How to Make Formative Assessments Powerful Learning Tools

How To Make Formative Assessments Powerful Learning Tools


I’d like to share with you one way to get students to engage in metacognition.  But before I do, let me explain why I believe this is one of the most powerful learning experiences a student can experience.

It is my opinion that if a formative assessment does not provide feedback to the students it is of little use.  In educational training, teacher-evaluation and professional development too much focus is placed on the teacher.  And yet, it is clear, that a motivated student will learn without a teacher. Sometimes, groups of students learn DESPITE bad teaching.  Students that seek understanding, in any topic, are successful.  A quiz or test is more than an evaluation, and in fact, rarely does a student perform in a way that is a surprise to the teacher.  We know who will get an A and who will be middle of the road and so on.  

A quiz should be a learning opportunity. I didn’t say, “A teaching moment,” with intent because learning doesn’t always come from teaching.  We can set up an opportunity before handing back graded quizzes and tests that will be a powerful learning experience for the students.  We just need to get them to think about what they did.

The issue here is, how do you get kids to learn from mistakes on their quizzes and tests?  I mean, they have years of experience doing the following:

  1. Quizzes are handed back.
  2. Kid says to another: What did you get?
  3. Then they say:  Let me see yours … they hold them up side by side seeing if all of the teacher’s marks match.
  4. “Mister, he got one marked wrong that I got right!”
    1. And of course you could ask, How do you know you are right?  Maybe I didn’t mark yours wrong.  Maybe I marked hers wrong on accident.  Maybe you’re both wrong!

Reviewing their own work and thinking about their understanding and performance is perhaps the single biggest learning opportunity that students have at their disposal.  We are remiss, terribly so, if we do not make full use of these opportunities.

But HOW do you get someone to think about their thinking?  You can’t really make them, can you?  It can’t be coerced, tricked or done under threat of punishment.  For someone to be willing to engage in metacongition, they must be intrinsically motivated.

Here’s one way I get students to engage in this.

Before handing back a quiz or test, I review a problem that was largely misunderstood.  Then, I have the students practice a similar problem on their own (from the quiz or test, if possible).  I walk around the room to check for understanding and then after a few moments, I allow them to help each other on the problem briefly.  I continue this as long as I feel is appropriate for the level of competency displayed on the test.

It is absolutely critical that this review is done when the students do not yet have their quizzes or tests back in their possession.

When this method of review is finished, I back their tests and instruct them to find the problems we reviewed as a class.  I ask them to figure out what they could’ve done differently on the test to improve their score.  

Without such a discussion they will often fail to realize how simple sign errors wreck their grades, or how a simple conceptual misunderstanding is causing all of their work to just … well, collapse.  You could encourage students to highlight mistakes and annotate their new understanding by the mistakes, or have them use small sticky notes to write down questions that are still confusing to them.  

This is a powerful technique, but like all methods, their effectiveness diminishes if done too frequently or too infrequently.  I would not try this method on a test where the class average was high.  I believe it is best reserved for those topics students generally struggle with.  I would advise against using this method for a summative assessment (end of unit, where the class will be moving on).


Success Develops Confidence

Education isn’t really about the subject being learned, or the specifics of the topic being practiced.  No, education is about changing who we are for the better by learning how to get more out of ourselves.  An education should change you, change you think, how you see the world and it should change how you carry yourself, for the better.

The following is a story of how facing challenges and experiencing success did just that.

Like a typical freshman girl, Cristina was sometimes awkward, shy, and on occasion, over-reacted to situations. And like most kids, she had more going on in her life than just school.  But, she had a great desire to be successful in the honors math class I taught, Cambridge Math.  However, the challenge was great, and likelihood of success…well, not so great.

See, the previous year, the first our school participated in the Cambridge program, not a single student passed the end of course examination (IGCSE).  In fact, only 8% of students in Arizona passed that year.  To further complicate things, I was now appointed as the new teacher for Cambridge and there was a huge learning curve ahead of me.

So there we were, Cristina and I, facing a difficult situation together.  I’d never taught any honors program and know the teacher that taught Cambridge before me is a quality teacher.  And Cristina, as well as the other students, had never faced a course like this.  At the end of their sophomore year they would take a pair of hand-written tests.  To prepare for the tests the students had two school years to learn everything we teach in Algebra 1 and Geometry, most of what is taught in Algebra 2, Probability and Trigonometry, as well as large portions of Statistics and a handful of other topics not usually taught in the US.  To make it more complicated, most of the test required complex thought and application of concepts in unpredictable, unteachable ways.  To have just 8% of students, and these are honors students, pass in the state of Arizona was alarming to all of us!

Cristina did not stand out as a particularly strong math student.  In fact, when speaking with her mother one day, her mother said, “Cristina’s going to do what Cristina is going to do.  However the day strikes her will determine how the day goes.”

She passed the first year, but not without tears and heartache as she received far lower grades than she ever got in middle school.  There was a lot of frustration and the decision to stay in Cambridge her sophomore year, or move to an easier regular class, was considered at some length.

During her sophomore year she became pretty inconsistent, often sabotaging her own efforts.  I believe she saw herself as a weak math student with little to no chance of success.  Often when we see ourselves in a particular way we unknowingly take steps to fulfill that expectation.  This was unfortunate in Cristina’s case as she’d sometimes lack the discipline to complete homework, and often when it was completed, it was done so in low quality…just to get it done, not to promote learning and to practice.

On one occasion in particular Cristina was become very frustrated with her lack of progress.  Her performance had been suffering, grade dropping and agitation was on the rise!  During class that day we were working on a complex problem, the type they’d see on the difficult portion of the end of course Cambridge exam.  Cristina wasn’t participating, not even working on her own.  I asked her to work and eventually she snapped at me, “Why do I have to do this?!?!”

She’s not a bad kid, and as I mentioned, she had some things going on outside of school that added to her stress.  But, the fact remains, she was sabotaging her own efforts with inconsistent work, poor work ethic and sometimes bad attitude.

Cristina, like many students, would often say things like, “Let’s just get this over with, I’m going to fail anyway.”  I believe those are defense mechanisms, designed to take the sting out of the potential failure.

I encouraged all of the students to try, without reservation.  If they try their best and fail, it’s a win because our best is plastic…it improves or diminishes depending on what we demand of ourselves.  I believe that students that try their best and come up short will over-come, they will succeed!

When test day finally arrived Cristina was a nervous wreck.  I was a nervous wreck.  The students took the tests and we mailed them overseas to Cambridge University to be graded.

And then we waited … and waited… May to August we waited.

The night before the grades we to be released I had nightmares about having to tell students like Cristina that she did not pass.

Cristina passed the Cambridge exams … she did something that over 90% of participating honors students in the state failed to do!  Not only did she pass, she smashed it!  Maybe I’m wrong, but the experience seemed to change her. I believe the success she experienced, not just my class, but her other Cambridge classes (equally difficult) gave her the background to KNOW, not just hope, that she was capable of such difficult tasks.

Cristina just graduated High School.  I spoke with her about writing this blog post about her, and she consented, hoping that sharing her story would embolden others to try their best to achieve their goals, with reckless abandon…swing for the fences, as it were.

Wednesday’s Why

There are many things in math that are just memorized, with little or no understanding of the meaning behind the scenes.  To help promote greater understanding, promote recall and accuracy, but most importantly, to empower people to be able to glean this deeper understanding behind the math by learning how to read the math, I am starting a video series on my YouTube channel called Wednesday's Why.   Every Wednesday I'll take a topic that is either largely misunderstood or just assumed to be true without any questioning and unpack it for you, show you how to read it so that you see what factors are at play.

This last week was the first episode and we tackled a tricky property of exponents.  The video is here below.

Summer School

I am teaching Algebra 1 for summer school this year, finally.  I’ve been teaching Geometry during summer school for a number of years, but prefer to teach Algebra 1.

…but … I’m taking a big risk in summer school this year.  Yup.  And there will be consequences if I fail.

But before I explain those consequences and the risk, let me set the stage.  The first idea is this:  In high school, even good high schools like where I work, there is an enormous amount of pressure on teachers to pass students.  The unintended result is that standards are lowered.  In math, and this is well articulated in nearly every TED Talk about the state of mathematics in education today, but students are taught these disparate procedures.  Students don’t learn concepts and thus cannot connect ideas or build upon past learning.  The end result of trying to make it easier by just showing kids how to arrive at an answer is that math becomes this enormous weight with seemingly thousands of things to memorize and recall.

That is tragic because the beauty of math, to me, is that you only need to understand a few things and those seemingly thousands of things just present themselves to you!

The second idea to consider is the population of students taking Algebra 1 in summer school.  The upperclassmen will have failed many times and will be jaded.  The freshmen will likely be behavior problems.  There will those that failed due to truancy and others still that failed because they’re simply lazy.  Then there will be the truly fearful students and the self-defeating students, those who never give themselves a chance.  (It’s easier to not really try and fail then really try and have to face failure without the out, Well, I never really tried.)   All of these kids have the aptitude to be successful in math, but getting them to realize it is where the art of teaching really comes into play.  The easier group is the very few who truly lack the aptitude in math, though it’s likely all students in summer school would identify themselves as belonging in this group!

The last thing to consider is that learning takes time and the time cannot be compressed.  Yet, summer school will be 11 days per semester, 7 hours of instruction time per day.  One day will be state testing and final exams.  So 10 days of class time.

I have set a goal within those 70 hours, in an environment where it is acceptable to lower standards a little bit, and with a group that would greatly resist pushing themselves.  I want all of the students to be truly proficient in Algebra 1, first semester.  I am going to try and teach them to be aggressive learners who challenge themselves and their understanding.  I want them to be introspective and reflect upon mistakes, beliefs and thinking.

In short, I am going to try and mold their thinking about math and education like I do with my honors students who take the Cambridge IGCSE test.  I will hold the standards high, I will not be dumbing down anything we cover, though I will be selective about the specific things we learn.

At first, students are going to struggle mightly with the idea that I will not be explaining everything to them, I will not be writing out steps.  They will struggle with the idea that their notes should be things they’ve realized, not just things I’ve written. I will be writing as little as possible and guiding them, with vigilant reminders to be actively engaged and so on.

If I am successful then the students will not only learn Algebra 1, but they’ll also recast the light in which they see themselves.  They will learn how to learn.

If I fail, they’ll fail and their bad mindsets will be reinforced by yet another bad experience in math class.  I take a lot of pride in the service I provide to students and this outcome would be completely unacceptable to me!

But, I think the reward is worth the risk.

A few specifics about how I’ll execute my plan … without a plan, remember, a goal is just a dream.

  1. The expectation of active engagement will be made explicit on day one.  (I’ll share the essence of this post with them.)
  2. I will provide accessible and engaging (I hope) support materials for them that focus on concept and show procedure as a consequence of properties of the concept.
  3. Organization:  Students will know the plan for the 11 days, and I will break each day’s activities down for them so they know exactly what to expect.
  4. Remediation plan:  Quizzes will be taken daily, short and sweet.  Students will grade these check-point type quizzes themselves and will be given a small amount of participation points for correct grading.  Homework will be fixing the errors made and completing a remediation assignment.

Here’s a map of what’s going to be covered, generally speaking:

Day 1:  Sets of numbers, prime numbers, LCM/GCF, and Percent problems

Day 2: Time Problems and the calculator, Algebraic Fractions (rational expressions), Order of Operations and function notation introduction.

Day 3:  Square Roots, Cube Roots and Exponents

Day 4: Test 1, Reading and Writing in Algebra, solving simple equations

Day 5: Inequalities, solving rational equations, variation

Day 6: Functions, graphs of various functions, function arithmetic and inverse functions

Day 7: Test 2, Linear Equations introduction, t-charts

Day 8:  Slope, intercepts, graphs of vertical and horizontal lines, slope-intercept form

Day 9: writing equations of lines, parallel and perpendicular lines, linear inequalities

Day 10: Systems of equations by graphing, substitution, elimination

Day 11: Review, Final Exam, AZ Merit

Once summer school begins I’ll be posting a daily vlog on my YouTube channel about how it is going, what I’ve tried and how the students have responded.  So, stayed tuned!


How to Save Time Grading


How to Grade Efficiently

and Promote Assignment Completion


Grading papers is one of the most time-consuming responsibilities of teaching.  Hours upon hours can be, I argue, wasted, pouring over daily homework assignments.  This article will discuss how to integrate awarding credit for daily assignments in a way that saves hours of time while increasing your awareness of student progress, increases student completion rates and better informs students regarding their progress in the subject.

This routine described here is a daily variety, not how I grade quizzes, tests or projects.  However, there are some tips that apply to recording those grades later in this article.

Let’s begin with a question: What is the purpose of homework?  For me, it’s practice needed for students to gain proficiency.  Homework is about trying things, working out how to struggle through difficult problems and making, and learning from, mistakes.  Without effective homework, students will not integrate their learning into a body of knowledge that they can draw upon for application or just recall.

The breadth of the purpose of homework and how that purpose is best served is beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to suggest that homework is something done in their notes, whenever possible.  The reason being is that notes are a receipt of their learning, to be reviewed in the future to help remember observations and important facts.

Overview of How It Works:

At the beginning of class, often before the bell rings, I begin walking around the classroom stamping homework that deserves full credit.  (What merits full credit is up to your discretion, but it should be a clear and consistent expectation, known to students.)  As I circle the room, I look for common mistakes, ask kids if they have questions or difficulties and make small talk.

Students that didn’t do, or complete, the homework have to answer for it on the spot!

Then, I simply mark those that did not receive credit for the homework on a student roster I keep on a clip board.  (For a video of how this works, visit the link here: )

Quick Notes:  This method has students ready for class because they have their notes.  They’ve also asked me questions if they had any, so I can begin with meaningful review.  I also have forced students that are remiss to account for their actions and done so in a way that applies positive peer pressure.  The scores are recorded by leaving blanks for completion and only marking those that do not get credit (which will be very few).

Credit:  I award full credit or zero credit when checking homework.  If a student attempted all problems, with evidence of attempt demonstrated by work shown and questions written, they get full credit.  Those that fail to receive full credit have the opportunity to reclaim 80% (the percentage is arbitrary but again needs to be consistent, clear and known by all), the students must see me during tutoring time by the Friday of the week of the assignment to show that they’ve fulfilled the expectation.  Students that did not attempt the homework can also see me during tutoring time (before or after school, not between class times or lunch), and receive partial credit.

But the rule of being due the Friday of the week assigned is big.  The purpose of homework is practice.  Without proper practice skills and knowledge are not developed.  Homework is not about compliance and fulfilling an expectation with a grade as a reward.  Students that are hustling to complete homework from two months prior are likely not promoting their understanding of current materials.  Plus, by having the time requirement applied to the homework policy, students are not enabled to fall too far behind.

The added bonus is that you will not be buried with make-up work the last week before grades are due to be reported!

Work to be Turned In:  If the nature of the work is not something that can be kept and must be turned in, have the students pass their work forward by row.  As you collect each row’s stack, count them.  If a row’s stack is incomplete, ask who in the row didn’t turn in the work.

If students can NOT fulfill the expectation and only receive a bad grade from it, and that reprimand comes well after the unwanted behavior, they will quite happily go along thinking nothing bad is going to happen.  Having to answer, publically, for their lack of work, especially when the vast majority will work, is a powerful deterrent!  Just as when checking the work of students and asking those who failed to complete for an explanation, this keeps them accountable and will increase the amount of students completing their work.

When collecting the papers, alternate the direction of the stacks and do not mix them up when grading.  This will allow you to quick return the papers after you’ve been done.  If it is a daily practice type of work turned in, I’d suggest awarding full or no credit and only recording, again on the printed class roster, those that were awarded no credit.

Recording Grades:  Whether you’ve collected daily practice or are carefully grading quizzes and tests, how you record those grades can either waste your time, or greatly reduce the amount of time spent.

By recording each grade as it is calculated by hand on the student roster it is quick and easy to transfer them to the computer.  This is a huge time-saving practice.  You don’t need to hunt on the computer screen for each student, and do so for each assignment.  When they’re recorded by hand, you can simply enter the column of numbers in the computer.  When the last name lines up with the last number that you entered, you know they’re all entered correctly.

By following this method, the data entry side of grading is done in a few moments of time instead of over hours, working through those stacks of papers, again!

Final Thoughts:  By looking at, and discussing, homework with students on an individual basis, very briefly, you gain insight into their progress.  They get a chance to ask questions.  Students that need a little bit of motivation receive it as an immediate consequence for poor behavior, rather than waiting until the end of the quarter, when a lot of pressure will be placed on you to help them bring up their grades.

This routine has proven to be a cornerstone of my classroom management.  It gives me a way to set the expectation that we are here to learn and that learning is done through work and reflection.  Students that need discipline receive it immediately and in a way they find uncomfortable, but it is done so with an invitation that guides them to the desired behavior (of completing their work).


How to Study!

Can you think of a thing that more often praised, promoted as virtuous and imperative to success, yet largely remains undefined than studying?  Well, I have four easy steps you can follow to structure your studying and give you great use of your time and will produce excellent outcomes both in the short term (for your quiz), but also improve retention of difficult and elusive topics.

  1.  Set aside time.  You can't rush learning.  I'd suggest starting at least a week before your big test.  Pick a time every night where the only thing you're doing is studying, but the time period doesn't need to be long.  Twenty to thirty minutes should be long enough, provided you study with focus and for several days consecutively.

    The time is required because learning is developing your brain...can't compress the time needed to make learning permanent.

  2. Create a study guide.  List all topics that you've covered in class that might be tested.  When finished, notate which are most difficult for you.  Briefly review the topics you feel are mastered and research the rest.

    To research use the internet, your book, notes, friends and teacher.  But be focused in your questions.  Know what it is you don't know so that your teacher can actually help you!

  3. Practice Problems:  From old tests, quizzes, and homework, create a practice test of your own.  Perform the problems under testing conditions.  If notes are not allowed, don't take practice with notes.

    Pay particular attention to problems you missed on old quizzes and tests.  Learn them, figure them out!  That's the point of studying anyway, right, to learn what you don't know?  Keep practicing until you're solid!

  4.  Nail the test!

If you set aside time and follow through you'll be rock solid.  You can't control what grade you'll get, but you will have taken care of the things within your control.  You'll be confident on test day and things will go well for you.

Thanks for reading.


Things NOT Taught in Teaching College

What College Should Teach You About Teaching

As a salty veteran teacher it is almost sweet seeing the hopeful expectation in the eyes of new teachers.  They've just graduated college and they are ready to fix education.  Thing is, there is much to learn that's not covered in college.  I'd like to share some of those things with you.  Whether you're a salty veteran or wet-behind-the-ears, I think there's something here for you.

Number 1:  The Most Important Skill for Teachers

There is no better skill for a teacher than the ability to get along with others.  This is especially true for those teaching high school.  In high school you'll be navigating around 150 students a day, all with blossoming personalities, body odor, love-interests, extravagant behavior and mood-swings.  If you can't find it in yourself to be gracious for the outrageous behaviors, you'll be in for an unpleasant career.

The thing I always try to remember is that I would NOT want to be judged today for the person I was when I was 15 years old.

Number 2:  Say NO to Your Boss

This is probably the most powerful for new teachers, but all can be victims of being over-worked.  It's true, there's a great need for man-power at a high school.  Class sponsors, club sponsors, coaches, curriculum projects, prom, after school activities and so on are all roles that need to be filled.  The eager, the new, the young and energetic ... well, they're the group most likely to say yes when asked to take on these tasks, so they'll likely be asked first.

But new teachers are the last who should be taking on these additional duties.

You have a limited bandwidth and the more you try to do with that bandwidth, the lower the quality.  Plus, there's a STEEP learning curve to teaching.  The first year should be spent doing nothing but learning how to teach, refining your procedures and practices.  Seriously, spend a lot of energy focusing on how to be efficient and effective.

Saying No to your boss isn't easy, but you can manage.  You won't get fired, they need you.  Just explain that you don't want to take on more than you can handle.  Once you've got a strong grip on the teaching side of things you'll explore taking on other duties.

Number 3:  Don't Grade Everything

Just because students did it doesn't mean you have to grade it.  Sometimes participation or completion is all that needs to be noted.  Think of it this way...the purpose of them working is to promote their learning.  If grading doesn't inform students about their progress (are they even going to consider why they were marked wrong?), and if it doesn't provide meaningful insight for you regarding their progress, then why grade?

And often reviewing the materials completed by students as a class is far more informative to both you and the students than sitting at a desk looking through each problem, making notes for the students and recording all of the scores.

Number 4:  Don't Try and Pacify Parents

If a parent is upset, let them be upset.  If you have a good structure for how their child earns their grade, stick with it.  "Johnny is failing because Johnny hasn't done homework.  Because he hasn't done homework he hasn't learned and he fails the quizzes.  Johnny fails to take advantage of the remediation offered for his quizzes and then fails the tests.  At the end of each class I can get Johnny to understand what he needs to understand.  But then he is responsible for performing the assignments to make his learning permanent."

Again, if parents are upset about grades, stick to your guns.  Whatever your late policy is, stick with it.  I personally do NOT allow late homework past the Friday of the week it was assigned.  End of story, not open for discussion.

Use this line:  "We can't fix the past, can only use the lessons learned from those mistakes to inform our future actions."

Number 5:  You Only Need 2 Pairs of Pants (men)

Monday wear pair 1.  Tuesday wear pair 2.  Wednesday wear pair 1.  Thursday wear pair 2.  Friday is usually casual day, wear jeans.  DONE!


Positive Peer Pressure

Teens are highly social creatures.” – Captain Obvious

One of the most powerful tools a teacher can wield is positive peer pressure.  It can be used to get students to show up to class on time, curb distracting behavior, to promote higher rates of homework completion, and even to get students to study at home on their own.  I’d like to share with you a few ways that I use positive peer pressure to achieve these things.

First, to establish positive peer pressure you must create the perception that the majority of students do the thing you wish them to do.  How you frame statements can go a long way to serving this end.  Consider these examples from outside of the classroom.  (An excellent source of inspiration can be found in this episode of the Freakonomics podcast.)

During the drought crisis in California, a water company added a simple graphic to their billing statements and it drastically reduced water consumption.  The graphic showed something along the lines of, “The average water use in your neighborhood is _________ gallons per month.  This month you used ___________ gallons.”  Electric companies have done similar things and both realized reductions in usage by their customers.  In England, something like, “99% of British citizens pay their tax bill on time,” was added to tax bills and an increase in people paying their taxes on time was realized.  As I mentioned in 6 Ways to Get Students to Class on Time, Stanford University created a video starring upperclassmen who falsely claimed the steps they took as freshmen to promote academic success.  Freshmen were shown the video and academic improvement was realized.

We are far more like herd animals than we realize.  While we do have autonomy, our desire to conform is powerful.  This can be used to improve student behavior and performance in your classroom.  You need to decide what you want your classes to “look” like, then work to create the impression that is how things are.

How Do I Create This Perception?

  1.  When discussing your expectations of students, frame the expectations properly.  Let’s look at homework expectations.  You could say, You have to do your homework, which is often followed by, If you don’t do your homework, this is the consequence.  Not only is this is not framing your expectation as though it’s a common behavior, the statement really says you expect them NOT to do their homework.  Instead say, Students in my class do their homework, that’s why we are successful here. 
  2. When students start to stray you have a great opportunity to lay out the path for them.  Suppose kids are failing because they’re not really paying attention in class.  You could say, “Pay attention!”  You could warn and admonish their behavior.  Or, you could say, This is pretty typical of what happens with Freshmen (or whatever age/class it is).  Every year, about this time, students forget what habits led to their success and suffer some bad grades because of it.  But they always realize this and begin paying attention and participating in class because of it. 
  3. When discussing behaviors, outcomes and habits with your class, frame the bad behaviors in a negative ratio.  An example would be, Out of the 35 students in this class, all but 3 are passing!  That means 32 of the 35 here are passing. To make that even more powerful, before sharing the numbers of students passing or failing, you could ask the students to imagine being in a class where everybody was passing … except “you.”

This is Much More Than Positive Behavior Enforcement

The idea here is to make the desired behaviors the perceived norm.  This is far more than just focusing on good behavior and using positive reinforcement of those behaviors.  You want to be constantly telling a story where the students that exist in your class behave certain desirable ways. The goal is to get the students to look for how common-place and normal the desired behaviors (that you outline) really are.  They will begin policing each other and conforming their own behaviors to fit this story you’ve created.


I hope this has been informative and provided some insight and inspiration for you.  Whether you focus on the positive or negative behavior of your students internally, always vocalize and frame, for the students, that the majority are doing what’s desired from you.  It helps create the norm of behavior and will apply this proxy of peer pressure upon them to do the right thing.

Thank you for reading.

How to Limit Tardiness Without Losing Your Mind

How to Limit Tardies Without Losing Your Mind

Mr. Goodie-Two-Shoes here...sorry...but I might have just a handful of tardies a month.  I teach 4 honors classes now, but switching from the "regular" classes to honors classes didn't impact the number of tardy students I have. I'd like to share with you a few things that I do that I believe contribute to students being on time.

  1.  Fake It 'til You Make It

A few years ago, or so I heard on an episode of Freakonomics (awesome podcast), Stanford University made a video featuring upperclassmen sharing what they did as freshmen when they started to struggle academically.  They said they studied, made friends with good students in their classes, went to tutoring and office hours, went to bed instead of going to parties and so on.  The video was shown to incoming freshmen and there was a significant academic improvement.  The thing is...the video was fake, the students lied.

You just have to tell the lie once, if you follow through with the rest of it.  Just say, "Students are on time to my class!  We start class on time here, that's how we roll."

Now you may be wondering if I'm telling the truth about the low number of tardies in my room, and I am.  However, I have used this Fake It 'til You Make It method for other things, like improving homework completion, but that's another story.

Part of the lore I establish in the students minds is done by planting the seed in their head that being the last person to class is embarrassing.  I tell them to notice that it is generally the case that the kids who show up last have the lowest grades and are the lowest achieving.  (Not always the case depending on the location of the previous class, I explain.  However, it is particularly true for first period and just after lunch.)  The reason this is, I explain, is because their heads aren't in the game.  They're preoccupied with the silly teen-drama that transpires in the hall.

"It's embarrassing to be last."

2. Establish the Expectation

With clarity and direct communication, make sure the students know what is expected of them, and do so with both the positive and negative statements (Be on time, don't be late).  This should be an early-year focus, when you establish your procedures and expectations.

Being specific here is incredibly important.  I spend quite a bit of time explaining that to be on time the students needs to be seated and ready when the bell rings.  On the board, before every class, I have instructions regarding what they need to have ready for the day.  On occasion I ask them to do "bell work," but that is not my routine. Running in the door, standing around the room, or anything else short of being ready when the bell rings is a failure to meet the expectation and they're tardy.

Signs on the wall about tardy policy, marking students tardy and even complaining to and yelling at them will not help.  In fact, if a student is always late and you fail to address them directly and clearly, they have successfully lowered your expectation of their behavior.  Further, they're now in control of establishing classroom norms!  But the classroom norms and group behavior are another topic, and a huge one at that.  More on that in the future.

3.  Start Class on Time

If you're talking with your neighbor teacher, checking email, or watching reading this on the internet when the tardy bell rings you are failing to fulfill your own expectation!

While it irks me when people say, "Teachers are just as bad as students," the sentiment is applicable here.  You are the leader of the classroom.  As leader of the classroom, you set the expectations through example!

So, to help with this be visible before class starts, have clear expectations for what is expected for the day on the board (if it is something that varies from the norm), and welcome them to class.  When the tardy bell rings, don't sit down immediately and take attendance.  Instead, start class by introducing the schedule for the day, reviewing homework, or with a welcoming conversation.  You'll find a moment of time when you can record attendance early in class, and I often ask the students to help me identify who is absent when that moment comes. (Sometimes I have the students practice something brief, retry a homework problem, check an answer with someone, or something along those lines and take attendance then.)

4.  Incentives for Punctuality

I don't believe students should be given candy for doing a basic thing that they should do anyway.  However, a show of gratitude can go a long way!  Just thanking a student who is always ready on time is a positive reinforcement that really helps kids be on time.  Or, perhaps mid-year, try explaining to students that it is important to you that class begins on time and thanking them for being punctual reinforces that the expectation is to be on time.

If you have a class that is made up of students that love to be late, use some positive peer pressure.  Offer to add 5% to the week's quiz if all students can be on time for a certain number of days.  Write it on the board before class, make it a production.  If the extra credit thing doesn't work for you offer something else, (I believe it is a scourge in education because it is used to help students get grades in place of learning).  The idea is, do not take their good behavior for granted.  If they're playing ball with you, acknowledge that.

5.  Consistent Reprimand

A friend of mine has students write a one page tardy essay every time they are tardy.  Another used to make students stand at the back of the classroom for the entire period if they were late.  Another still assigns lunch detention. They're all good if they're done consistently.  However, I prefer to use peer pressure and a bit of embarrassment.

First off, if a student is late they do not get to walk into the classroom as though it is the passing period.  I stop them at the door.  Now, this is a bit difficult to articulate in writing, but it is important you consider the nature of the student.  It matters not to me why they're late, they need to be on time, but sometimes they have a reasonable excuse.  After hearing the reason for tardiness from a student that is usually punctual I will reiterate the expectation and importance of punctuality.

Sometimes, if it is a kid who has a boyfriend or girlfriend that causes them to be late, I won't ask for a reason but will tell them they need a new boy/girl friend, one that cares about their future, "...not one who is selfish and only interested in their own entertainment at your expense.  What are you, a play thing?  What happens when they're tired of you and then you're lonely and uneducated?"  And again, this is said for all to hear.

Yet, a little grace upon occasion can go a long way to promoting your desired end result, students being on time.  Sometimes a student is obviously having a BAD day ... and you don't want to start a fight, you want to teach class and have them be on time so you can better do that.  So, sometimes a gentler approach is better.  After hearing why a student is late (which is done with the full class as audience), I often ask them if they can do me a favor and show up on time tomorrow.

I hope you found this helpful.  Thank you for reading.  If you have questions or comments, please leave them below.  And subscribe for updates on the blog.

For a PDF of this post, click here:  How to Limit Tardies Without Losing Your Mind.

Math Can Not Be Taught, Only Learned

Math is something that cannot be taught, but can be learned.  Yet, math is taught in a top-down style, as if access to information will make a student successful, and remediation is rehearsal of that same information.  Earnest students copy down everything, exactly like the teacher has written on the board, but often still struggle and fail to comprehend what is happening.  I argue that if copying things down was a worthy exercise, why not just copy the textbook, cover to cover.  Of course such an activity would yield little benefit at all because math is a thing you do more than it is a thing you know.  Math is only partly knowledge based and the facts are rarely the issue that causes trouble for students.  I’d like to propose that you, either parent, student, administrator or teacher, considers math in a different light and perhaps with some adjustment the subject that caused such frustration will be a source of celebration.

There are many things that cannot be taught but can be learned.  A few examples are riding a bike, playing an instrument, creative writing and teaching.  Without question knowledge is a key component to all of these things, but it is rarely the limiting factor to success or performance.  Instead, the skill involved is usually the greatest limiting factor.  I argue that to learn these things a series of mistakes, incrementally increasing in complexity, must be made in order to learn.  Let’s see if this will make more sense with a pair of analogies.

First, watching someone perform something that is largely skill-based is of little use.  Consider driving a car.  A fifteen year old child has spent their entire life observing other people drive.  And yet, when they get behind the wheel for the first time, they’re hopelessly dangerous to themselves and all others on, or just near, the roads!

Second considering learning to ride a bike.  Sure, the parts of the bike are explained to the child, but they have to get on and try on their own.  The actually learning doesn’t really occur until the parent lets go (letting go is huge!) and the child rolls along for a few feet until they fall over.  Eventually they get the hang of the balance but then crash because they don’t know how to stop.  After they master braking they crash because they don’t know how to turn.  And then speed, terrain, and other obstacles get thrown in the mix.  Each skill must be mastered in order.  Preemptively explaining the skills, or practicing them out of context does not help the child learn to ride a bike.  They must make the mistakes, reflect, adjust and try again.

What a math teacher can provide is the information required, but more importantly feedback, direction and encouragement.  If a student understands that making mistakes isn’t just part of learning, but that a mistake is the opportunity to learn (and without it only imitation has occurred), and a teacher helps provide guidance, encouragement and feedback, then both parties will experience far greater success.  When a math teacher completes a problem for a student it is similar to an adult taking the bicycle away from the child and riding it for them.  When a student gives up on a problem, it’s as if they stopped the car and got out, allowing the adult to drive them home.

The job of math teacher is perhaps a bad arrangement of words.  Coach, mentor or sponsor is perhaps more appropriate.  There is no magic series of words, chanted under any circumstance, that will enlighten a struggling student.  The frustration making mistakes should be cast in a different light, a positive light.  The responsibility of learning is entirely on the student.  They cannot look to teachers, friends or tutors for much beyond explanation of facts.

In a future post I will explain how too much direction and top-down teaching of math promotes failure of retention and inability to apply skills in new applications.  But for now, please consider that math cannot be taught.  A teacher cannot teach it, but can help a student to learn.
Thank you for reading,

The Bearded Math Man