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Knowing When Elementary Students “Get It”


In the Success at the Core video Guided Groups, middle school teacher Shawna Moore directs her students to assess their understanding of a concept by assigning themselves a “C” (I’ve got it), “B” (I’ve got a few clarifying questions) or “A” (I still have major misconceptions). This video inspires me as I think about having my fourth grade students self-assess their understanding. Here’s what I’ve learned and how I’ve adjusted Ms. Moore’s technique for my students.

When my students learned the standard algorithm for multiplication, I asked them to group themselves based on their ability to use the algorithm to multiply multi-digit numbers accurately. Their self-grouping yielded mixed results. About half of the time, my students inaccurately assessed their level of skill or understanding. I’ve learned – through reviewing students’ seat-work or quizzes – that many who put themselves in the “I’ve got it” category actually belong in the “I still have major misconceptions” group. I think that sometimes students simply have an inaccurate idea of their own understanding. I also believe that some don’t want to admit they need help. Ms. Moore addresses these and other issues in the Teacher Commentary that accompanies the Guided Groups video.

So what to do? I’ve tried a couple of techniques to help students and me better gauge their understanding.

1)      In literacy lessons, giving students a rubric that outlines my expectations for an assignment’s finished product helps them more accurately assess where they are in the learning process. Rubrics also improve the quality of work that I receive. I’m still developing my own understanding around how to develop a simple rubric for a daily math assignment based on practice of a new math concept.

2)      In math, I’ve used white boards to monitor students’ progress and to ensure that my teaching  meets each student’s instructional needs. Before asking students to work on a new math concept independently, I give them a prompt and ask them to solve it on their individual white boards. For example, my students are currently working on finding the area of irregular shapes. This requires that students go through a process; breaking the shape into rectangles, determining the length of unknown sides using given information, accurately multiplying the rectangles’ sides to find area, and combining the rectangles’ areas to get the total area. Students show me their work by holding the small white board up and pointing it toward me when they’re finished. In this way, I can quickly give students feedback on the portions of the work that are correct and not correct, or tell them if the entire problem is incorrect. This gives me good information for grouping students. If students’ calculations are inaccurate, I can tell where the process broke down. I can determine whether students are making careless errors, having difficulty with math skills that they should already know, such as multiplication facts, or if they’re struggling with the math concept.

If you’re interested in rubrics or white boards for formative assessment, these two Success at the Core videos might be good starting points: Quality Evidence Rubrics and Exploring Predictions.

What formative assessment tips have you found useful in your day-to-day instruction?

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14 Responses to Knowing When Elementary Students “Get It”

  1. Joanna says:

    I use a ‘thumbs on your heart’ check-in to quickly see where kids are self-assessing their understanding. thumb up=I’ve got it and am ready to move on thumb on the side=I’m not ready to move on, I need more work with this. Having them hold their thumbs in front of their chests allows some privacy but I can see everyone’s response.
    I also regularly use a ‘show me’ prompt especially in math to formatively assess students. For example, in first grade we’re working with the foundations of addition and subtraction, paying close attention to combinations to 10. I want them to understand that the act of addition is joining numbers and that of subtraction is separating numbers. I can ask them to ‘show me’ a representation of a math fact (i.e. 4+5) on their hands to make sure they’re representing each number (one on each hand) and then physically moving the hands together to show the process of addition. The same can be done with subtraction. Not only are they kinesthetically practicing the math processes I want them to, but I can see who is ‘getting it’ and who is still struggling. I use this in computation practice, but have found it really valuable when trying to make meaning of word problems-are we being asked to JOIN numbers or separate them?

  2. Heather Byington says:

    Yes! I love these techniques and have also seen them be very effective with my fourth graders. As you said, the gesturing they do helps to solidify their understanding of the concept and the academic vocabulary associated with the concept. This transfers to their ability to understand word problems. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Judy Serrano says:

    Heather, It’s interesting that you should mention that students often don’t know that they don’t know.
    A question I ask my students to help them decide if they really know or understand something is “Would you be able to teach someone else . . .this concept or problem?” I use peer teaching in class, so the kids know what it is to “teach” others.

    • Heather Byington says:

      What a great question to get students to reflect on their depth of understanding! I’m going to start using that question with my students. Thank you.

    • Erin says:

      There’s nothing like peer teaching or student presentations to make students reflect on their own understanding. I agree.

  4. Isis says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I often use gesturing, self-perception activities, whiteborad or exit slip-type tasks and rubrics as means of formative assessment in my third grade classroom. When I think about it, just about everything we do in class is a kind of formative assessment. I am constantly looking and listening for misconceptions in students’ understanding. Recently, however, I’ve been keying in to students’ ability to add on to another’s explanations and/or their ability to “fix” an incorrect answer in math as evidence of learning. It seems that when one really understands something, s/he can understand it from multiple perspectives. I like the use of the phrase, “would you be able to teach someone else” because that requires the ability to identify and correct another’s misconceptions.

    I’m also playing around with classification/categorization and which-one-does-not-belong (with picture cards, word cards, or lists of words/concepts) as a means of gauging understanding.

    • Heather Byington says:

      Yes! I agree that almost everything we do in the classroom is formative assessment. I love your examples of classification, categorization, and example/non-example to gauge understanding. That sounds really engaging for students. It reminds me of an in-service I attended where we learned that asking students to analyze an incorrect math response and identify how it is incorrect can be very effective. Thanks for the great ideas!

  5. mike durst says:

    In my role as director of the Columbia Basin College and Bechtel National Planetarium, I find myself in an almost constant teaching roloe. It ranges from teaching students in elementary college astronomy classes and labs at the observatory to presenting planetarium programs in the large planetarium to the general public and local schools.

    It is truly a hard thing for me at times to know if students understand what I am teaching. The easiest way to do this for me is to actually have them reply to me what they believe they heard (learned) and in the best of instances, they actually demonstrate what they have learned in some tangible way. For example, if a student is learning about telescopes, I ask them to tell me something about the telescope assigned to them and then in particular tell them to use the telescope to find something. In many cases, I don’t really expect them to be very expert at all in what they are doing. I just want to probe to see to what level they understand. I find in most instances that they understand either much more than I thought or at the other end of the spectrum, very of what we’ve been talking about. But, until they actually demonstrate to some degree the “how to application” phase to some degree, it is just simply memorization learning. Let me illustrate with a simple example. Everyone wants to know how to find things in the sky. A planetarium is a great tool to help you do just that. It presents constellations on the dome easily, can illustrate what they are expected or supposed to look like by adding stick figures. But,if you assign a constellation to a person to “know”, it becomes personal. Not only do they need to know where it is and how to find it, but also, what bright stars make up the constellation, what’s the mythology about the constellation, did anything really cool happen inside the constellation a long time ago such as a supernovae.
    The “act” of finding the constellation on the dome now means much more to them than just seeing some stick figure. The same works true with the learning of how to use a telescope. I can show them all day long how to use one.
    But, until they actually turn the knobs themselves, the telescope just isn’t real. they need to “feel” the telescope, that it is something that they command, and that they can use as a tool.

    So, for me, active participation and demonstration is a way to probe degree of learning. I also use techniques similarly described in this blog such as cards, asking for hands, etc. But, for me, this is almost a check as you go method. It doesn’t integrate the learning. Only demonstration effectively shows the application of the learning. And for me, without the application, it is difficult to know the level of learning. We can understand the degree of memorization yes; but true learning? I just don’t know.

  6. Heather Byington says:

    Thank you for your insight regarding having students demonstrate their understanding. It reminds me of Judy’s response where she said she asks students to teach another student, and that really shows their depth of understanding. I also like your point that students need to be immersed in the context (mythology, diagrams of constellations, etc.) and have multiple exposures to content from different perspectives before we can expect them to have a deep understanding of content. Thank you for your thoughtful points.

    • Corrie Freiwaldt says:

      I love these ideas. It made me think of another way to have students “teach” others. I’m sure you’ve heard of the jigsaw method. Each group is assigned a section or something to learn and then one person from each group forms a new group and they teach each other what their original group learned. Another variation for whole class presentations is to roll the die to see which group gets called on, then roll again to see what person in that group will present to the class. While everyone is learning, they are focused, engaged and ask questions because they may be the one chosen to present. They have to know it well enough to “teach it” to the class.

  7. Deb Gribskov says:

    Heather, I too find in my students often do not want to let others know they don’t completely understand. I have, on occasion, asked a student who is struggling to “play the student” and have another student “play the teacher”. As I am just as likely to select a non-struggling student to play “the student”, there is no “label” associated with that option. And often, having a different teacher – with a different approach – helps the struggling student gain understanding.

  8. Tyler Rice says:


    I would also add that I think models play an important role here. I have found rubrics to be helpful in student self-assessment but sometimes a couple of models of varying levels of quality are even more helpful.

    If I show my students 2 or 3 lab reports and ask them which contains the best conclusion, they seem to internalize the rubric much better than without the models. You can also discuss possible revisions to the less effective models.

  9. Heather Byington says:

    Yes, I agree. Using student work as models is particularly relatable for other students. Thank you

  10. I agree! Many times students will always get in the group that is representing mastery because they want to be seen as understanding and until they really can see what others know, ‘don’t know what they don’t know’; group dynamics and peer pressure being what they are.

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