Simple Yet Powerful Formative Assessment of IR with Sarah Rust

IR Sticky 3

Every Wednesday is Independent Reading (IR) day here in our Language Arts classes here at NHS.  Today, Language Arts teacher Sarah Rust, one of our awesome collaborative partners, did this very simple yet interesting formative assessment with her students.   The instructions:

IR Post It Instructions Rust

Students selected a sticky note of a color of their choosing and then composed their responses.  As an extra touch to celebrate the concept of IR, Ms. Rust then took their responses and fashioned them into the letters “IR.”   While this idea seems simple on the surface, the student responses were revealing and showed a wide range of book selections as well as reactions to the IR experience.  These can be a springboard to future IR learning activities and learning experiences for book selection and peer sharing.

IR Sticky 2


IR Sticky 4


It’s another reason why sticky notes are my favorite “technology” as of late!  This approach is a great way to do a quick individual assessment of student learning or where they are with their current IR as well as make an artistic class statement that represents every student voice.

Sticky Notes as Formative Assessment for Information Literacy Instruction: Coding Student Responses

Yesterday I blogged about our pre-searching activities and the use of sticky notes for some gentle formative assessment.  Today I want to share how I went about coding the student responses not only to get a sense of students’ thinking during the two days of pre-searching, but to also use the data as a baseline of sorts in hopefully looking a broad collection of their work as we try to track their trajectory of growth and progress through this extended research unit.

Coding Information Sources

I began by removing the sticky notes for each period from the whiteboards and affixing them to large post-it notes and labeling each grouping by period and response type.  The next challenge was to think of categories for coding the student responses.  The “information sources used” was the easiest starting point, so I began there.

Coding "Information Sources Used" Sticky Notes from Days 1 and 2 of PreSearch, 3rd Period #rustyq

I listed all the information sources from the LibGuide for the project and then tallied responses.  I wound up adding Google as another category since some students indicated they had used this search engine.  Here are the results by period:

2nd period Rust Sources Used Sticky Note Data PreSearch October 2014


3rd  period Rust Sources Used Sticky Note Data PreSearch October 2014

In both classes, it appears Gale Opposing Viewpoints was a starting point for the majority of students; Gale Science in Context was next in popularity.  2nd period seemed to like SweetSearch and self-selected information sources while 3rd period leaned more heavily toward Academic Search Complete.

When we look at the updated topics roster (while taking into account the intiial list of topics they had generated), the numbers are not too surprising.  I know that many of them will benefit from some guidance into specific databases and search tools that will align with their topic choices as we move deeper into the project, but I’m not terribly surprised by what I see from the first two days of the risk free pre-search time to just hone down an interest area for one broad topic.  This data, though, does suggest to me that there may be sources unfamiliar to students or they have used minimally in the past (as do the results from the information literacy skills needs survey we did via index cards with Ms. Rust a few weeks ago).


My categories for coding the questions students generated included:

  • Who
  • What
  • Where
  • When
  • How or Why?
  • Topic Clarification
  • Question about the research or the assignment
  • Other (other types of questions i.e. Is Finland’s educational system superior to the United States?)
  • None

2nd period posed 15 “how/why” questions and 11 questions that fell under “other”; there were four “who” questions and 6 “what” questions; three students did not note any questions.  3rd period generated questions that primarily fell under “what” (4), “how/why” (4), research/assignment questions (6), or “other” (6); five students did not generate any questions.  Clearly, there is a stark contrast between the two classes in the types of questions they generated.  This data may indicate that 3rd period may need more guided help in engaging more deeply with their articles OR strategies for generating questions.

Discoveries and Insights

For this group of sticky note responses, I created these coding categories:

  • Fact or concrete detail
  • Concept/Conceptual
  • Question
  • Reflection
  • Commentary/Opinion/Reaction

Once I began taking a pass through the student responses, I realized I need four additional categories:

  • Topic Ideas
  • Sources
  • None
  • Other

Second period students primarily recorded facts or concrete details for their notes; however, several used this space to think through additional topic ideas; the pattern was nearly identical in 3rd period.  I was not surprised by these findings since students spent only two days doing light pre-search and I knew in advance that getting enough information to eliminate some topic areas of interest would be where many would expend their time and energy.

Final Thoughts

The pre-search activity and days were designed to help students rule out some topics and have time to explore those of interest and our sticky note method of formative assessment was one we felt would give us feedback without imposing a structure that would be time-consuming for students since we really wanted them to channel their energies into reading and learning more about their topic lists.  While some of the data I coded was not surprising, I was really struck by the differences in the types of questions they generated.  Right now I don’t know if this means one class might need more help in generating questions from informational texts or if perhaps they were approaching the reading and activity in a different way that didn’t lend itself to composing lots of questions at that early juncture in time.

If you are incorporating pre-search as part of the connecting cycle of inquiry, what kinds of formative assessments do you use?  If you code student responses, how do you approach that process, and how do you use that data to inform your instructional design?   I find this kind of work interesting—I am looking forward to seeing if any of these gray areas or perceived gaps come to light as we move further into our research unit this month.

Action and Reflection: Aligning and Mapping the Work of a Library to Its Community of Learning

Photo by Buffy Hamilton

Photo by Buffy Hamilton

While I was in Cleveland, Ohio as Learning Strategist for the Cleveland Public Library, I was fortunate to see the work of many different kinds of organizations outside of education who were interested in supporting learning for people of all ages in formal and informal spaces.  One of the most interesting experiences was going with my friend and colleague Jennifer Schwelik of INFOhio to visit Patti Choby at the Cobalt Group.  During my visit there, I had the opportunity to learn about their work with the Broadway P-16 initiative [learn more here] and how they were mapping and aligning their work with other community organizations and initiatives with a simple yet effective approach utilizing old-fashioned bulletin board material, giant Post-It notes, construction paper, notecards, and painter’s tape.  The effect, though, was anything but stale—this living organic wall really invited me in to the work they were doing and to see in a very present sort of way the alignment of their work with other groups to address community needs and initiatives.  These kinds of experiences and my work with Tim Diamond and Anastasia Diamond-Ortiz in the Knowledge Office at CPL very much continue to inform my work in the present since our regular and deep conversations about community engagement, the user experience, data visualization, and participatory learning translate across many kinds of libraries and learning spaces.

Jennifer Lund, my wonderful fellow librarian here at Norcross High School,  and I are working on what we call our “grand vision” action plan to elevate our media center as an integral learning space for formal and informal learning experiences here in our NHS community.  Each curriculum area is currently establishing literacy goals across content areas to support one of our school’s LSPI (Local School Plan for Improvement) targets of identifying best strategies for building literacy skills.  After some meetings and conversations with departments and faculty, we were thinking about how we could connect our work as professionals and goals for the media program with the academic goals of each department.  I suddenly remembered the wall, and Jennifer and I both feel that the Cobalt group model is one we’d like to replicate both in the library physical space (we have a wall picked out in our office) and in a virtual way.

Slide38Our “wall” will represent  how we are aligning our work with teaching and learning to each curriculum area’s (by subject and grade level) literacy goal.   This “wall” will help us document and capture learning artifacts that show how we as school librarians are collaborating with faculty and students to co-develop learning targets, strategies for teaching and learning, assessments, and tools/resources for learning with each co-designed project we craft together.  By mapping and aligning our collaborative work to each curriculum and grade level’s literacy goals,  not only will we show our work in an explicit and visible way, but we will also have a body of evidence based practices and data (qualitative and quantitative)  to help us reflect more deeply on the ways we’re supporting a diverse range of literacy practices and inquiry across different subject areas and grade levels to better understand how  our work impacts teaching and learning at NHS.  We also feel this more explicit and deliberate mapping and alignment of our work to that of content area collaboration will enable us to work more closely with faculty and students to work together as an interdisciplinary innovation hub.  While I may no longer officially hold the title of Learning Strategist, I feel that is exactly the role that both Jennifer and I are happily embracing here at NHS.

We’ll also look to the work from our peers like Brian Mathews and Char Booth who have done similar mapping projects to better understand learner experiences and act as reflective practitioners who with our teaching colleagues can act on those understandings and insights to elevate the culture of teaching and learning in our community.  Slide39It is our hope that our “wall” of mapping and alignment will reveal intersections as well as gaps to help us all collectively dwell in an inquiry stance on how we might define and expand our concepts of literacy and what counts as literacy practices.   We’re so truly stoked about the possibilities this collaborative work could provide to help all of us think about literacy in deeper and more diverse ways that could ultimately help our library and school do transformative work as a community.  We look forward to growing our wall and sharing with you our insights and experiences with this mapping and alignment project over the next year!

ALAO Distance Learning Interest Group and Instruction Interest Group Spring Workshop 2013– Making Noise in the Library: Advocating for Our Students and Our Libraries

ALAO SwagMany thanks to the ALAO Distance Learning Interest Group and Instruction Interest Group for inviting me to be part of a day of conversation and learning about advocating for our students, student learning, and libraries!  I’m lucky enough to have been part of an ALAO  (Academic Library Association of Ohio) learning event twice within a year, and I appreciate how they inspire and inform my thinking.  I’m including two pieces of content in this post that I crafted and facilitated for today’s day of learning and sharing:

1. Morning Keynote:  Moving from Nice to Necessary: Academic Libraries and Communities Collaboratively Composing Participatory Practices of Learning

PDF:  Moving from Nice to Necessary: Academic Libraries and Communities Collaboratively Composing Participatory Practices of Learning

2.  Afternoon Small to Large Group Conversation:  Assessing Student Learning –we met in small groups to discuss conversation points about assessing student learning and then shared our thinking as a large group.  I invite you to keep the conversation going in this public Google Document where I gathered our large group responses and invite you to contribute your thoughts/experiences/questions.  

Inquiry, Formative Assessment, and Student Learning Communities: Research Reflections Roundtable

Earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of listening to students and letting that inform our instructional design, learning activities, and mediums for assessment.  With that in mind, Susan Lester and I decided to utilize face to face conversation instead of a class blog or other virtual medium for students to share their research topics, challenges, successes, and questions up to this point in our Spring 2012 inquiry into war and veterans’ issues.  Students completed their research design proposals prior to our spring break on March 30 and received written and verbal feedback immediately after spring break; since then, they have been working on organizing their PLE dashboard and going further into their research after our initial pre-search period that helped them get to the point of submitting their research design proposal.

Our method was fairly simple:  we met in Susan’s room this past Friday, April 20 (the library was packed) and gave students about 5 minutes to reflect individually or with their research partners (some students are researching solo; others are working in small groups) on the following questions:

1. Share your topic and three big research questions with the group.

2. What are the best information sources you have found so far? Why? Share your top 3 at this point.

3. What are some of your research challenges? How have you dealt with them or what do you need help with?

4. What is your progress/status on locating and emailing an expert for an interview?

5. Which information dashboard are you using (Symbaloo or Netvibes)? How is that working for you? What have you added to it so far?

6. What questions or muddy points do you have for Ms. Lester or Ms. Hamilton?

We then gave every student an opportunity to share and discuss his/her responses to those six questions; if students worked in groups, they worked out among themselves who would discuss each question although most groups answered these collaboratively for each question.   Another benefit to the face to face sharing was that both students and teachers could ask each other for clarification when we didn’t fully understand what someone else had shared.  While the process was no-tech and seemingly simple, the results were powerful for students and for us as teachers.  Every person had an opportunity to have his/her voice heard–this communal sharing of ideas allowed us to all interact, pose questions, and provide support for each other in the moment of the discussion.   Because our students had previously shared they prefer face to face communication, we wanted to honor that, and quite honestly, I think this way of sharing was far richer for them than posting on a class blog.  While I’d love to eventually nudge them to sharing with a more global audience, our face to face sharing was a chance for them to hear about the work of their peers and to share within our immediate learning community.

For Susan and I, this research roundtable was a formative assessment that has given us these insights:

  • We’re seeing patterns of common issues and challenges students were facing—right now, getting the right combination of search terms is a challenge for some of our researchers.  Consequently, I now have a schedule to provide some 1:1 “triage” to those students this week.  Now I can provide meaningful intervention for those who need it to get them “unstuck” in the inquiry process.
  • We’re also seeing patterns of what students feel are the most helpful sources for different topics as well as sources that students might not be utilizing or need help navigating.   Students cited Gale Opposing Viewpoints, Academic Search Complete, SIRS Issues Researcher as their favorite databases; others shared they found SweetSearch and Google News to be valuable search portals for current news articles and informative and credible websites.
  • We learned that students are now going back and rereading articles more closely when they feel they are having difficulty understanding the article or not initially finding the information they’re seeking in the first pass of the article.  We were heartened that they are demonstrating more resilience and persistence in this area and taking time to reread their resources more deeply rather than skimming, scanning, and abandoning the article.
  • As expected, some students find Netvibes to be a more useful information dashboard while others prefer the streamlined feel of Symbaloo; this information was not surprising, but I think it was good for the kids to see that everyone has reasons for their choices, and that there is no “wrong” or “right” medium for organizing your PLE.  Interestingly, many students stated they liked working off their EasyBib lists and were utilizing it heavily as a “go to” tool on their information dashboard.  For the Netvibes users, most felt that once they got past the initial learning curve, they were especially happy with that choice; a couple of students felt extremely passionate about it, and one declared it to be “awesome“!

For me, the experience reaffirmed how much I love working closely with a specific class for an extended period of time–I love getting to know the students better as learners and as individuals; I also relish having chunks of uninterrupted time to really listen closely and have these conversations for learning.  Unfortunately, I’m spread too thin this year to do this kind of activity as much as I’d like.  I’m also grateful to work with teachers like Susan Lester who understand that inquiry takes time and who keep learning at the center of what we do by being open and receptive to these kinds of learning experiences.

Formative assessments like these go a long way in helping us improve our instructional design and to make adjustments in response to the needs of students.  I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating that we see a higher quality of learning products and more positive movement on the learning continuum when we engage in sound, thoughtful instructional design and incorporate multiple formative assessments into the learning process.   Research experiences that lack these essential elements and don’t provide a healthy measure of ownership and choice pretty much guarantee poor work and/or rampant plagiarism.  This “research reflections roundtable” is one that can be adapted for any age group and can be a valuable learning experience for both students and teachers.  Best of all, it’s free, immediate, and easy to implement–all you need is time, space, an open mind, and an attentive ear!