They could still come into class completely unprepared and fail the assessment? Of course. But they are also the outliers. Let's focus on the majority of students - the ones who do what we ask. Let's not use a good strategy just because a few students continue to make bad decisions. HOWEVER, I would contend that those poor decision-making students would learn more if they were assessed daily and provided with opportunities to assess themselves - even if they didn't work hard outside of class.
  2. But what about rigor? Shouldn't a rigorous class by its very nature lead to a bell curve of sorts? The rigor in a class should not be demonstrated by the student grades that result. The rigor of the class is inherent in the difficulty of the content. However, assuming that the students who are in the class have been properly prepared and have academic strengths on par for the class, then there is no reason that students shouldn't enjoy great success in a rigorous course. Our job as teachers is to get students to learn. That is no less true in a rigorous class than it is in a "general level" course. Unfortunately, it is common for teachers in rigorous classes to feel that the rigor of the course justifies the lack of success of some students. Again - grades aren't the goal. Learning is. But if AFL strategies can lead to students in rigorous courses getting higher grades that are reflective of increased learning, then how could we not employ those strategies?
So, how do you know if you've taught your content? You know it if your students have learned it. And AFL strategies will help increase that learning - which is, after all, WHY we teach.

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