One of my goals for this school year is to increase the amount of formative assessment as a way to check for my students’ understanding. When I saw a package deal at NSTA for Page Keeley’s Science Formative Assessment books, I pounced! Such a deal for 125 formative assessment techniques. I am slowly working my way through the books and figuring out how to incorporate more of them into my instruction.
The first one I used was “Commit and Toss”. During the previous class, we had looked at The Biology Corner’s The Lesson of the Kaibab, a case study looking at the impact of population size on ecosystem resources. Part of the case study addressed how removing the deer’s predators caused the deer population to skyrocket, leading to depletion of the deer’s food sources. Students made a graph tracking the population size of the Kaibab deer herd before the predator removal, after the removal, and later, after the predators were reintroduced. For this formative assessment, I used the prompt “Was the Forest Service’s plan [to remove predators] successful?” and asked students to commit to an answer and justify it.
The key part of Commit and Toss is that students do not write their names on their response. This reduces any stress to have the “right” answer, or to be embarrassed about sharing their answer to the whole class. I gave my students a few minutes to write out a response, then gathered them in a circle. I gave the instruction, “Okay, now crumple your paper into a ball”, then had them turn around so their backs faced the inside of the circle, and drop their crumpled paper into the center. (The book says have students toss their papers, but I have some rambunctious ninth graders and I could easily imagine what THAT would look like!) To mix things up a little more, I had students collect a paper ball from the center, and then we repeated the over-the-shoulder drop again.
After the second round, students opened their paper and silently read their response. I then sorted the responses into 3 groups: Yes the program was successful; No the program was not successful; and The program was kinda successful. Each group took a minute to review the responses and choose one or two responses that they felt had the best justification for the answer. Then I had each group share those responses to the whole class. When the group shared, I had them start with “The papers we got said . . . ” to disconnect the student from the answer so they didn’t have any attachment to whether the answer was right or not.
Overall, I loved the Commit and Toss technique. It was a quick way to check in with how students processed the information in the case study and how well they understood the cause-and-effect link between the removal of predators and the deer population size. The other thing I appreciated was that my students got to hear their classmates’ reasoning for whether the Forest Service program was successful or not. Immediately following the Commit and Toss exercise, I had students write a brief reflection in their notebooks about what they learned from this case study.