Paying attention to what students do in class: Proximal formative assessment (#AAPTsm11)

by Stephanie Chasteen on August 15, 2011

The final day of the Physics Education Research Conference (PERC) I went to a session all about proximal formative assessment.  Proximal formative assessment is the “teachers’ continual, responsive attention to learners’ developing understanding as it is expressed verbally moment to moment:  the process by which teachers carefully attend to specific aspects of individual learners’ developing understanding, as instruction is taking place in real time,” according to the session organizers.  You can see all the poster descriptions online.

It’s incredibly interesting to think about how we, as teachers, respond to our students’ thinking in the moment.  I find this to be one of the most challenging aspects of teaching — and probably what distinguishes me from a master teacher.  I’m still struggling to understand what the student is thinking and to compare it to my expert understanding of the topic — whereas for a master teacher this is all much more automatic and their response can be more nuanced and productively guide the students’ thinking.

Because this is a challenge to learn, one researcher (Eleanor Close) advocated the use of video analysis in teacher professional development to help them become more sophisticated in their response to student thinking.  In this “video club,” which met every 2-3 weeks, a group of teachers worked together to look at a class video and discuss what they saw in student thinking.  We can characterize the teachers’ levels of analysis of the video as follows:

  1. Stating what students said
  2. Working to understand the meaning of student statements
  3. Generalizing and synthesizing to characterize the nature of student understanding.  I.e., what is their underlying mental model?

She found that teachers did more of #1 and #2 than #3 — not surprising to me, that’s hard.  She argues that watching video like this trains a teacher to do more rapid proximal formative assessment.  Once you’re better at it, you can do it faster in the classroom.  “Video is the microscope of the social sciences,” pointed out one participant.

So, I thought that was great.  Then I went on to Rachel Scherr’s poster.  Rachel typically thinks a lot about just how the teacher presents him or herself to students, and how much he/she respects the students.  She drew some fascinating parallels between therapy and teaching, and what makes an effective teacher (or therapist) in her poster.

In the early days of psychology, the patients were seen as children who needed to be treated harshly in order to behave.  Freud’s whole approach to therapy was that the therapist should be distant and somewhat harsh.  Then along came Carl Rogers, with his humanistic approach to therapy.  He felt that people are genuinely resourceful and would like to improve themselves, and that self-examination requires courage.  So, a therapist can help in this process by being genuine, emphathetic, and caring.  This open environment, he argued, was rare — our typical interactions with other people are remote and false and judgemental.  So, to support self-change, this unique environment was important.

Now apply that to teaching.  Is a teacher…

Genuine? Are they congruent, open, and true to themselves?  We feel secure interacting with someone when we know where they stand.  This isn’t falsely approving or “buttering up” the student, but rather being the true “you” that would promote student learning?

Acceptant? Is the teacher approaching the student with positive anticipation, or unconditional positive regard?

Empathetic? Does the teacher try to see the experience through the students’ eyes?

She presented her analysis of two TA’s and their interactions with students.  One was relaxed, answered students’ questions directly, mirrored back their understanding to them to help clarify, and the discussion then moved forward without him.

On the other hand was a TA that was seen as presentational, vigilant, and evaluative.  Students were anxious, because they weren’t sure where he stood.  He has a poker face; he clearly thought their graph was wrong, but wouldn’t say it — he just hinted that there was something wrong in a way that kept the students not sure what he was getting at.  He was probably trying not to give away the answer or impose his ideas, but the problem was that he was hiding what he thought in a way that came across as judgmental and non-respectful.  He focused on the negative aspects of their graph without pointing out the parts that were correct.  He directed the conversation while he interacted with the students.  And when he left?  One students’ head drops into her hands in despair “Torture, this is torture.”

What different outcomes!  All from a very different attitude on the part of the TA.  The second TA, we conjectured, is a new teacher and an anxious teacher.  He’s trying… he’s asking questions and trying not to give answers, but isn’t being up front about what he thinks.

So, because it’s so hard to respond to students’ ideas in the moment, it seems that working together on watching video like this would be a very good way for us to all get better at this on-the-fly formative assessment, and noticing and giving weight to the ways that we interact with students that either elicit their ideas in a positive way and help them move forward… or shut them down and create a wall between us.

Image from Mosborne01 on Wikimedia

{ 1 comment }

Dorrie August 16, 2011 at 11:58 am

Yes, I think of this as the heart of my teaching — caring support, “positive expectations” (from our school’s philosophy statement), and really trying my best to understand what the student is thinking, then ideally, asking the right questions that have the student be able to critique her conceptual model. Interestingly, the summer institute with McDermott’s group at the University of Washington profoundly shaped the intellectual aspect of doing that questioning; Rachel Scherr was then a grad student there.

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