Pre-unit assessment is an integral part of comprehensive assessment; however, these activities often miss easy and effective opportunities to increase students’ critical thinking abilities while gathering data for future instruction. Additionally, students can feel called out in situations where they lack the schema to complete what is supposed to be a low-risk assessment, leaving them with feelings of defeat before the unit has even begun. Tried-and-true preassessments can be adjusted to promote critical thinking while also sending positive messages to students.

Try OWL Instead of KWL

KWL (a graphic organizer recording students’ Knowledge, Wonders, and Learning over time) can be an effective strategy to measure schema and new learning throughout a unit. However, for a student who’s never heard of quadrilaterals, Cro-Magnon humans, or soil, this can be an intimidating task when a teacher says to fill a graphic organizer with background knowledge. You don’t know what you don’t know. Instead, teachers can tweak this process so that it’s a win for them as well as their students.

OWL (Observe, Wonder, Learn) is a small variation that can increase higher-order thinking by introducing a topic through a shared observation. A teacher could display a collage of rectangles, rhombuses, parallelograms, etc., and ask students to use comparison skills to write down everything they notice and wonder about these shapes.

Another teacher could play a short clip from a documentary about Cro-Magnon humans with muted volume so that the students engage in inference while formulating their responses. Still another teacher could have students use magnifying glasses and analysis skills to observe a bucket of topsoil and then write their connections.

These teachers will still be able to gather actionable data regarding vocabulary, previous exposure, connections to real-life examples, etc., and will most likely be pleased with the higher-order thinking that they observe. Varied levels of schema on the topic will be evident, but the difference is that in this type of activity all students are entering into an equitable experience. Everyone will have something to say/write.

What KWL might suggest:

  • You should already know something about this.
  • You are already behind to be successful in this unit.

What OWL suggests:

  • You are in an equitable situation with everyone else.
  • Everyone’s map to learning about this is unique.

Try Anticipation Guides Instead of Pretests

Simply stated, pretests collect a unit’s big takeaways and gauge students’ previous exposure and readiness to learn. Anticipation guides are a unique spin on pretests that require some of the most complex higher-order thinking skills: evaluation, synthesis, analysis, judgment, and justification, while still making it possible to glean student schema. They are popular in English language arts but often fall out of favor in other subjects where the teacher needs to determine if students know the right answer, not just have opinions.

Consider how a slight change in language opens the doors for better thinking. For example, instead of asking, “T or F: Fungi can be helpful to humans,” try asking students to provide scientific evidence to support their responses to the prompt—for example: “Some of the best things are found by accident” or “In most cases, help outweighs hurt.”

Instead of asking students which equation from a list is not correct, have them provide mathematical examples to support if they agree or disagree with “There’s one best way to solve a problem.” Anticipation guides require metacognition and often get students emotionally engaged with the topic before content delivery. Best of all, students practice the life skill of using evidence to justify their beliefs.

What pretests might suggest:

  • You should already know something about this.
  • There is one right or wrong answer.

What anticipation guides suggest:

  • Your viewpoint is valued and will make your learning stronger.
  • As long as you can justify your answer and/or provide evidence, you aren’t wrong.

Try Narrative and Demonstration Instead of Quick Writes

Quick writes are a powerful tool that all teachers, regardless of their subject or grade level, can use. By having students process their thoughts, feelings, ideas, and information into quick, low-stakes writing moments, teachers aren’t only gathering data regarding learning but also are using brain-based strategies to increase student memory and understanding.

While a quick write is good on its own, teachers can increase creativity and synthesis, as well as honor differences in expressive skills, with a slight addition to this process. Rather than having students only write on a topic, the allotted time can be broken into two equal parts: narrative writing and demonstration.

On one side of paper, students write everything they know (or don’t know) about a topic. On the reverse, they demonstrate their knowledge in visual form. This might look like students’ drawing clock faces, doodling World War II symbols, or labeling the parts of the digestive system. This variation works well for all students and also empowers those with language barriers and/or delays to show off what they know, while not obsessing with filling the page or how much time on the clock is left to fill.

What quick writes might suggest:

  • You should already know something about this.
  • Quantity is more important than quality in response.

What narrative and demonstration suggests:

  • You may be able to share/connect this information in a better way than just words.
  • Depth of response is most important.

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