Two lame teacher questions, and I cringe every time I hear myself ask them, but they still slip out too often: “Does that make sense?” and “Does everyone understand?” I mean, face it: the only student who might venture a negative response would be one who is intellectually self-aware enough to know she’s unclear, academically engaged enough to care, and socially secure (or oblivious) enough to say so. I think I might have had two of those in my nearly 30 years of teaching.
So what do we do instead?
I used to give a lot of quizzes and tests. Then I scaled way back as I became convinced that what I really want students to learn in my English class is not that Hamlet said, “To be or not to be,” or that “to be” is an infinitive. What I really want them to learn is the transfer skills of reading, writing, thinking, listening, and speaking, and the mastery of those skills is most validly and authentically assessed in performance—not with multiple choice tests.
Then this summer I read Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, which convinced me I’ve been skipping a crucial rung on the skill-mastery ladder. (See here for my blog on the book.) Medical students and pilots in training are learning transferrable skills that will be applied in innumerable different situations, but first there are tests and simulations so that the necessary information becomes instantly retrievable and the necessary skills second nature.
What does this look like in English class? I teach (or re-teach) a skill, like punctuating dialogue. Students practice, then do a formative assessment to see where their understanding is, get more teaching and practice if necessary, then apply their skill in their writing.
Or that’s what it should look like. I forgot again.
Here’s what really happened: I taught a mini-lesson on punctuating dialogue. It was marvelously embedded in our reading: we inferred the rules from the short Amy Tan narrative “Fish Cheeks” that we’d read. (Plus this should be review from, like, elementary school, right?)
When I asked (cringe), “Does that make sense?” the students all nodded their heads. Then they wrote an essay draft in which there were many errors in dialogue punctuation. I reviewed the rules, and the students again nodded their heads that it made sense. They edited their drafts and turned in final narratives that…still had errors in dialogue punctuation. I went over the concepts a third time, promising a quiz. They all nodded their heads that they got it. And quiz results demonstrated otherwise.
This was less a failure of students to learn than of me, the teacher, to use the good pedagogy that I knew. How will I redeem myself for now and help my students learn? Go back where I should have started—treat the quiz as a formative assessment, offer reteaching, practice, and a re-take for those who need it. And once that missed step has been retraced, I will definitely expect to see the skill transferred to their next piece of writing, because I’ll know I’ve taught it and they’ve learned it.
What did I learn? Talk doesn’t stick. Asking “Does that make sense?” gives students no traction for identifying their own misunderstandings. Rehearsal and quizzing aren’t the goal of education, but they are essential building blocks for constructing the goal of transferrable knowledge and skills.
Don’t forget to give students chances to actually do the goal, to be writers and scientists and artists and mathematicians and historians—they shouldn’t be enduring 17 years of drill and testing solely for the promise of what they’ll be able to do “in real life,” some day. And don’t forget to help them understand how the individual skills and pieces of knowledge support that goal. (See here for my big understanding of editing skills: Editing is hygiene for your writing.)
But neither should we neglect the practice and quizzing that will identify misunderstandings and make the skills they need reflexive and the knowledge they need available for immediate recall. Then they will be free to creatively use the skills and knowledge to respond to new situations. After all, that’s how surgeons get to the point where they can develop new techniques and pilots save lives under the emergency of mechanical malfunctions.