Exit slips: Just the first step

Using formative assessment to check student understanding may be one of the best new ideas in education, but are we doing it right?

When I first learned I was expected to use “checks for understanding,” I was skeptical. I was certain my students understood what I was explaining, and I didn’t want to burden them with constant quizzes or “exit slips.” All I could see was more paperwork and lost class time.

Then, a few years back, I went on a study tour to South Africa, where I was able to sit in on econ lessons at several high schools near Durban. It was an amazing experience on many levels, but one of the a-ha moments for me was hearing the students politely say “yes, ma’am” each time a teacher asked if they understood.

It was obvious that “yes, ma’am” was a formal ritual, not a true expression of comprehension, and I wondered if the teachers knew that. And then I realized, I wasn’t doing any better at checking my own students’ understanding. I returned home finally ready to implement formative assessment.

Colleagues suggested using a quick thumbs up or thumbs down at the end of a lesson, or asking students to rate their comfort level on a 1 to 5 basis, so I started with those. Eventually, I moved onto Smartboard clickers and “Poll Everywhere” to ask quick review questions at the end of class, so we could clear up misconceptions before students left the room.

Those strategies were all improvements over my previous policy of assuming they got it. But when I read Make it Stick this summer, I realized that initial understanding is only the first step. If that’s all we do, we’re only checking short-term memory.

Learning is retrieval, the ability to pull that knowledge back out of long-term storage. And learning is what we need to check for. We should still use a quick check after a lesson, to make sure students get it initially, but we need to do more, especially with the technology available.

Here are some tips I pulled together from Make it Stick:

  1. Do not ask students to self-rate their understanding. They don’t know what they don’t know, and they often suffer from the “illusion of mastery” when material sounds familiar.
  2. Use frequent quizzes and make them cumulative, so students are repeatedly retrieving what they learned in earlier lessons. One research study found that the same students “scored a full grade level higher on the material that had been quizzed than on the material that had not been quizzed.” (An added benefit: Research shows that frequent quizzing actually reduces test anxiety.)
  3. Used “delayed” quizzes. Use quick checks to inform instruction during a lesson, but wait until the next day to really quiz students on material, so that you are testing retrieval rather than short-term memory.
  4. Include open-ended questions. “Tests that require the learner to supply the answer, like an essay or short-answer test, or simply practice with flashcards, appear to be more effective than simple recognition tests like multiple choice or true/false tests.”
  5. Grade the quizzes, but make them low stakes. Students are more willing to work at retrieval — which is hard — when they see points attached. In my class, these quizzes will be less than 3% of their grades.

This sounds like a lot of work to implement, but with near universal student access to wi-fi devices and free resources like my current favorite, socrative.com, using effective formative quizzes takes less time than ever. The returns are enormous.