If You Want To Know, Just Ask!

Who doesn’t love creating/giving/evaluating a good pre-assessment? Not this teacher. But we all know we need to know a baseline for our students. We can assume what our students know about a unit. We can have an idea what they should know based on vertical alignment and what was taught (hopefully)  in previous grades. But let’s be honest, we don’t really know. So we give kids some kind of pre-test. In many evaluation models (for teachers, not kids), pre-tests are required to be a certain number of questions or a certain format. This makes it tough to really see where students are starting from.

And so I say “If you want to know, just ask!”. A multiple choice test might show me which terms they do or do not know, but it doesn’t show me if they can apply those terms. These tests also don’t tell me if they know the concept, but not the terms… or they have no clue on even the big picture. My new favorite pre-assessment is giving kids a slip of paper and telling them “tell me everything you know about “such and such topic”. What they write will BLOW YOUR MIND.

For example, I recently started teaching astronomy. So, I asked kids to tell me what they knew about the Big Bang Theory. I did not expect them to have the dates right or maybe think there was actually a giant explosion. And some kids wrote things that were scientifically accurate. Other wrote things like this:




And my personal favorite:


Even more concerning, in my high school astronomy class (students in grades 10-12) I had several students write something like this:



And that’s fine. But it completely blind sided me. It’s one thing for students to have misconceptions, but a whole other ball of wax when they’ve never even heard of it! Can you imagine if I gave them a vocab/timeline pre-test, which most of them would have done very poorly on, and then just started teaching to the correct answers to that pre-test? They would have had no idea what I’m talking about. Which means they won’t learn what I intend them to learn.

I use this method a LOT. I just really really love for kids to write. Often and about lots of different things. I never ask them to spit information back. I ask them to explain things. I ask them to write whatever they think. Many students (especially our high level kids who are really good at memorizing) struggle with this. They need the practice. So if you need an exact pre & post test, just have them answer that question again at the end. Sure, it’s harder to assess growth than “they improved from 30% to 70% of the questions correct”. But it is so easy to see the progress. They will not write “Nothing” at the end.

Just for fun (and pure terror), here are some other things students have written on that first round.

    Q: What questions do you have about stars?

A1: How many have we visited so far?

A2: Why can’t we go to them and study what they’re made of?

A3: Do they really grant wishes? (I like to hope this was a joke…. but you never can tell.)

Q: Tell me what you know about stem cells.

A: They are the cells in a plant’s stem. (Something along these lines was written by over half of my 9th grade students…)

Let’s not expect our kids to be at a certain level. If they’re there great, if not we need to know and meet them where they are! And the easiest way to tell, is to just ask them. They will tell you exactly what you need to know pretty much every time.

I’d love to hear what questions you ask students. And if you want to share your funny (and sometimes scary) answers, I’d love that too! =)



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