Using Formative Assessment to Hone Student Focus and Engagement

Using Formative Assessment to Hone Student FocusA recent Edutopia blog by Maurice Elias – Helping Students Develop the Skills to Focus – highlights some great steps and techniques that can be used to help students improve their ability to focus. Maurice points to Dan Goleman’s new book which highlights the importance of sustaining attention and focus:

[It’s important to] be able to direct and sustain our attention on everything from, well, everything! Not paying attention is downright dangerous. The inability to focus and sustain attention can rob us of relationships, deep knowledge, career accomplishment, peace of mind, and high test scores.

Likewise, a recent TeachThought blog – 5 Teaching Strategies to Keep Students From Turning Off Their Brains – highlighted five strategies from Dr. Judy Willis, that help students focus their thinking. Those five strategies are complimentary to what Maurice blogged about:

1. Use indirect signals rather than ‘telling’

2. Make sure all students respond in some way

3. Protect students from fear (of mistakes or failure)

4. Resist placing students ‘on the spot’ (unless responding ‘on the spot’ is what you’re assessing)

5. Promote curiosity not as a thing, but the thing

Student focus certainly is one important foundation to moving learners forward, and I’ll add yet another thought or two to how we, as educators, can accomplish this. For one, we need to promote and implement all-student response systems. Judy alludes to this in her point number two, but I’ll take it a step further and suggest that we remove hand-raising entirely (unless they need to ask a question). The time-honored tradition of teachers asking questions and students raising hands to provide an answer should come to an end.

Hand-raising in the classroom limits which students receive attention and provides opportunities for students who most need that attention to ‘tune-out.’ In order to effectively determine who in the class is learning what they need to, you need to solicit evidence of student learning from the entire classroom, something that calling on one or two students cannot accomplish. All-student response systems are formative assessment techniques that not only elicit evidence of learning, but engage the entire class. They include, as examples:

The Whiteboard
ABCD Cards
Basketball Discussions
Carousel Brainstorming

The other way educators can improve student focus is to introduce more student-led research and discovery (inquiry and project-based learning) to solving problems, something that is integral in the new Common Core classroom. In 1990, Skinner, Wellborn, and Connell (What it takes to do well in school and whether I’ve got it: A process model of perceived control and children’s engagement and achievement in school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82 (1), 22–32. ) investigated the relationships between children’s perceived control, student engagement, and academic achievement. The engagement, defined as participation and emotional tone, of 200 elementary students was assessed by their teachers. Path analyses were performed to examine the model of teacher behavior, perceived control, engagement, and academic outcomes. The predicted relations between engagement and grades/achievement (higher engagement leads to higher academic performance) were obtained.

While there certainly are techniques that can help improve student focus, engineering a classroom environment predicated with embedded-formative assessment strategies and techniques can also improve focus through engagement. What other ways do you see teachers and schools working to improve student focus?