I Took a Break From the Classroom to Help Do Research. It Made Me a Stronger Teacher.
About a decade ago, I felt like I was out of answers about how to help all my students be successful. Admittedly, about 80 percent of them were doing well, but I was having real trouble helping the remaining students gain a firm grasp of math concepts. I was in my 15th year of teaching and I felt that by this point in my career I should know what to do. I didn’t.
Over the years I tried more classwork, less classwork, having students take notes, not having students take notes, working in groups, working alone, more homework, no homework, less homework, extra help sessions and everything in between. Yet nothing I tried had a lasting impact on learning. Then everything changed for me when I began to look at education through the lens of research.
Research turned out to be the best decision of my professional career—one that has made me a much stronger teacher
In the spring of 2012, Neil Heffernan, a well-known computer science professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, asked me to leave my teaching job and help conduct a long-term educational study by training and supporting the teachers that were participating in an independent research project. While I loved teaching, I didn’t want to pass on an opportunity to try something different. It turned out to be the best decision of my professional career—one that has made me a much stronger teacher.
Teacher Turned Research Assistant
One of the reasons Neil tapped me was that for the previous four years I had been using a free online tool with my students called ASSISTments, which was developed by Neil and his team at Worcester Polytechnic. The site features open resource math materials and many of the problems are designed in such a way that students have to solve and explain their answers. I also appreciated the problem sets called skill builders that focuses on one discrete skill and helped me identify gaps in student learning.
ASSISTments was the centerpiece of the educational study, which was attempting to determine whether students learn more when they receive instantaneous feedback on their homework concerning correctness, and when teachers use this data (namely, how well their classes performed on each problem) to drive their homework review.
I learned that if I wanted to improve teaching and learning, I needed to look closely at research studies that showed student growth.
For five years I visited over 70 different teachers in the New England area and watched them teach in their classrooms. Even though I was the one sent to support them, simply by watching them teach I learned countless effective and brilliant teaching techniques. Like many teachers, I’d struggled with students who turned in work without their name on the paper. Yet one day I watched a teacher in Hermon, Me., tell all of her students to point to their name at the top of the paper and write it if it wasn’t there. It’s simple, but extremely effective!
In Vassalboro, Me., I observed a teacher who did not immediately correct a student when he answered incorrectly. I had always made immediate corrections, afraid of increasing confusion, but I was amazed when other students quickly began commenting on the student’s answer and the teacher expertly shifted into facilitating a class discussion on the spot. I realized that none of this might have happened if she had immediately corrected the first student’s response. It was an eye-opening experience for me.
When I wasn’t in the classroom, I was learning how researchers conduct a randomized controlled trial, how they collect data and analyze it and how they publish and publicize the results of the study. In the end, the team found that students did learn significantly more when they received immediate feedback and when their teachers used data, compared to students who learned in more traditional ways.
The researchers surmised that the results came down to two factors. First, students in the ASSISTments classrooms were engaged in their learning while doing the homework assignment, knowing they would find out if they were correct or not right away. When they didn’t answer correctly, they either sought out help in the moment or they asked for help the next day.
In contrast, many students in the traditional classroom were not as engaged during homework review. The researchers theorized that, having completed the assignment many hours earlier, these students had moved on mentally; as a result, they didn’t know if they had answered correctly or incorrectly and so they did not come to class ready to ask questions. Second, teachers in the ASSISTments classroom were able to view a report showing the results of the assignment before students arrived to class; consequently, they knew exactly which problems gave their students the most difficulty.
After seeing the process and the results, I learned that if I wanted to improve teaching and learning, I needed to look closely at research studies that showed student growth.
In the year leading up to my return to the classroom, I spent a significant amount of time looking for research that could help me be a better teacher and updated my classroom practices based on what I learned.
I found an article on Medium called “Teachers Going Gradeless” by Arthur Chiaravalli. In the post, Chiaravalli cites a study in which a researcher looked at feedback given to three groups of students: students receiving grades alone, students receiving comments and grades and students receiving comments only. The research found that students who received comments alone showed the most improvement in their learning.
About a month later I came across a post on Twitter that described the process of the “Thinking Classroom” that was the result of research done by Professor Peter Liljedahl from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He found that when students work in randomized groups while standing at whiteboards they are more apt to get on task faster, take risks in their learning and discuss the math with their peers.
Shortly after, I read the book “Mathematical Mindsets” by Stanford University Professor Jo Boaler that, among other things, discusses how giving students multiple opportunities to show understanding contributes to more learning. After I returned to teaching, I read an article in the Hechinger Report called “Has Video Killed the Red Grading Pen” by Daisy Yuhas. She explains that when you record yourself giving feedback to students, it promotes learning. All of this, along with the results from the ASSISTments study, made me better equipped to be a more effective teacher.
Research to the Rescue
Today, my classroom looks vastly different than it did back in 2012. Students now spend more than half of each class talking about math concepts while working in groups at the whiteboards. After students take assessments, I record a video of myself giving them individual feedback, which they watch the next day in class. And I give them multiple opportunities to show that they have learned a concept by retaking any portion of the assessments with similar problems.
I also stopped including a grade in any of the feedback that I give to students. In fact, I do very little grading in general. Instead, students self-assess their understanding and gather work to back up their self-assessments. They determine their own grade based entirely on the understanding that they have shown. Remarkably, I’ve found that students are extremely candid about how well they understand the material and are more or less on target with the grade they determine for themselves. When they seem off the mark, we conference together and go through a portfolio of their work. And students who believe their grade should be higher get another opportunity to demonstrate that what they have shown so far does not accurately reflect their understanding.
Of course I still use ASSISTments as my homework delivery system so students can benefit from receiving immediate feedback and I can drive my homework review using data. I also use a new feature that allows me to create help videos that appear automatically after a student has incorrectly attempted the problem a few times.
After making these changes, I have seen a major shift in understanding by all of my students, particularly the 20 percent that struggled year after year in math. Students that declared early in the school year that they “aren’t good at math” have not only shown strong gains in understanding, but they leave the class at the end of the year declaring that “math is their favorite subject.” Parents have been very supportive of the change and, in over two years of teaching in this fashion, I’ve yet to receive a complaint. Instead, parents have praised the structure of the class in helping their child understand and feel confident about math.
I have always enjoyed teaching, but lately I am more excited to be teaching than at any point in my career. I feel as though I am really making a difference in my students’ education. But you don’t have to take my word for it. It’s all there in the research.