Formative Data Best Practices- Lessons Learned From a Box of Chocolates

Thursday, April 25, 2013 -- Tina McMechen

It was a perfect February evening. My husband had just given me a dozen red roses and wished me a very happy Valentine’s Day. Two of my three children were perched on barstools, eyeballing the velvet-covered box on the counter. It was abundantly clear that their plan was to devour the entire contents of chocolaty goodness in one sitting. Alas, it was a school night, so I told them they could each select only one piece of candy.

As it turns out, the scene that followed was a perfect lesson in formative data best practices. As educators, we may only get one shot at making a difference in our students’ lives.  Do we try a flipped classroom? Do we merge all of our developmental education courses into one?  Do we team teach basic skills with our vocational cluster instructors?  What is going to be our one “piece of candy” to get us through the long dark night of budget cuts and learner under-preparedness plaguing our programs today?

By incorporating the lessons that I learned on that fateful Valentine’s eve, I would argue that the number one investment to impact student success is providing your instructors with the tools they need to navigate today’s challenging and complex teaching environment.

DATA- The first thing my children did was pull out and inspect the insert in the top of the candy box. Written in calligraphy on a thin piece of paper was the information they would need to make their final decision about which candy to choose.  In the education environment, we need to collect both formative and summative data.  Because many of our community college and adult education teachers never took a graduate level qualitative/quantitative statistics class, we must empower them with the tools they need to collect data that can be used to make sound decisions. At Edmentum, a perfect example of this is the mastery test for each discrete learning objective. Our mastery tests will tell you more than, “Bob is having trouble with fractions.”  We can tell you, “Bob has mastered adding fractions, but he’s still struggling with fraction multiplication.”

DIFFERENTIATION- Once teachers collect the information they need, they must understand how to analyze and interpret the results. If you skip this step, then you are blindly reaching into the candy box and grabbing the first raspberry chew you come across (YUCK!). Good interpretation of data takes time, which is a luxury many instructors don’t have.  Why not make this step as painless as possible? If you organize the instructional environment around desired outcomes and results, the data will naturally flow into meaningful and relevant silos that can be easily interpreted and used to make daily classroom decisions.

CREATING PARTNERSHIPS- I observed my children asking each other, “Have you ever tried the caramel delight? Was it good?”  Sharing our hypotheses and strategies with other educators is a great way to ensure we’re constantly improving our instructional quality. However, I would argue that it’s even more important to form partnerships with our students.  If you think about it, the onus is really on them to take responsibility for their education.   For example, in a flipped classroom environment, what we’re really asking them to do is step up to the plate and come to class ready to engage in conversation. Forming partnerships with students is something that requires careful planning. However, if executed correctly, these partnerships will create an environment where learners have the opportunity to provide input on what they are learning and the pace at which instruction is administered.   

To (sort of) quote Forrest Gump, “Every semester is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” By investing in your instructors, you will see tremendous gains toward attaining your final goal, which is a better graduation or completion rate. Or maybe your goal is to find the strawberry crème, which is my personal favorite!