A Formative Assessment Strategy for Essays

It’s enough to drive you insane. You provide students with copious notes on their rough drafts and essays. They make some revisions, but ugh…it takes for-EV-er to work through them.   

I worked out a strategy that helped me formatively assess essays so that it not only saved me time, but it also put the “workload” on the student. Don’t sit there and mark up the whole paper! Have the student systematically work through revisions! 

The general method is to assess in terms of existence of a category (Is there a thesis?) to evaluating the quality of the writing in that category (How effective is the conclusion?)  Whatever issue you find that is at the “top” of the prioritization of categories is what the student will work on.
I’ve created this INTERACTIVE TOOL to help you train your brain to prioritize writing issues. Think of it like…an interactive flowchart. 

Yes, there will be a lot of back and forth between you and the student as you wait for him/her to submit a revision. Consider, though, that the review of each essay will most likely move from 15-30 minutes per essay to about 2 minutes per because you’re only identifying and focusing on the most pressing issue. The more you work with the strategy and get used to the prioritization of categories, the faster you’ll get. That “back and forth” is also they key to helping students write more effectively.

You’ll notice, once you’re working with it, that you don’t deal with any grammar, mechanics, or usage errors (lower-order concerns) until AFTER the student’s higher-order concerns are in-place. Here’s why:
Students tend to find errors when they go back to revise other things.

Of course, that’s not always the case, but generally speaking, students will “see” things once they’ve had a respite from working on the writing. Thus, you will have given them more opportunities to correct those issues on their own. It also takes a little bit of the stress away from writing, allowing them an opportunity to focus on their thinking before dealing with issues of correctness.

Let me know what you think of this FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT TOOL FOR ESSAYS and the strategy! I’d love your feedback! Feel free to share it as you wish—we’re all in this together!


Why you Might not be Teaching FOR or WITH Critical Thinking

I surveyed fifty teachers (mixed grade levels) with the question:  
 Are you familiar with the Universal Intellectual Standards?  

Here's what they said:
  • 42 out of 50:  I've never heard of them.
  • 7 out of 50:   We did something with those in my university courses, but not much else.
  • 1 out of 50:   Yes, I am familiar with them, but I don't explicitly teach or refer to them in my professional  setting.
  • 0 out of 50:   Yes, and I use them as the basis for my planning and practice.
  • 0 out of 50:   Yes, and I use them as the basis for my planning and practice as well as teach them to students/share them with others in my professional setting.
So what's the big deal with those Universal Intellectual Standards?

These standards must be applied to our thinking whenever we're "interested in checking the QUALITY of reasoning about a problem, issue, or situation. To think critically entails having command of these standards"[emphasis added] (Paul & Elder, 2013).

If we don't know what they are, we may or may not be teaching with critical thinking. If we're not teaching them to students, we may or may not be teaching for critical thinking.

In other words, we need these standards in order to figure out what the heck we're doing with critical thinking and how well we're doing it. Let's see what happens when we apply them to a typical language arts lesson. They are:


Let's take a look at a typical language arts lesson.  A student-inquiry discussion on Turgenev's short story, "The Watch," has a three-question focus. This is one of them:

          Why does David throw Alexey's watch into the river?

The question offered to students about "The Watch" will elicit some reasoning in the response. They will need to provide evidence for their claims. Sure.

But THAT is not the critical thinking. That is THINKING. To be fair, it is on the edge of analysis (higher-order thinking), but it is not, nor should we consider it, evidence of critical thinking.  That's where the problem lies.

Simply asking "how" and "why" questions or having students do stuff at the upper-level of Bloom's is NOT critical thinking.

Because the thinking stops.

Generally, we're asking these questions to determine that the student has (a) read the material and, possibly, (b) comprehended a significant event in the story. The student has not been asked to evaluate the quality of his/her response. That's because there's no meaningful purpose for the question. Thus, there's no reason to evaluate the quality of the response. Thus, there's no critical thinking to see here.  Move along.
Meaningless higher-order thinking is still meaningless. 

(Further, consider that if there is a generally-accepted or "correct" answer to the question, then the evaluation of the thinking is going to be severely limited.) 

Scriven and Paul (1987) provided this definition of the critical thinking process at the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. (as cited by Critical Thinking Foundation, 2013).

More simply put:
Critical thinking is the process of DOING all that upper-level Bloom's thinking stuff and figuring out HOW WELL we've done all that upper-level Bloom's thinking stuff, for a really good REASON--to guide belief and action.

So, it's NOT THIS:

It's THIS:

We have students doing some thinking. We just don't have them doing the critical thinking. And it's often without a clear purpose. We have them doing it, but the FOCUS of the learning is extremely basic. We might even have them doing some metacognition, but without a reason  to evaluate their thinking in order to guide their beliefs or actions, they will not embrace the principle.  They will simply complete the assignment.

That's where we're missing the mark. That's why students aren't transferring these skills. That's why they are doing so poorly on assessments designed to assess critical thinking.

There's no action or belief to consider with that question, above. I know that we have to make sure the students have read them material, but we can also move them forward and give them a reason to evaluate their thinking--a reason to bother with understanding why David throws Alexey's watch into the river and understanding for a reason.

So, where does the belief and action part fit in? To do that, we need to have students think LIKE...
like authors
like researchers
like philosophers  (thinking philosophically)                                                                  
like journalists (thinking journalistically)
like biographers
like historians (thinking historically)
like literary critics
like poets (thinking poetically)
What kind of person, in what field or discipline, wonders about the reasons that characters do what they do in a story? Imagine how a philosopher would attack the question about the watch. How would he/she evaluate the thinking behind the question and-- if determining the question had sufficient significance, relevance, and meaning-- the thinking behind his/her response?

That's potentially part of the problem, too, I think, is that the question was provided as opposed to developed by the student. And we haven't (necessarily) offered students the opportunity to evaluate the question posed. And if they question the question, what do we (often) tell them to do?
Just answer the question.
Is there a place for these kinds of questions about literature? I guess so. Maybe for a homework check? But not as the FOCUS for the learning.

If we want students to think critically, we're going to have to let them determine the questions because that's what journalists, biographers, poets, researchers, etc. usually DO.

Or at the very least, the questions offered need to be sufficiently open and broad so as to allow students to develop more meaningful ones from it.

Unless there is a reason for them to evaluate their thinking...why should they bother? And unless we're asking them to evaluate their thinking, they are not thinking critically.


Critical Thinking Foundation. (2013). Defining critical thinking. Retrieved from

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2013). Universal intellectual standards. Retrieved from https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/universal-intellectual-standards/527

You'll find more strategies for teaching for and with critical thinking in our book, Transparent Teaching of Adolescents: Creating the Ideal Class for Students and Teachers. Some former students and I collaborated on the development of best strategies for secondary educators. Check us out!


How is a 59% F different from a 0% F?

The following guest blog post is from David Cook, who teaches 7th Grade Language Arts in Indiana.

In "No-Zero Policy: Students Don’t See Zeroes The Same Way Adults Do," Stocker makes a statement that I have heard from multiple teachers throughout my career (as a student and as a teacher). She states that when it comes to zeroes, "Oftentimes, teachers say they are teaching students that they can’t be late on assignments, that in the real world, if you’re late with work you get fired."

I have also heard fellow teachers say, "What are we supposed to do if they didn't even try? You can't give them points for something they didn't do!" Let me tell you what I did.

I've done away with zeroes.

                I no longer use them.

I refuse to give students anything less than a 59%.

There are several reasons why I no longer use zeroes. One reason is that I found myself taking some pleasure in assigning a zero to a student that hadn't done his/her work.

After reflection, I realized that I was not assessing students' work, but their behavior in getting the work done. My score did not reflect the assignment, and it also gave me an excuse to not have to follow up with the student to get the work completed.

I'll admit that I fell into this trap and didn't push my students to complete the assignment. Stocker reinforces this by saying, "We’re also undermining kids’ ‘stick-to-it-ness’ when we allow them to get zeroes. By allowing zeroes, we’re giving them the message that they don’t have to be persistent in their learning."

My next reason reflects reason number three in Stocker's article that zeroes can "make a student’s grade tank quickly." In my first year of teaching, an administrator came in to discuss the damaging effects of a zero.

If you look at a meter stick with 100 centimeters, you can see our outdated grading scale. From 100-59 represents our system of A-F. That means that 59-0 is ALL F.

The question was asked of us, "How is a 59% F different from a 0%F?"

Because if you look at it, all 59 points are an F. The letter grade doesn't change within the F scale. When we assign a 0, we are giving more like a Z aren't we? Pair that with the fact that it's nearly impossible to recover from a large scale 0, and that a 0 is not the motivator teachers think it is.

Stocker, Heather M. "No-Zero Policy: Students Don't See Zeroes The Same Way Adults Do." TeachThought. N.p., 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 June 2015.


Creativity has no Fear

In the Leadership Mindset course I developed, I ask participants to do something creative that they've never done before. They follow up with a reflection on what went well, what frustrated then,  and what seemed to impede or advance the process. It's a great exercise as they then apply their personal experiences to how they interact with students or others as leaders.

The logic, I figure, is that we need personally undergo the ins and outs of the creative process, if we're going to ask our students to do so. That way, we can offer more personalized strategies and suggestions.

Yet this exercise proves to be one of the more difficult for my teacher-participants. The biggest issue is time, of course, but even once they make the time, they are sometimes still uncertain. Often, they lean towards doing things for their students or in-line with instruction, somehow. There's a fear, there, about doing something for themselves or, more aptly, as themselves, not as teachers.

For those who do set out on a personal endeavor, the creative experience is far more rich and rewarding, so this is my attempt to motivate those participants, who might be thinking about doing something for their classes or students,to move towards more "me" thinking. To do something creatively as themselves.

In the spirit of walking the talk, here are my reflections on my current creative "thing": writing a screenplay.

It had been awhile since I tackled something new, but I was inspired a couple of months ago by one of my former students, Vincent Stalba, who is developing a web series: Job Interviews (very funny, donate if you can--I did).

Vince was kind enough to let me read the scripts, and as I was reading them, I thought...Now, that's something I've never done. That's something I have no idea how to do. How can I use this to help motivate my course participants? Gosh, how does a person even start this process?

First, in undertaking this project, I have been happily surprised to learn so many new things. This process has been one, great-big, long practice in research. From the more concrete stuff (how to format a spec script) to the more intangible topical stuff. I can only imagine that if the NSA is watching my online searches, they've probably flagged me for stuff like: chemical warfare, effects of neurotoxins, gas attacks, and floor-plan of the Pentagon. 

The plot of my screenplay entails quite a few details of things I just don't know about. For example, I have no idea what kinds of medical tools or machines a prison infirmary has. However, if my characters are going to be "in" a prison infirmary and have to do things, I need to know what's there. I find myself often stopping after about two typed lines of information to search for answers before I can continue.

(Thinking as a teacher, I find the experience of developing a screenplay would be a powerful one for students, perhaps in lieu of a research paper? Why not? After I'm done with this, I think I'll develop a unit on it.)

My research sometimes takes me to things that I'd just not considered. I have often had to stop writing for the day after seeing exceptionally moving images or documentaries. My eyes have been powerfully opened on a number of topics.

What has advanced my creative process is the fact that I have only a self-imposed deadline. As such, I've shared with participants that if they need additional time for this particular module component, they can certainly take as long as they'd like.

Far better for them to have a positive experience than just a "get it done" experience. (Can we do this for students? hmm.)

I haven't really been frustrated in this process (at least, not yet) as I'm well aware that what I'm doing is flexible and rough. I'm just enjoying the "doing" of it. I'm allowing my mind to imagine and reach without worrying about perfection.

I certainly don't have any notions of it ever going to the big screen, but it would really neat if it did, of course. I think being reasonable and realistic in my expectations also helps with the frustration. I will have someone in the business review it, though, and offer advice. We'll see.

The thing is: I'm not afraid. 

Is that the key to creativity? Not being afraid of the process, the outcome, or the judgment of either?

#thingstosharewithstudents  #thosewhocan  #creativityhasnofear

Check it out!


The Best Gift to Give Your Students

The best gift you can give to students is NOT your knowledge.  Knowledge is immediately available.

The best gift you can give is an explanation of how to ask questions in order to discern what knowledge is needed and how to evaluate the credibility of that information.

The best gift you can give is  an explanation of how to wield, use, and apply that knowledge for their personal betterment or the betterment of others.

The best gift you can give is the ability to create new things and share them, to communicate clearly and kindly with all whose paths you cross, and to embrace failure with interest and humility.

The best gift you can give your students is to be a learner.


Image retrieved April 15, 2015 from http://www.christmasmagazine.com/en/mc/wrap04.asp


Expanding Possibilities, Technology in the Classroom

Guest blog post: Pete Oleson teaches middle-school and high school Science courses. Thank you for sharing this with us!
I don’t really think in terms that isolate technology from everything else that I do. Technology is another tool in the toolbox. Nothing more and nothing less.

For instance, in my Advanced Placement Environmental Science class, we're working on a project on the ENSO or El Nino in which students had to develop a hypothesis on the effects of an El Nino. They then had to locate data to test the hypothesis.

This would have been very difficult to do even 10 years ago, but now the data is available quite readily. By the time we are done, students have learned how to access computers at NASA using the Giovanni interface and finding data to test it. They also know how to locate historical weather records from NOAA (the weather service). They generate maps which are then scaled and analyzed using an analytical tool from the National Institutes of Health called ImageJ.

What they study is completely self-chosen, and what I do is look at their work in progress and offer suggestions on where to look for information and how to present it. When they're done, they generate a lab report that I critique using the same criteria I used when I got research ready for publication when I was an Industrial scientist. They revise it at least twice until it’s “good enough."

The truth is-- in the end--these are all transferable skills. They’re not about just doing my lab. They are about asking questions, making hypotheses, accessing up-to-date information, using cutting edge tools to analyze it, and presenting it coherently. What profession doesn’t want those skills?

To be honest, the kids are screaming.

This is hard. This is not playing with computers. This is very much using them as tools. Students are mad that they don’t have a step-by-step do-this, do-that procedure. Sometimes, it’s important to give them that. That is indeed part of science.

But the other part--the part they’ve never done, the exciting part--is to really think about questions and how best to answer them. Can I justify what we’re doing? You bet I can. Maybe there are those who think it would be better to have a “canned lab” that an “educator” has put together using 10 year-old data where everything works, spend 90 minutes on it, and then declare a success.

I want students who are working someday and come up against a problem and start thinking “How can I find that?” and “You know, there is a tool that you can use to find measure that, and I can access it and use it right now on my desktop.”

Remember ImageJ? Today, we might use it to analyze sea surface temperatures or chlorophyll concentrations that NASA collected--not 10 years ago, but last week. But it’s a tool that is also used to measure growth of tumor cells in MRIs and other digital images of cancer cells.

It’s not about computer as toy, anymore. It’s about the computer as a tool to expand possibilities.

Don’t think that it’s not hard work and time-consuming for me or anyone to master those tools because I spend hours doing it before I try to show them how to use them. But it can be done if you want to do it. In the end, science or learning isn’t about teaching a bunch of factoids for someone to regurgitate on a test and forget tomorrow. They can get a book or go to Wikipedia for that.

In the end, it’s about helping my students turn their challenges into possibilities...their “what ifs” into answers. How much is that worth?

~Pete Oleson

"ImageJScreenshot" by Original uploader was MarcoTolo at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ImageJScreenshot.png#/media/File:ImageJScreenshot.png