January/February 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 4

Continuous Assessment Through Questioning

Posted: Friday, April 8th, 2016

by Sue Campbell

At the beginning of my teaching career I believed that I could tell how well students understood the concepts I was teaching by their test scores. I equated tests with assessments and limited my view of assessments to tests or quizzes. Little did I know or understand how ineffective that view was! At some point I was introduced to formative assessments, which broadened my view of assessments considerably. Good formative assessments require that the students explain their thinking. Page Keeley’s Formative Assessment books published by NSTA are a good source. It was enlightening. It was also disconcerting to discover that some students could pass tests but when faced with a formative assessment, they could not explain their thinking or their reasoning was faulty.

Even though my view of assessments had been changing, it still focused on assessments happening at specific times. This notion changed when I took a class on questioning strategies to uncover student thinking. The following captures some of one student interview.

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“What causes this ball to go up and down?” I asked a sixth grade student as I tossed a tennis ball up in the air and then caught it several times. I was conducting an interview with a student for the class I was taking. The topic for this questioning session was gravity but I wasn’t allowed to use the term unless the student used it. The session was also being recorded for later reference. The female student, who I will call Sarah for the purpose of this article, quickly replied, “Gravity.”

“So gravity makes the ball go up and down,” I replied. I kept my voice and face neutral as I made my response even though I was concerned about her answer.

She paused for a moment and then said, “No. Gravity makes the ball come down. The force of your arm makes it go up.”

At this point in the interview although I was relieved that she didn’t think that gravity makes things go up, I kept my face and voice neutral as I rephrased her response to me. “So gravity makes the ball come down.” She nodded in agreement.

I am going to pause the interview here for a moment to ask a question. Does Sarah understand gravity? Internally I was feeling a sense of relief at this point in the interview. The assignment, however, called for some follow up questions to probe a little more so I pressed on.

“Tell me more about this thing you call gravity,” I said.

Sarah took the ball from me and began to explain gravity to me. “First,” she said, “as soon as the ball is up in the air, gravity pushes the air out from underneath it so it can fall back down.” She held the ball in one hand up high and used her other hand to produce a sweeping motion under the ball with the other hand.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Gravity also surrounds the ball,” she explained as she took one hand to cup the ball from the top, “and pushes down on it.”

The interview continued to explore Sarah’s many ideas about gravity and I learned some important lessons about questioning and assessment.

Lesson 1: Just because a student answers a question correctly doesn’t mean they understand the content or concept. When Sarah indicated that gravity causes things to come down, I could have, and probably would have, concluded that she had a simple, but correct understanding of gravity.

Lesson 2: Wait a moment and then ask students follow up questions after their responses. Asking a follow up question was a new idea to me then, but now it is routine. Simply asking the student to tell you a little more can reveal so much information. The idea behind waiting after a response and then asking a follow up question is explained in a small booklet, How to Ask the Right Questions by Patricia Blosser, and is downloadable as a PDF or for purchase as a hard copy or e-book from NSTA. Blosser refers to this as Wait Time 2.

Lesson 3: Push to have them express their understanding in their own words. I want students to use correct scientific and academic terms, but sometimes it can get in the way of knowing if they truly understand. Sometimes they have just memorized a correct answer, or we have been too quick to put a label on a concept before they completely understand. Recently when I visiting in another classroom, I asked a student to explain what had happened to the two balloons when they had been rubbed with another material. The student said, “They were attracted.” When I probed further to see if she knew what “attracted,” meant, she kept repeating herself. In a follow up conversation with the teacher who witnessed the conversation and described the lesson, we both concluded that the term at been introduced before the students had had the opportunity to simply describe what happened in their own words. It was a reminder to both of us to take the time for students to explain their thinking and then introduce the terminology.

Lesson 4: Craft some of your questions ahead of time. I know that we can’t plan all questions, but planning some of them beforehand will help ensure that they are open ended and not leading.

Lesson 5: Assessment should be continuous in your classroom and can be through questioning and listening. Continuous assessment through questioning will reveal student understanding and help you monitor and adjust your pace and sequence of a lesson.

It took time for me to build the habit of asking probing questions of my students but now I find that assessment through questioning is a continuous, daily learning process, which is a valuable tool for both my students and me.

Sue Campbell is the District STEM Coach for Livingston Union School District, and is CSTA’s Jr. High Director.

Written by Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell

Sue Campbell is the District STEM Coach for Livingston Union School District, and is CSTA’s Middle School/Jr. High Director.

4 Responses

  1. I so agree. Evaluation of whether or not they “get it” should be ongoing, every day. I would add using homework as a daily assessment. If it’s corrected in class, it can be passed in so that passing scores go into one in-box and not-passing scores go into the other. Then, asap, find out the reason behind the not-passing scores and figure out a fix. I personally don’t think homework should be part of the grade except to note that it was done. That way kids feel “safe” to fail because the homework will alert you to a problem so it can be rectified before the test – which does count – no ifs, ands, or buts.

    I’d also don’t recommend calling on students via the hand-raising method. When a question is asked, every student should be ready to answer. Call random students, Check off a student’s name when they’ve answered well, and try to get around to everyone as much as possible. If they clam up, WAIT. If a minute or two has gone by, coach them to figure out an appropriate response. But every student should know that they are responsible for demonstrating understanding 100% of the time, and if they can’t, you’re responsible for helping them.

  2. How do you do this kind of ongoing questioning with 32 students in a class? Diagnosing a student’s thinking and helping them to clarify their pre-conceptions takes concentrated time. Thinking aloud is a great way to learn but how can we focus on that many kids at once?

  3. Susan, good ideas. I use random calling using craft sticks with names on them, but names go back into the cup to be called again. I find that students tune out after their name is called if they know it won’t be again. Of course this can be manipulated a bit. After a student happens to be called upon a second time, I put it back in the cup with the name up and manage to not pull it again. Keeping all students accountable is important. If a student is stuck, you can give them some time as you suggest. I also allow them to confer with a partner or request assistance from someone, but they still have to answer.

  4. Lee, good questions. First I need to acknowledge that oral questioning can’t be the only means by which you can gather information about student thinking. Many of us have large classes of 32 or more and while it would be helpful to have individual conversations daily, it simply isn’t possible. I have ongoing questioning conversations in a couple of ways.

    The first is with the whole class. I usually do this through having partners discuss the original question before having students respond to the entire class. A frequently used strategy here is Think-Write-Pair-Share. Giving the students time to think about their ideas and writing them down before they start speaking increases participation and accountability. When students are sharing with each other, they write down their partner’s ideas. Often I have the students to come up with a shared answer based on their conversation and write that on their paper. While the students are sharing in groups I circulate around the room and listen in on their conversations. This provides me some indication of their thinking and can assist in planning some follow up questions. Following the time for partner sharing, I normally call on students randomly before I allow some volunteer responses. There are times that my random calling isn’t completely random because I overheard a conversation and for various reasons I want the idea shared in class or shared in a specific order. I don’t provide feedback which would indicate if their response was correct or not. I also ask them to tell us a bit more or explain their answer more. I collect their papers solely for the purpose of looking a little more closely to the individual responses.

    The second way is through small group conversations. This is not a structured as a whole class session. As I move around them room while students are working I stop and have conversations with them. My groups are usually three or four students. I have some questions in mind as I travel through the room, but I am also open to jumping off from whatever is happening at that moment in their group. This is especially true when they are involved in an investigation or engineering project.

    Over time my students have come to accept that I ask a lot of questions and that I will ask them to explain their thinking. They know that I am not going to give them the answers. They also know that when I ask them questions that I don’t want to know what a book or website said. I want to know what they think.

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