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6 Tools for Assessing Learning from a Distance 

Anyone who has been teaching remotely knows that there are parentswell-intended parentswho are over-helping. And by over-helping, we mean telling students answers and doing the work for students. When parents do so, teachers are not sure if students have learned what they need to learn. In addition to parent over-helping, students are searching the Internet for answers so that they can respond to questions. Learning to search the Internet is an important skill, especially when combined with analyzing the quality and trustworthiness of the source. But searching to find answers to quiz questions does not allow teachers to know if students are learning. How do we know students are learning in remote, blended, simultaneous, online, hybrid, or hy-flex classrooms? The short answer is this: we need to update our assessment toolkit. 

There are a number of ways that teachers are innovating to ensure that they know what students have, and have not, learned so that they can adjust instruction accordingly. Some of these approaches have their roots in physical school but can be harnessed in a way that is compatible with how schools are currently organized. We’ll focus on a few of these that have potential to inform teachers about their instructional impact. 

Tool #1: Retellings 

There is a long history of inviting students to retell information to see what stuck and where misconceptions lie. In physical school, it’s hard to have all the students retell what they have learned, heard, read, or viewed because we run out of class time. But in distance learning, students can record their retellings and share them with the teacher. There are several tools that allow for this (e.g., SeeSaw, Flipgrid). When students understand the expectation of the retelling, meaning that it has been modeled and taught to them, they can use the quality indicators or success criteria to retell for their teacher (or their whole class). When you listen to a retelling, it’s easy to see when parents are coaching or when students are reading information from another source. When you analyze retellings, you’ll identify trends in terms of what stuck with students and what they still need to learn. You’ll also be able to identify individual strengths and needs. 

Tool #2: Teach-backs 

Teaching another that which you have learned is a powerful experience for learning, in and of itself. When you teach another, you have the chance to learn twice. In addition, when teach-backs are recorded, educators can listen for content that has been mastered and areas of misconceptions. Students can be invited to teach their peers or their family members. As with retellings, there are a number of video tools useful in capturing these sessions that allow teachers to monitor progress and make instructional decisions. In addition, students can teach others in breakout rooms or in other collaborative learning situations. The key is to capture the lesson for later analysis of learning. 

Tool #3: Interactive Videos 

Videos that require students to interact with the content are good for learning as well as for assessment of understanding. There are several tools that allow teachers to easily create their own interactive videos (e.g., PlayPosit, EdPuzzle, Nearpod, Canvas Studio). The key is to generate questions that you then embed into the video so that students must respond as they watch the video. Most of these systems provide analytics for educators that tell you where students struggled and where greater understanding occurred. To improve engagement and learning, we recommend frequent, low-stakes assessments, which can easily be accomplished as students watch a short video and respond to a series of embedded questions. 

Tool #4: Know/Show Charts 

A tool that requires composing and allows for much more individualized expression of understanding is a know/show chart. This is a simple t-chart. The left column is reserved for all of the things that the student knows based on the success criteria. The right column is a list of ways that the student can show what they know. Often students have several ways that they can show what they know and have learnedAs the teacher, you can read through the class set of the “know” columns to see what has stuck and determine if there are gaps in understanding.  And you can invite students to produce some of the items in the show column.   

Tool #5: Error Analysis 

Identifying errors in thinking and understanding is often the responsibility of the teacher. But imagine giving students an assessment—perhaps a test or an essaythat has already been completed. Rather than doing the assessment, their task is to review the work as it has been presentedidentify any errors, and determine a reason that each error occurred. This type of assessment moves students beyond procedural understanding into deeper conceptual thinking and allows teachers to identify students’ error detection skills. 

Tool #6: Self-assessment 

The new formats of schooling can provide us an opportunity to shift assessment responsibilities to students. Imagine if teachers provided tools for students to self-assess their progress and then teachers worked to confirm those assessments. The conversations that students and teachers could have might change such that students are seeking feedback and monitoring their own progress. Teachers would not be in the position of always judging performance but rather looking for confirmation of understanding and identifying areas of continued growth.  One self-assessment tool that has been useful is a single point rubric. When students understand the components of a single point rubric, they can identify areas that are strengths (glows) as well as areas that they need to focus on (grows). As they self-assess, their teachers can review to see where they agree and where they need to talk further.   

Effective Assessment Requires Engagement and Trust 

There are a number of tools useful in assessing learning. In the current reality of schools, we need to reduce the odds that students are taking shortcuts in an effort to please their teachers and instead ensure they are allowing us inside their understanding so that we can guide their learning further. This takes trust between students and their teachers, as well as tools that require students to engage with the task. These six examples have the potential to shine a light on understanding in ways that some of our more traditional tools do not. 

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. He is also the author of PLC+, The PLC+ Playbook, This is Balanced Literacy, The Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12, Teaching Literacy in the Visible Learning Classroom for Grades K-5 and 6-12, Visible Learning for Mathematics, Grades K-12The Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbook and several other Corwin books.  Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California. She has been a prominent Corwin author, publishing numerous books including PLC+The PLC+ PlaybookThis is Balanced LiteracyThe Teacher Clarity Playbook, Grades K-12Engagement by DesignRigorous Reading, Texas EditionThe Teacher Credibility and Collective Efficacy Playbookand many more.  To view Doug and Nancy’s books and services, please visit Fisher and Frey Professional Learning. 

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