Let me tell you about a time I understood absolutely nothing. It was in my very first statistics class. I was nervous but excited to go in and take diligent notes. I went in and found a great seat, got my notebook out, and was ready to go when our professor walked in, briefly introduced himself, and got started.
I know for a fact that the class lasted for two hours, but at exactly which moment I started to suspect a problem– that’s harder to gauge. I was three sheets deep into my notebook at this point but had yet to complete a coherent idea on any page. I was grasping at terminology, trying to doodle diagrams, ANYTHING that I thought would be useful in a future study session. I scribbled furiously as the professor moved through statistics concepts, one after the other with no end in sight. When the class was five minutes from our end time, he asked us “Okay, any questions?”
The silence in that room of linguistics students was deafening, and as I looked around at my classmates, I started to feel that tiny sense of relief you get when you realize that, despite being absolutely clueless, at least you’re not the only one.
He asked us again if we had any questions. I started to flip through my sad attempt at notes, wondering what I could piece together enough to ask about. It dawned on me then that this class was an absolute first in my life– the first time that I had understood so little in a lesson that I couldn’t even formulate a question. I was in awe of my lack of comprehension. I could feel myself drifting off from this statistics course and the concern I needed to feel about how I was ever going to learn this material, and into my teacher brain where I felt a profound fascination for the shocking amount of learning that hadn’t taken place over the last two hours.
One final invitation to ask questions came and I flipped through my notes once more to see if I could muster anything. My classmates were all doing the same. And every term I came across, every set of axes with a curve or arrow across it, none of it had any meaning to me. I decided the best thing to do was keep my mouth shut and watch a few intro to statistics videos on Youtube over the weekend. We left the class and not a single question was asked, so no questions were answered, either. Did we have questions? No. Did we understand anything? Also no.
Fortunately for all of us in that course, things took a sharp turn for the better from there, and it ended up being a learning experience that I cherish. What I’m also extremely grateful for, though, is that chance to be absolutely dumbfounded by how much I didn’t understand something (and, by way of having experienced that for the first time at 28, grateful for the string of amazing teachers I’ve had throughout life that had never once before let me leave a lesson having understood so little!).
That first statistics lesson will always stand out to me. That professor didn’t know when he began the course exactly what our level of experience with statistics was, so it’s understandable that the scope of his lesson was too complicated, but the biggest issue was that he never once performed formative assessment to help him know how to pace that class.
Formative assessment– it describes the process of asking questions and getting feedback from students that helps a teacher monitor the learning process as it happens. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the term, you’ve probably learned one of the best ways to implement it in class thanks to your TEFL certification: CCQs!
Comprehension Checking Questions (CCQs) are a great way to gauge students’ learning in real time before taking things up a notch in the class. They can help you determine what students understand AND where there are still some gaps in their understanding, so they can be used to direct your instruction in that class, or to help you plan for the next lesson.
For example, if you want to confirm that students understand what the word “thumb” means, you might ask them to point to their thumb. You might draw a hand and number each finger and ask them which is the thumb. You might show each of your fingers and ask a yes/no question about which is the thumb. There are a lot of possibilities when it comes to the types of questions you can use for CCQs. You can use them to see if students have connected a concept to a word, have assigned a function to a verb tense, or have identified the difference between two ideas or pieces of target language.
CCQs aren’t the only way to use formative assessment in the classroom.
Giving students a very short pop-quiz (no grades necessary) can give you a good idea of who understands what, and it’s not hard to do– whether you’re in the online classroom or the physical one. Select your 3-5 questions and display them with A, B, C, D options. Ask students to give you their answers all at once (on a piece of paper or via a private message on your VC platform). You’ll instantly get an idea of what students have grasped well and where they need a little extra support. What questions do you ask? Well that’s easy! Most of the types of activities students would typically do on a worksheet (gap-fill, true or false, multiple choice, error identification, etc.) count as a type of formative assessment, so stick with those structures to test what students have learned about the target language you’ve presented thus far. You’ll see quiz activities in some of our lessons as a way to help you gauge students’ learning thus far, and as a way to let students put themselves to the test! These quizzes, done together as a group, give you the possibility to pause the activity and re-explain something before continuing on to the next question.
Exit tickets are another great formative assessment tool that a teacher can use to wrap up a lesson. They’re multi-purpose, too! They give students a prompt to reflect on something learned in class, they serve as a classroom routine that helps students know what to expect in class, and they act as one last booster for STT before a lesson finishes. But back to their formative assessment qualities! Exit tickets are a great type of formative assessment because they give the teacher one final glimpse at what students have down and what they are still struggling with at the end of a lesson. Taking notes here on their answers is important, both for a teacher’s self-reflection about the success of the lesson as well as helping a teacher know what needs to be reviewed, re-explained, drilled, or skipped in the next lesson. They’re such a handy practice that we’ve added one to the end of every lesson we make!
Hindsight is 20/20.
Had my statistics professor paused 8 minutes into that first lesson and asked a few well-planned CCQs, he might have detected early on that we needed to move at a slower pace and see more information about some of the concepts being taught. A well-placed pop quiz one hour in would have probably told him to stop presenting anything new for the rest of the lesson and just go back to identify comprehension gaps and fill them in with us. And where he could have presented us with an exit ticket, we got the classic “any questions?” prompt, which in fact led to zero questions. He left that lesson understanding that we were lost, but didn’t leave that lesson with any valuable information about HOW lost we were and what point he should pick up on in the next class.
It’s safe to say that the “Any questions?” or “Does that make sense?” ways of checking understanding don’t typically produce the desired result. Sometimes the lesson content can be so challenging to a learner that they’re not even sure what it is exactly that they don’t understand. And if you can’t even formulate a question about it? Well that’s a bit of a mind trip. Using the aforementioned formative assessment strategies can help you understand better where your students are at throughout the lesson, giving you the chance to adjust to your students’ needs. They’ll give you data you can reflect on and learn from after the class as well. Finally, they give you a better idea of how to continue on in the next lesson, and the one after that, and so on.
We understand the importance of formative assessment at The TEFL Lab, and that’s why it’s woven into the structure of each of our lessons, as well as our teachers’ notes. Every single activity you guide your students through won’t be a glowing success every time, and that’s ok! Using formative assessment techniques, you can gain insight into how to provide clarification and support to your students throughout the learning process!