Article

Observing Students

Informal strategies for effective assessment

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Sedere, the origin of the word assessment, means "to sit beside." You will gain valuable information about your students by "sitting beside" them, watching them and talking to them. You can gain a great deal of insight into your students by watching them at work and at play. You'll also need to assess your students' skills and knowledge in math, reading, and writing. You will notice a great variety of levels in your class regardless of the grade you teach. For example, all fourth graders don't necessarily have a solid grasp of addition or subtraction, and some won't be ready for multiplication or division.

In observing children, watch for frustration (the child is unable to do the work independently) and boredom (the student is not challenged by the content). When the content is higher than the child's level, the teacher must adapt whole-group activities so all students can participate and gain something from the lesson. These students must also be pulled out for small-group lessons based on needs. If, for example, the majority of your students are ready for double-digit multiplication, but you notice that four students still have great difficulty with basic multiplication facts, you will need to do extensive work with those four. Don't remediate the whole class, as most of your students will be bored. Don't teach the new concept without the prerequisite skills in place, as the four students will be frustrated. It's time for small-group, needs-based instruction: Work with the four students in need on gaining an understanding of the basic concept. Make sure the students you aren't working with at the time have meaningful work to do, perhaps expanding on what they already know about the concept. With boredom, small groups based on needs may be the answer here. Always have something meaningful and appropriately challenging prepared for students who finish independent work early.  For example, give choices such as reading, writing, or making up math problems for a partner to solve. Students can also peer-tutor those who need help; their own understanding will deepen as they help others.

As you begin teaching new content, remember that just because you've taught something, it doesn't mean your students have learned it. Each school day offers numerous opportunities to assess student understanding and progress. Some assessments will be informal quick checks or observations, while others will be more detailed and formal. The goal of any assessment is to gain a clearer picture of what an individual has learned, the way he or she learned it, and how he or she uses what has been learned. Keep these ideas in mind as you assess students' learning:

  • Glean information from each student's daily experiences and interactions.
  • Use data from tests to supplement your observation.
  • Watch the process children go through to master skills, concepts, or content.
  • Ask students to think aloud for you so you can probe their understanding of content and strategies.
  • Build student portfolios to record performance benchmarks during the year.
  • Use every possible source of information to crate a rich tapestry of assessment enabling you to determine appropriate instruction for each student.


Gathering Information
Information observation ("kid watching") of students working alone, in groups, or during whole-group instruction can give you valuable information about students' progress, understanding, strengths and challenges, cooperation, study habits, and attitude. There are many ways to record observations you make. Use sticky notes to jot down your thoughts and then post them on a chart with your students' names, prepare a checklist of things you want to look for as students work, or keep a folder with records of your observations written on self-stick labels or sheets of paper.

Example: You're concerned about the study habits of a student. Throughout the day, make notes of the student's attitude during various class activities, times when she or he is off-task, which students she works with best, how long she can maintain attention to non-academic activities (e.g., P.E., art, music, games at recess). After collecting this context-rich information, you may have a better idea of how to help the child improve her study habits or how to adapt your instruction to involve her more.

Have you ever known a child to memorize a fact or an answer without first understanding a concept? It happens all the time in math. Conducting interviews with individual students can help you get beyond surface memorization to check true understanding.

Example: To assess understanding of the concept of addition, don't simply give a worksheet of 20 addition problems and use the grade to determine comprehension. While students need written practice with addition facts, a worksheet alone will not necessarily let you see into the mind of the child. Sit down with children individually or in small groups and ask them to give you examples of real-life situations where addition would be used; have them draw a picture of an addition problem and tell you about it; ask students how they know their answer is correct; or ask students if they can think of a general rule that applies to addition.

Questioning is similar to the process of interviewing, but is more informal. As students work on an assignment, circulate to ask individuals questions relating to their work.

Example: After teaching a lesson on reading for information followed by an assignment to read a selection and answer questions, ask students things such as, "What information do you need to know?" "Where will you get that information?" "Can you tell me more?" "What is the most interesting part of the reading?" "What have you learned?" Help students do Think Alouds by asking them to talk you through what they are doing.

Self-assessment is a valuable skill for students to learn. Give students opportunities to assess their efforts and attitudes regularly. Studens can do this through questionnaires, journaling, and checklists. EXAMPLE: Following a cooperative learning activity, students could fill out a questionnaire asking them to rate their performance on statements, such as "I helped my group," "My group helped me," "My group shared," and "I took turns with the others in my group." They could write in their journal about the most important thing they learned from the activity. Students could also create a list of skills they "can-do": "I can capitalize at the beginning of a sentence," "I can read words with short /a/."

A conference is a dialogue with an individual student. A conference may center around reading, writing, math, content areas, or goal-setting. Many teachers structure their day so they have time to meet with individual students in a 10- to 15-minute conference setting every week or two, depending on the type of conference.

Example: To assess progress in writing, meet with students individually on a regular basis. If you have your students write every day, keep their work in a folder or notebook in chronological order. During the conference, have the student read aloud something she has written and ask what she likes best about the writing. Tell her what you like best about the writing, then select one skill or concept to focus on for the conference. If the student is having trouble using descriptive words in the story or report, ask the student how she could tell more about the main character so that the audience could draw a picture from the description, finding more exciting words to substitute for overused words such as "nice," "good," "bad," and "mean." Have her draw a detailed portrait of the main character to assist with a detailed description or help her complete a senses web, describing what she might see, hear, smell, taste, and feel in the setting. After gaining a more complete picture herself, the student then goes back through the piece and inserts words that will better describe the setting.

A performance assessment shows what students can do by performing a task related to a skill or concept that has been taught in class.

Example: Having learned about sedimentary rocks, students could sort rock samples into sedimentary and non-sedimentary. After learning how to take notes for research, have them actually conduct research on a self-selected topic.

Sometimes you will prefer to assess student progress with a teacher-made test. Create a few questions or tasks that get at the heart of the skill or concept. Tests can be of a traditional format (essay, multiple choice, true or false, short answer), performance-based, or tied to the multiple intelligences.

  • Subjects:
    Language Arts, Math, Assessment, Curriculum Development, Classroom Management, Reading Assessment, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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