Effective teachers do more than test students. They constantly monitor and collect evidence of student understanding. Research on successful schools indicates that one hallmark of those schools is that teachers use assessment to focus on student learning. They make sure that students know what they are expected to know and design assessments to measure what students should know. Teachers use a whole range of assessment strategies, including informal means to check for student understanding (such as questioning, interpreting body language, and listening to the questions students ask) as well as more formal approaches such as testing. Both formative and summative assessment methods are employed, the former providing important feedback on the learning process for teachers and students and the latter offering comparative scores on the mastery of specific information.
Assessments are commonly used to evaluate a student’s progress in learning new skills and knowledge. An assessment is “a formal attempt to determine students’ status with respect to educational variables of interest”. A broader perspective on assessment defines it as “the process of collecting, synthesizing, and interpreting information to aid in classroom decision-making”. The first definition focuses on assessment as a product, the second emphasizes assessment as a process. In fact, assessment should be a combination of both and should be tightly linked to instruction. Instruction and assessment are related in the following ways:
- Directing instruction toward desired outcomes and the assessment of those outcomes;
- Aligning instructional strategies and how they are assessed;
- Differentiating instruction based on students’ needs;
- Using data-based decision making to guide teaching, inform assessment design, and review student performance on key knowledge and skills;
- Keeping students informed of their progress; and targeting areas of strength and weakness to provide appropriate remediation.
Assessment is not merely giving grades. Rather, assessment provides feedback on how effective a teacher’s instruction was in effecting student learning. It should serve as both guideposts along the path as well as endposts to instruction.
Monitoring student progress means that effective teachers continually interact with students to track student learning and adjust instruction as appropriate to meet student needs. Just as a physician tells patients their blood pressure and pulse rate, teachers keep students informed of their achievement. By knowing how the teacher perceives their acquisition of knowledge and skills, students can better respond to meet stated expectations. Families and other school personnel also need to be informed of students’ progress and potential. Effective teacher research on this quality focuses on:
- Homework. Not only assigning homework but also providing feedback on it is a hallmark of effective teachers
- Monitoring Student Progress. Effective teachers align their objectives, instruction, and assessments so that they can effectively facilitate student acquisition of knowledge and skills.
- Responding to Student Needs and Abilities. Differentiation does not occur just during instruction; it also influences assessment in terms of what types are used to measure student learning for different types of knowledge and skills or different levels of students.
Making sure students and their families know homework expectations is beneficial to its successful completion. While teachers assign the homework, it is ultimately left up to the student and parent to decide when and where to complete it. One study with elementary students found parent involvement in homework to be predictive of students’ grades. For young students, parents can support their child in developing “good homework” habits, but teachers should not rely on parents to teach skills and content. Homework needs to be an assignment that students can complete independently and that is appropriate for being done outside the schoolroom. Additionally, not all students have a supportive home environment for homework and teachers may need to suggest other options to students such as libraries, homework clubs, youth centers, and afterschool study halls or learning centers.
From classroom work to homework, effective teachers ensure that student work reflects what is taught in the class. These teachers carefully monitor learning activities to ensure that the tasks match the learning objectives and desired instructional outcomes. Homework may be used to reinforce a concept from the lesson, facilitate exploration of a related concept, or examine a topic in greater depth. Each of these purposes for homework presumes that the assignment is meaningful and supportive of the selected curriculum. A positive relationship has been found between students’ grades and the amount of homework they do. However, it was not the mere completion of homework that enhanced grades, but rather the greater understanding of the material that resulted from completing the homework that made the difference. Effective teachers monitor student learning by checking homework and using it as a formative assessment to enhance student mastery of content material.
Sometimes teachers find themselves in an endless boring routine when it comes to assigning homework. Consider for a moment how often the following events occur:
- ▲ math teachers assign practice problems;
- ▲ English teachers assign grammar exercises;
- ▲ history teachers assign chapters to read;
- ▲ science teachers assign vocabulary to define;
- ▲ physical education teachers do not assign homework;
- ▲ art teachers assign drawings; and
- ▲ _____________ (you) assign _______________ (fill in your own).
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these assignments. Yet, homework can also be an opportunity for students to enhance their knowledge and skills through less traditional assignments. Physical education students, for example, could be assigned active homework such as engaging in physical activity outside of gym class and keeping a log of the activity and the time they spent doing it. Modern technology even allows students to track their activity using special watches or bracelets. Students could watch a political debate and participate in follow-up activities the next school day by discussing the political issues in history class and the use of persuasive speech in English class. Mathematics teachers working on area and perimeter in geometry could assign students to rearrange their rooms on graph paper. Service learning projects and academic challenges could be offered to students for more extended learning opportunities. The list of possibilities is limited only by our imagination.
Homework is also an opportunity for teachers to provide targeted feedback to students on their performance. Teachers may do this by using a rubric, in-class feedback, written comments, etc. These methods give students feedback that can be used to improve their performance in contrast to simply using a grade or a check mark that only conveys a judgment. The quality of the work produced by students should be used to determine how well students have learned the material and what difficulties or misunderstandings need to be addressed. By examining homework, teachers can gain valuable information about students and can also provide useful formative feedback to students.
Monitoring Student Progress
In many respects, the assessment process begins with instructional planning. Effective teachers define goals for their learners and monitor student progress towards those goals. The intended learning outcomes may be set externally (by state standards, for example) but the effective teacher takes those goals and defines a path for students to follow in reaching the desired outcomes.
To monitor student progress, teachers must determine not only what their instructional goals are but also where students are relative to those goals. Teachers also need to understand the knowledge base and skill set of each student in order to set a realistic course for achieving goals. Teachers must be aware of the prerequisite skills needed to make progress and must be patient in letting students attain one level of skill or knowledge development before advancing to the next step. Effective educators know their content area well and make every effort to present material in a manner that students can access and make their own. They use teacher-developed classroom assessment as part of the instructional process, resulting in more targeted instruction and higher levels of student performance when compared to students who are not so frequently assessed. Along the way, the teacher continues to monitor and adjust instruction to facilitate student acquisition of the defined goals using a variety of assignments and observations.
The role of quality feedback about student performance is substantial. Effective teachers focus on providing feedback to students that enables the student to grow in knowledge and skills. Feedback is not limited to assessments on work submitted by students; rather, it includes the verbal and nonverbal exchanges that occur in the classroom. Effective teachers continuously check for student understanding during the lesson and adjust based on their observations and reactions from students. Quality feedback provides students with information about their progress on the intended learning outcomes. Feedback is part of the ongoing dialogue between the teacher and the learner that informs both parties on the degree to which the intended learning outcomes have been attained. Effective teachers give regular feedback and reinforcement.
Effective teachers are aware of the feedback they are giving and avoid showing preference to a particular student group. Teachers work with students to help them determine what was done incorrectly and offer suggestions on how to improve so that the student is more successful in future attempts. Effective educators know that specific feedback offered in a timely manner increases student achievement. When assessment is an interactive and constructive process between teachers and their students, student learning is enhanced.
Both formative and summative assessments offer opportunities for teachers to reflect on the effectiveness of their instruction and student learning. Formative assessments offer information about student learning during the instructional process while summative assessments are typically used at the end of the learning process. Analysis of both types of assessment can be particularly useful in setting future instructional goals. While traditionally there has been a heavier emphasis on summative assessment in education, it is the use of formative evaluation to inform instructional decision making that enhances student learning most dramatically.
Responding to Student Needs and Abilities
Every classroom is filled with students whose learning styles, needs, strengths, and abilities differ. Effective teachers do not see the class as one group assigned to a particular room, but rather as individuals. After all, classes don’t learn, students do — one person at a time. Educators need to consider how best to support each student’s success. For some students, there may already be suggestions and support structures in place through Individual Education Plans. These plans require teachers to make appropriate and specific accommodations for student learning. Sometimes a parent or student will mention a specific need (that a student is easily distracted and would benefit from a desk on an aisle, for example). Effective teachers adeptly address student needs and differentiate assignments for students at a higher rate than their ineffective counterparts. Teachers learn how to make these accommodations from prior experiences, print and electronic resources, classes, and professional development offerings. For example, mathematics teachers who had a professional development course in working with students with disabilities learned to adapt their teaching in such a way that their students achieved at higher level than their peers. Differentiation is a means of optimizing education by making learning experiences engaging and meaningful for all types of learners through the modification of the learning environment, instructional strategies, assignments, materials, and assessments.
Differentiated instruction involves providing a variety of approaches and structures for learning. Creating positive classroom environments to support differentiation requires professional expertise, high expectations, connecting ideas and kids, energy, humor, and joy. The teacher is a learner in this environment, identifying what is important in the subject matter, focusing on the goals of student growth and success, building on students’ strengths, and considering the what, how, and why of learning. Differentiation involves choices for students in terms of learning activities, special projects, and assessments. It also means accommodations for children with specific needs. Some students merely require subtle accommodations in what the teacher already is doing to be successful. For example, a student with fine motor control problems may need to have copies of the notes provided by the teacher or a classmate. Likewise, this student may need to tape record, dictate, or word process responses to essay questions as opposed to writing them freehand. Other accommodations need more planning and preparation on the part of the teacher, such as a student who must have all readings and handouts in Braille. Often, this means that teachers need to plan at least two weeks out to ensure that the Braille translator has the necessary materials ready in time. Differentiation can be done through the use of instructional strategies such as curriculum compacting, tiered activities, and cooperative learning. Responding to students’ needs does not mean that all instruction is differentiated, but it does mean that the teacher needs to stretch students by using a combination of approaches that mix traditional methods with new approaches. In responding to student’s needs and abilities, the responsive teacher is aware of the learner’s preferences and considers students’ needs and abilities in the planning, execution, and assessment of instruction.