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Using a closure activity for formative assessment (alternative title: Let’s try that again.)

If you are one of the seven people that regularly read my blog, you know that I’ve started using a closure activity most days in my classes. (I referenced these closure activities in this blog post.) I’d like to share a few anecdotes about closure activities, then share some evidence with you that make the case for continuing this as a learning and teaching practice.

My seniors are a fantastic group of students and human beings. I love teaching them. Many of them I’ve known since 9th grade. The plus side is that I have strong relationships with them. The negative of this is we can get a bit too comfortable and apathetic to pushing ourselves beyond the norm. (That’s more about me pushing them to get better and far less about them pushing themselves. They all work extremely hard as IB Diploma students.) Last week I wrapped up class with a closure activity and one of the seniors said, “Mr. Thomson, I’m actually enjoying these closure activities.” I just about danced a jig right there. YES!

In this same class, just Monday, I had a two-hour block that included a lab on redox reactions. The students white-boarded their diagrams (a big plus!) for voltaic cells, then completed a few redox reactions. I thought they lost a bit of focus at the end of class. Who can blame them, really, after a two-hour block. The conversations were drifting to other topics. I wasn’t as focused as I should be in class. But about 8 minutes before class ended, I remembered that I wanted to use another closure activity. I asked them to draw a diagram of a voltaic cell, including all the required parts. For the next 6 minutes 23 seconds, the room was darn near silent as each student was working on their diagrams, processing the day’s work. The shift from restless and unfocused to extremely focused and thoughtful was impressive.

And this leads me to a few thoughts.

I use closure activities to accomplish a few objectives.

  1. I ask for feedback on a teaching and learning activity. As an example, today’s closure activity for these same seniors started with these two questions:

    1.How helpful (on a scale from 1-4) was today’s warm-up in understanding voltaic cells?
    2.Comments/feedback on the warm-up?

    I often use questions of this type to elicit ideas from my students about a teaching method I’m using and to see what worked for them and what suggestions they have. They often come up with ideas I hadn’t thought of and I occasionally end up trying out their ideas. I use a spreadsheet to track the feedback and refer to previous questions to make changes to my teaching. As an example, I used whiteboarding with this group of seniors to practice a Mock Paper 2. It was an unmitigated disaster. Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but on the 1-4 rating scale the average score was 2.42. This is the lowest score of any learning activity since I’ve been collecting feedback. The mood in the room that day just wasn’t productive. And as the ‘coach’ of the group, I wanted to make improvements and try again. So I used only one problem today – with a slightly different format – and the results were astounding. The average score on today’s rating was 3.86, the highest rating yet. Ironic that the same activity – wtih some tweaking based on feedback from students – would go from the lowest to the highest rating in this un-scientific poll I use. I guess the bottom line here is that I really value the feedback and I love that I now have a mechanism in place to get feedback frequently, rather than just waiting until the end of the semester.

  2. The second objective with my closure activity I described above. It brings the students back to a ‘learning mode’ at the end of a class when things can get hectic. It allows them to put the finishing touches on the main ideas for the day. The focus I described above wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t utilized this technique – or some alternative that would accomplish the same objective. The value of the closure activity was sealed in my mind on Monday with this group of students.
  3. And the third main objective from my closure activities is to gather some formative assessment data. Most days, I ask some sort of simple question related to the day’s concepts. For the seniors today, it related to voltaic cells again, when I asked the following question: “Draw – on the particle level – what is happening at the anode and cathode of a magnesium/copper voltaic cell.” The answers were really across the spectrum. Some simply drew another voltaic cell. That wasn’t what I was looking for in a good reply. And while I did get a few answers that showed some understanding at the particle level, I see that I have a bit more work to do with them to help them understand the movement of electrons into and out of atoms/ions and what is happening as the oxidation and reduction take place in the voltaic cell. So when I see them next on Tuesday – after a four-day weekend  for Thanksgiving – I’ll be starting the lesson with an animation of the process to help them in this area of understanding.
    For my juniors today, we’re working on stoichiometry. I had them whiteboarding in small groups on the problem solving. And at the end, I gave them a mass-mass stoichiometry probelm. Of the 14 students, 10 got the answer correct, with a few small mistakes and a few large mistakes by the others. One student made the same mistakes on the prompt at the end that were being made earlier during whiteboarding. This shows me I need to be more proactive in correcting these mistakes during the group work. So I’ll be tweaking my method a little more to make it more meaningful and productive.
The title says it all here. I use closure activities for formative assessment and gain valuable data. But it also allows me to try things again after making changes based on feedback from my students – and from the data. I create an opportunity for a do-over where needed, either because I need to change a method or re-teach something that didn’t quite stick.
To say that the closure activities have had a significant impact on my teaching almost seems like an understatement at this point. In the hopes of getting some discussion going in the comments, what closure activities do you use? What works? What suggestions do you have?
Thanks.
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