Using student responders responsibly

Having spent the better part of the past few years tinkering with technology and assessment, I’ve done a bunch of experimenting with—and writing about—student response systems lately.  I believe that they just might be the key to seeing teachers make real instructional decisions based on data, which is the key to quality formative assessment.

The biggest risk that I see for schools that incorporate student responders into their assessment practices is a subsequent over-reliance on low-level multiple choice questions to gain information about student mastery.  The way I figure, our kids have enough multiple choice in their lives already!

These are exactly the kinds of concerns that I shared in my recent Digitally Speaking column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership—and they are the kinds of concerns that one of my readers from Tennessee emailed me about yesterday.

She wrote:

I can visualize using student responders for science and math, but will be one of those teachers who need “strategies for asking open-ended questions with responders.”  Very few questions I ask in my classes can be answered with a “click.” 

Would you might sending me some examples of the open-ended questions you use in your classes?

Being a language arts/social studies teacher, I can certainly understand how student responders don’t seem all that useful for promoting higher level thinking at first glance!  But if you choose to use responders to ask Likert-scale-style questions, the results can be informative to teachers AND challenging to students.

Here’s a concrete example:  The BBC (Britain’s news service) recently decided to allow the leader of a racist political party to appear on a political news show.  The general public was outraged.  In fact, hundreds of people protested against the BBC’s decision in the streets outside the studio.

Knowing that the ways that governments deal with issues of justice and injustice is a part of my required curriculum, I decided to introduce this current event to my students.  We read this “kid-friendly” version of the story in class and wrestled with whether or not people with controversial views deserve the right to speak publicly on news programs broadcast across entire nations.

If I had our school’s responders—which I didn’t because we only have two sets in the building—-I would have started my lesson with a simple open-ended question that students would have answered with responders:  How important is freedom of speech?

My students would have had 5 “position statements” to choose from that looked something like this:

  1. I believe no one should have freedom of speech.  The government should be able to control speech to make sure no one is ever offended by the words of another because offensive words can end up leading to wars.
  2. I believe that freedom of speech should be carefully monitored and that a list of what is okay to say and what isn’t okay to say should be developed and enforced
  3. I’m not sure how I feel about freedom of speech.  I like having freedom, but can see how it can go wrong
  4. I believe freedom of speech should be a right in almost every situation.  To limit ideas is horrible.  That being said, I don’t think people should have the right to lie or offend others
  5. Freedom of speech is the most important freedom that we have and that it should NEVER be limited, regardless of circumstances.

After we’d gathered and reviewed our initial thoughts with responders, I’d have students share their stance on each position statement.  I might even have students join together with peers who voted the same way to polish their thoughts and then join together with peers who had different positions, providing the opportunity for thinking to be challenged.

Then, we’d read the article together—just as I did in my lesson without responders!  We’d note that the British people didn’t appreciate the speech of this political leader or the decision of the BBC to give an audience to someone pushing hate.  Finally, we’d review the BBC’s position on the protests, which emphasized that protecting freedom of speech was more important than keeping an audience happy.

Finally, I’d have students vote on our initial question again to see if any of their opinions changed.  Whenever I take second votes in activities like these, I force children to make a choice by eliminating the third position statement.  Doing so challenges all children to engage with the controversial issue that we’re studying.

Inevitably, there is lots of “movement” between the first and second votes that we take on controversial topics—and movement becomes a source of great conversations.  I ask individual students to share the evidence or ideas that forced them to change their minds.  Then, I ask students whose opinions remained the same to try and convince our class that they’ve been right all along.

Now don’t get me wrong:  You DON’T need student response systems to pull activities like these off.

I’ve had the same kinds of powerful conversations in my classroom without any technology.  But the kinds of instant visual evidence of ideas and opinions provided by responders is helpful to me as a teacher—allowing me to tailor my approach to the upcoming conversation and to “measure” ambiguous standards in my curriculum—and motivating to my students, who always want to know how their ideas stack up against those of their peers.

More importantly, these are the kinds of activities that teachers who DO HAVE sets of student responders MUST integrate into their instruction.  Without an active focus on increasing the quality of questioning with student response systems, schools will inevitably end up with really expensive, overly-simple multiple choice nightmares.

The best news is that these kinds of activities are possible in any subject area.  Language arts teachers could have students reflect on the decisions of a character in a novel that they are reading.  Science teachers can have students think through the responsibility that nations have for cutting greenhouse gasses and tackling global warming.

In math, students could argue on behalf of different strategies for solving the same problem.  Art classes could debate the value of different styles of painting or the work of a particular artist.  Students in health and/or physical education can decide whose is responsible for the healthy living habits of today’s teens.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that any question that is “likert-able” is also “student responder-able.”

Does this make sense?