Teaching is a very tough job. You have 24, or more, students in a class 5-6 times a day. There is a lot going on in the class and it is very easy to get overwhelmed when you are trying to help every student be successful. Many teachers make this even tougher on themselves by forgoing the effective use of data. They think that their observations, which can be one form of data but not the only kind we collect, will be enough to tell how each student is doing. They think that by noticing which students ask questions, what questions they ask, whether they are working or not, and how they are interacting with other students, is enough to tell who is learning and who is not.
That is a lot of information and it is very easy to miss something. Data is not just a number, it is a way that we can identify students who need help without having to wait until a summative assessment or grading reporting period. We want students to learn and we can’t just hope that they are learning, we should know if they are learning or not. Finding ways to collect meaningful data and then actually use that data, is a way for us to be better at what we do and to ensure that students learn. Those who think they can tell everything from just observations or homework, are just doing a disservice to themselves and their students.
Our perceptions of our students, and how well they are learning, can be influenced by many factors. How much class they miss, how they interact with others, how they write, how they speak, how quickly they read, how much they speak up in class, even how they smell can affect how we view their learning. This can blind us to issues or make it that much harder to see what is going on. We are human and our human interactions influence our observations and memories. Our interactions can alter our perception and cause us to miss something. After all, we are only human.
If used correctly, data can help us in our goal of helping students to learn. It does not turn them into a number, it gives us insight that we might not otherwise have. Many people want to vilify data and say that it dehumanizes teaching, but they are missing the point about how we can use data to tell us more than ever before about our students. Not all data is effective, and most of the time it has to do with how you use it. But if you do not use any data other than your gut, you aren’t ensuring that you are doing the best you can do to help students.
Tips to collect Effective Data
Only collect data you will use. I was as guilty of this as many others, collecting exit tickets or other formative data that I would not end up using. I may look through it quickly but I would not be using it as well as I could, but using it to identify which students need more help, which ones are ready to move on, and which ones could use a bit more practice before moving on. If we aren’t going to use it correctly, do not take it. It will just become a waste of energy and time to collect data that you will not use.
Once is not enough. Formative assessment data can provide a great insight into how your students are doing at that moment, but you need to collect more data to see how effective your teaching is afterwards. There should be no surprises when you get to a summative assessment, your formative assessment data should be able to give you the insight you need. If all of a sudden over 1/3 of your class fails a test, and you are surprised, then something went seriously wrong.
Digital is easier. Using digital formative assessment tools (Google Forms, Socrative, Formative, …) can make this much simpler. Most, if not all, tools have built in ways to quickly analyze the data so you can use it right away. You can get pretty graphs and charts that will allow you to see how your students are doing overall or allow you to identify right away which students need more help. The time you put into learning one of these tools will result in you getting a ton more time back later because the data analysis will be that much quicker. Don’t let it take days to act on your data, let it take seconds to be able to use it.
Get some help. Our minds are almost always trying to protect us. They do this by sometimes keeping us from seeing issues that could make it feel like we failed. We need an unfiltered view to help us when we are trying to improve. Have another teacher or an instructional coach look over your data with you. Allow them to ask you questions about the data and be honest, with them and yourself. We should not be afraid to ask for help, we tell our students this all the time. Maybe it is time to do as we say.
Learn some spreadsheet equations. One thing that keeps many people from using data effectively is that they get overwhelmed by all of the numbers. There are some equations you can easily learn that will allow you to manage your data more effectively. You can get to the point where you can take a large set of data and quickly analyze it, even create pretty graphs, so that you can actually use it.