Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Using Technology to Make Essential Questions an Essential Part of Instruction (updated post)

In an extremely thoughtful and well-written post, On genuine vs. bogus inquiry, Grant Wiggins writes

Merely posting the EQs and occasionally reminding kids of it is pointless: the aim is to use the question to frame specific activities, to provide perspective and focus, to prioritize the course, and to signal to students that, eventually, THEY must - on their own - pose this and other key questions.

My understanding and application of Essential Questions has developed over time. As a teacher who was asked to post EQs daily and include them in lesson plans without any instruction as to why or how to do that effectively, I felt that EQs were a waste of time and just another thing to do. Later, as an instructional coach, I worked to help teachers write EQs that were aligned with their content standards and learning outcomes. Early on, my focus was on wording the EQs well. Eventually, I came to understand that EQs are meaningless unless they are used during instruction. The purpose of EQs is to help both the teacher and students focus on key content and develop the ability to ask and answer meaningful questions about content and processes. I encourage in-service and pre-service teachers I work with to ask EQs aloud at the start of a lesson, during the lesson, and again at the end. An EQ should frame the lesson or unit of instruction and provide a context for the learning to happen. EQs give students a learning outcome to work toward and should allow learners to respond in multiple ways over time. Keep in mind that students should not be able to answer an EQ with one word. EQs should prompt a thorough response to demonstrate depth of understanding.

Let me digress for a moment...

Attention is a necessary prerequisite of learning. Educators have to find a way to help students attend to important content. Selective attention involves the ability to choose where to focus your attention. Today's students are bombarded with stimuli and often need help attending to what's important. We also need to help students develop strategies for self-regulating their attention. Check your classroom environment. Is there a chance that your classroom is too stimulating for some students? Work to remove distractions. I encourage you to try these auditory and visual attention tests to experience what it's like for some students to attend when there are distractions in the environment.

After reading Wiggins' post, I immediately started to think through how technology can support teachers in making EQs meaningful. Below are some tools to help you integrate EQs into teaching and learning in your classroom and help you view them as more than just "one more thing to do".

    Use Canvas to connect assignments, discussions, and content to EQs. First, add your EQs as learning outcomes, and then import those outcomes to rubrics to explicitly connect assignments and discussions with EQs. Once you connect outcomes to rubrics, the Learning Mastery Gradebook in Canvas allows you to easily track student progress toward learning outcomes. 

Use Google Classroom to post EQs and have students compose responses and engage in ongoing conversation around the EQs. You can also label assignments with specific EQs to help students make a connection between learning outcomes and tasks.

Use Flipgrid to create a video-based discussion focused on an EQ. Create a new topic and pose the EQ as either a text or video prompt. Students can use flipgrid.com or the free mobile app to post a short video reply (up to 3 minutes). Encourage students to reply to one another's initial videos to deepen the conversation. You can provide video or text feedback on each student's reply and use Flipgrid's rating scale to evaluate the thoughtfulness of student responses.

Socrative allows teachers to create individual or team-based quizzes containing open-ended, true/false, or multiple-choice questions. Students can respond through any device. Use Socrative to find out what students know before a lesson or unit of instruction. Use the stand-alone question feature to ask an EQ throughout a unit of instruction and get instant feedback. Students feel safe to respond anonymously and don't risk looking foolish in front of their peers.

Poll Everywhere provides a simple platform for asking EQs and allowing students to respond through any device. Set up an open-ended poll and allow students to respond prior to, during, and after a unit of instruction or learning experience.

Use Padlet to pose questions and have students respond by posting sticky notes to a wall you've created. Padlet allows students to add text, images, videos, or hyperlinks to their sticky note responses. Students can also take the lead on posting questions and prompts for their peers.

Host a Twitter chat using a classroom-specific hashtag focused on the EQ for your unit of instruction. Pose the EQ at the start of the conversation, and encourage students to respond to you and one another. Work toward releasing ownership to students by asking them to pose questions and moderate chats. View chat archives to see how students' understandings have developed over time.

Blogs allow for more thorough and developed responses to EQs than other tools I've mentioned here. Students can include a variety of media in their blog posts. Encourage students to comment on classmates' posts to challenge and extend their thinking with regard to the EQ.

Keeping in mind what we know about attention and learning, think about how helpful it is for your students when you give them cues that help them focus on and attend to key information. Essential questions are one approach, and these technology tools can help you use EQs in meaningful ways to deepen students' understanding of key content. What other strategies do you use to help students attend in your classroom? What other tech tools can you use to integrate EQs meaningfully?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Technology for Formative Assessments: Updated Post

In 2012 I wrote a blog post about using technology for formative assessments. It has been my post popular blog post by far, with over 14,000 views. Over the past few years, technology has continued to evolve and has made it even easier for educators to embed formative assessments into instruction and be immediately responsive to student learning needs. Today, I have updated my original post to include what I believe to be some of the most promising practices and tools for formative assessments.  

In my experience, teachers tend to rely more heavily on summative assessments (assessment OF learning) than formative assessments (assessment FOR learning). There is power in formative assessments and their ability to inform instruction and improve student learning. Take just a moment to reflect: How often do you go through this process?

1. Give end-of-chapter tests, unit tests, vocabulary quizzes, etc.
2. Record the grades.
3. Return the papers.
4. Move on.

Who benefits from this summative assessment process? No one. What if, instead, you give an assessment BEFORE the unit to determine what students already know and don't know and DURING the unit to track learning progress and make teaching adjustments? This formative assessment cycle feeds into planning and instruction and has much more meaning for both teacher and students.

Last semester, my pre-service teachers and I were discussing formative and summative assessments. I gave them a short quiz using Socrative and asked them to determine whether they would identify various assessment formats as formative or summative. Their results were mixed, which led to a meaningful conversation about what makes an assessment formative or summative. Through the discussion, my students came to realize that whether an assessment is summative or formative depends on what the teacher does afterward. Can a chapter test be formative? Absolutely, if the teacher uses the results to identify gaps in understanding and provide instruction to help students meet learning goals for the chapter. Can a pre-test be summative? You bet, if the teacher doesn't change his/her plans for instruction based on data from the test.

The beauty of formative assessments is that they can be informal and easy to implement. A formative assessment can be as simple as a ticket out the door or asking students to hold up 1, 2, or 3 fingers depending on their understanding of the lesson. Technology can make the formative assessment process even easier and provide tools for analyzing data quickly and painlessly. There are many free web tools that allow teachers to create and deliver formative assessments in just a few minutes and collect student results instantly. Keep reading to learn about a few of my favorites.


Formative has recently become the assessment tool I recommend most frequently due to its capacity to transform feedback from one-way communication into a two-way conversation. As with many online assessment tools, Formative allows teachers to design assessments that include a variety of question types and embed multiple types of content, including images and videos. However, there are a couple of great features that set Formative apart from the crowd. One time-saving feature allows you to upload an existing document and transform it to an online formative assessment with just a few clicks. This feature enables teachers to convert existing paper-based assessments, including handouts, graphic organizers, and other documents, into digital assessments with online data analysis capability. Teachers love this time-saving feature that prevents them from having to recreate an existing assessment in order to transform it to a digital assessment. 

But wait... there's more! The truly transformative thing about Formative (see what I did there?) is the ability for teachers to provide instant, real-time feedback on student responses while students are engaged with the assessment. Before a student even submits a response, the teacher can track the response in real time and provide feedback that immediately becomes visible to the student. During the assessment, the student can reply to the teacher's feedback and engage in a conversation about the work. By monitoring student responses on the assessment dashboard, a teacher can see how each student is responding and provide feedback to multiple students in real time.  This type of functionality can enable teachers to design truly personalized learning environments, where each student receives the instruction he or she needs at the precise moment of need.


Nearpod is not solely an assessment tool, but it includes great potential for formative assessment. One of the best things about Nearpod is the ability for teachers to seamlessly embed formative assessments into instruction. When I work with pre-service and in-service teachers on ideas around formative assessment, I refer to teachers as potters at a potters wheel, with two hands that work together to shape student learning. One hand is the instruction hand, while the other is the assessment hand. A potter doesn't stop using one hand while using the other. Similarly, master teachers don't stop teaching to assess, and stop assessing to teach. Nearpod is a tool that allows teachers to use both hands to seamlessly assess student learning and then use student responses to immediately adjust instruction. To do this, Nearpod allows teachers to embed assessment items (multiple choice, short answer, annotation) into a presentation that can include a variety of content types (text, images, videos, websites). During a Nearpod lesson, the teacher can track each student's response as well as track overall class progress. An additional feature allows the teacher to push a student's response out to all devices anonymously for analysis and discussion.

One way Nearpod can facilitate a shift toward student-driven, personalized learning is through use of the Homework feature. The traditional Nearpod lesson feature is teacher-paced. However, the Homework feature allows students to control the pace, reviewing and interacting with content as often as needed to master learning outcomes. The Homework feature can also enable you to "clone" the teacher by pushing out different lessons to different students and/or groups of students. For example, while the teacher works with a small group, the rest of the class can be working on personalized Nearpod lessons with embedded formative assessments. Imagine several different student groups simultaneously each engaging in unique, interactive lessons designed specifically for them while controlling the pace of their learning. While teaching a small group lesson, the teacher can also monitor student responses from other lessons and make immediate adjustments to instruction. 


Socrative has been my go-to online assessment tool for several years. This free web tool has lots of capability and works across devices. Teachers can create self-paced quizzes, exit tickets, and quiz games, or deliver stand-alone multiple-choice, true/false, or short answer questions. Students respond to questions using a computer, tablet, or phone. A variety of devices can be used during any given assessment. My favorite Socrative feature is the report that is generated immediately following each assessment. Each assessment generates a detailed report automatically and instantly. Teachers can download reports or have them sent via email. Learn more and get some great ideas by visiting the Socrative Garden.


Plickers is a low-tech formative assessment option that enables teachers to gather and analyze student responses in real time when student devices are not available. Most digital formative assessment tools require that students have access to devices, either individually or in small groups. With Plickers, only the teacher needs a device. Students respond to multiple-choice items by holding up cards that can be purchased or printed from the Plickers site. As students hold up their cards, the teacher scans the room with a mobile device, instantly collecting individual and whole-class data. A teacher can deliver a Plickers assessment in a minute or less, gathering real-time information about student understanding in time to immediately adjust instruction.  


Kahoot is a game-based assessment tool that appeals to students who love competition. To play Kahoot, students visit kahoot.it on their mobile devices and join the assessment using a code distributed by the teacher. Points are awarded for accuracy and speed, which turns a formative assessment into a fast-paced game. I have used Kahoot with elementary students, college freshmen, and adult learners, and it's always a fun experience. As with the other tools shared in this post, Kahoot provides teachers with the ability to quickly gather information about student learning and use that data to make adjustments to instruction. 

Poll Everywhere

Another assessment tool I use regularly (with my pre-service teachers and during professional development for in-service teachers) is Poll Everywhere, a free polling site that allows you to poll the audience with multiple-choice or open-ended questions. Students can respond via SMS, Twitter, http://pollev.com, or a private link. As you create a poll, you choose how you would like to receive responses. You can give students a few options or narrow their choices to one or two. When you display the poll, on-screen instructions will assist students with responding. Poll Everywhere saves your previous polls so you can review past results at any time. Following a poll, you can instantly generate a word cloud from responses. You also have several options for displaying your questions: embed in a blog or other website, share via Twitter or Facebook, share a live link, embed in PowerPoint, or download for Prezi.

Google Forms

Google Forms are my personal favorite among the types of Google Docs available to Gmail users. Google Forms allows you to quickly create an assessment with a variety of question types: multiple choice, short answer, checkboxes, choose from a list, scale, and grid. You can deliver an assessment via Google Forms by sending the Form through email, sharing the link, or embedding it into a website. The ultimate feature is that Google automatically generates a spreadsheet upon creation of a Form. As soon as you create and save the Form, Google Docs adds a spreadsheet to your Docs list. Each time someone fills out the form, a new row is entered into the spreadsheet containing that individual's responses. Data within the spreadsheet can then be sorted and analyzed quickly and easily. You can also view a summary of responses with just one click, which provides percentages and circle graphs of data collected. If you're interested in using Google Forms for formative assessments, be sure to check out Flubaroo, a script that will enable Google Docs to automatically grade responses to your assessments.


Padlet is another great choice for informal formative assessments. Teachers create a wall, post one or many questions or prompts, and share the link with students who then post their responses to the wall as sticky notes. Teachers have the option to moderate responses, which keeps all sticky notes hidden until approved by the teacher. Sticky notes can contain text, images, video, and links. These media options allow teachers to post image or video prompts or direct students to a website. Students can also include these different types of media in their responses, allowing them to respond creatively. Padlet works great as an exit ticket, a warm-up activity, a status-of-the-class, or a progress check. 

Each of these free web tools enables a teacher to create an assessment within just a few minutes, deliver the assessment through a variety of devices and platforms, collect data instantly, and analyze results to inform future instruction. While these are my top choices, there are many other web tools that would be a good fit for formative assessments. Please leave a comment and tell me about your favorite technology for formative assessments. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Rethinking School: A Conversation for Digital Learning Day 2016

Watch the live feed scheduled for Wednesday, February 17th at 10:00 am ET