Using assessment to motivate and empower students in grade 9 math

I hadn’t taught MFM1P for a long time – about 9 years. As I began planning this semester I had flashbacks to the last time I taught MFM1P in Moosonee. I vividly remember making great gains in implementing new instructional strategies to support a variety of students with learning disabilities. We used manipulatives regularly and completed more projects and tasks then tests. Unfortunately, I also remember my attempt to shift assessment failing miserably.

I tried to assess based on the overall expectations in a portfolio-like manner. Each student had 20 file folders and would put their favorite work for each learning goal into the corresponding folder. At the end of the semester they reflected and self-assessed. It was a logistical and paper chaos nightmare. It was poorly executed (by me) and one of my first major educational fails.

Thank goodness for technology. Nine or 10 years later, I am able to revisit this method of assessment and am making it work much better. We have 22 learning goals for our class. We have in-class activities and assessments that cover these learning goals in a variety of creative, fun ways. One project might tap into three learning goals, or maybe only one. As a class we set out what makes a level 1, 2, 3 or 4 for each learning goal. Here is a snapshot of how our learning goals are organized.

mfm1p learning goals

We use Activegrade to track and record our assessment. Students and parents can log in and see their grades for each learning goal. This first student killed pythagorean. He missed a group activity in class where we investigated finding the area and perimeter of 2D composite shapes. He didn’t quite get caught up before the in-class assessments for that goal.

Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 9.37.47 AM

Because he wants to do better, he’s been working on improving that concept. He has a few ways to do that. He has videos he can watch. He has an online program (Knoweldgehook). It contains video lessons and EQAO-like questions to help practice. He also has a printable, paper package I created to help him review the concept, practice and assess.

This next student has a learning disability. I was still learning how to best support his learning at the beginning of the semester. I think we are getting better at supporting his needs. He will take longer to get the concepts involved in solving problems using area and perimeter of composite 2D shapes. And that is just fine. Using Activegrade, each time I add a new assessment for a learning goal, it pushes all previous assessments for that goal into 25% of the total for that learning goal. The new one counts for 75%. I can also (and often do) just delete the previous assessment when a student really struggled and it truly doesn’t reflect their understanding. As long as the assessments used for a goal collectively cover all of the achievement categories (knowledge and understanding, application, thinking and inquiry and communication), all is well. This allows different students to demonstrate their understanding in different ways if they choose. If they want to make up their own example and create a short video describing how to solve a problem – great. If they want to do paper and pen practice and then come and explain to me how they did two of the questions – great. If they want to take me into Minecraft and explain how they solve for the unknown in a ratio to figure out the length of a wall in “blocks” – great. HOW they demonstrate their understanding is inconsequential.

This way of assessment has worked great so far this semester. Students only get to see their overall marks at reporting periods. This means we aren’t focused on their “grade”, but spend most of the semester focused on “what area do you need to level-up?”.

These are a few reasons this way has worked for us:

  • it has empowered students to take ownership and responsibility for their learning. They see the direct correlation to working on a specific area and their achievement.
  • it allows us to add in quick, on-the-fly assessments for a specific student (example: grab a video of a student during a group problem explaining a concept to the rest of his group)
  • it provides a couple of in-class assessments for each learning goals. Those who are not as engaged in assessment and just want to participate in class and not think about it are set.
  • it allows for all the accommodations we integrate to be effective (extra time, multiple methods of assessment, etc.)
  • accommodations are no longer viewed as “cheats”. Everyone could make use of extra time, different methods of assessment. It values different ways of learning without appearing “unfair”
  • it lets STUDENTS take ownership for differentiating ways that work for them

I started off the semester thinking that I would have multiple online, digital versions of “levelling up” each learning goal. We have Knoweldgehook, which is an awesome tool for this. However, I quickly realized that I also needed a paper and pen version of levelling up each learning goal for a few reasons;

  • MANY of our students do not have internet access at home
  • paper versions help students attending our program for lengthy suspensions
  • paper versions work for students who are catching up in alternative learning environments such as the resource room, student success or credit save days when a device is not always available
  • paper versions can be done in the hospital, on the bus, on the train, on a plane, etc.
  • to differentiate – some students truly prefer paper and pen

I am always shocked at how many times in one semester I am asked to “send work” for a student. Fifteen-twenty times each semester I am asked to hand over a hard copy of what a student will or has missed in class. When you teach through problem solving, assess with tasks more than tests and use technology regularly this is actually very difficult. Class is no longer a teacher directed lesson followed by practice. Handing over a Minecraft task or ClassFlow interactive activity is actually quite difficult. Having paper versions of each learning goal, has let me focus on keeping those interactive activities the base of our course while meeting the varied needs of students throughout the semester.

The curious part of assessing this way is that at midterm I ended up with no students in the Level 1 range. Other than some special cases of non-attending students, we have a couple students in the level 2 range and the rest are in the level three or four range. I am way happier when students “level up” their assessment and show me a good solid understanding of a concept instead of simply leaving a student with a poor understanding of a concept and moving on. They are way better prepared for the next grade. The few students in the level two range are there because they simply need more time with the content. If we can find that time within our 110 hour credit-based semester system, I am convinced they will move into the level three range as well.

My one concern with assessing this way is the potential to turn my class into a simple drill-and-kill, mastery class. I highly value the creative and critical thinking aspect of math. The FIRST assessments for all learning goals are always interactive, creative, problem solving activities in class. Levelling up with videos and practice is only for when that didn’t work. For example, we assessed student ability to set up and solve ratios through Educreation videos made after creating scale models in Minecraft or 3D printing. It is almost impossible for a student who missed this in-class activity to catch-up on it. The structure of 75-minute periods in high school don’t make catching up on interactive class activities easy. The videos and alternative assessments are great to ensure that this student doesn’t get left behind. Not the best learning option – but a great alternative.

In the future we plan on improving this system by:

  • creating and collecting better “level up” resources (videos, assessments, tutorials, etc.)
  • creating a rubric for each of the 22 learning goals with examples and explicit details on what makes a level 1, level 2, etc.

I have decided that my assessment is effective if it motivates and empowers students to actually improve their understanding. How do you use assessment to motivate students?

2 Replies to “Using assessment to motivate and empower students in grade 9 math”

  1. This is a great post. I was talking to Kyle Pearce (tappingintoteenminds) last week and he had a similar way of doing leveling for learning goals.

    Do you have to do a lot of marking with students able to constantly go back and level up? Do most students try to level up when they have a low level for an LG?

    1. Thanks James!

      Surprisingly, most students do well the first time when we assess this way. I’m not sure if it is mostly because we are so much clearer on how we are assessing – it leads to better student understanding in the first place? However, there are a few examples of times students really do want to “level up” a concept. These include three students who transferred into our class from an Academic grade 9 math class just before midterm. They had to go back and fill in some gaps that we had already covered and they hadn’t. Other examples include a few long-term absences (5 days, 10 days and one much longer). Having assessed by learning goals makes filling in these gaps much, much easier. I do have about 5 students who have made use of upgrading about one learning goal per “unit” of study. It just happens that at regular class pace, they miss out on one concept. The extra time is helpful. So far, I do not have “most” students levelling up yet. Only those below a level 2 usually. Its not marking prohibitive because I usually have students spend 15-20 minutes with me reviewing concepts. Then they go away and practice. Lastly, they come in and explain to me how they did a few problems that I select from their practice. I assess them on the spot with the student. So, it all gets absorbed into supporting students. I assessed the same way a few years back in a Grade 10 Academic Science class and I did have quite a few more students “levelling up”.

      We also use this little tool called Knoweldgehook ( that happens to help us out with “levelling up” of concepts. 🙂 We actually stole our lingo “levelling up” from Knoweldgehook. 🙂 This tool lets them practice, learn, practice and upgrade specific concepts. We can direct them to specific challenges to work on when upgrading.

      Thanks for your comment and question!

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