Red light, yellow light, green light! Using a Learning Objectives “Traffic Light” to have students self-evaluate knowledge

As we get closer to the end of a unit, with the test date looming in sight, students start wondering “What’s going to be on the test?” Of course, they start off by asking (demanding?) if I’m going to give them a study guide. Side note: I occasionally probe what they mean by “study guide” by asking them what kind of study guides they received in middle school. It varied – some got a problem sheet, some got a list of questions that ended up being the same questions they saw on the test. Very few students reported being taught how to make their own study guides.

One of the strategies I learned when I participated in the Academy for Excellence in Biology Teaching (through the Stanford Center to Support Excellence in Teaching) was the “Traffic Light”. The Traffic Light is a list of learning objectives in a grid format. This is the third year of using Traffic Lights as study guides for our classes – although the details have morphed a little bit over time, the basic format remains the same.

I use Excel to create the traffic light because it’s easy to make the grid and reformat as needed. The goal is to fit the traffic light on one page. Each learning objective gets its own line in the sheet, in the center column of the grid. Over time, our Traffic Light handouts have gotten bigger, mostly because we’ve gotten more detailed in the information our learning objective contains. We want students to know exactly what they need to learn. The right column is blank so students can write in their own information. The left column is blank, and that’s where the “traffic light” tag comes into play. I instruct students to read the learning objective and evaluate how well they know or understand the content of the learning objective. They fill in the left column with either red, yellow, or green: “Red light” means they don’t understand that concept at all; “Yellow light” means they know something about it, but don’t feel especially confident that they understand it; and “Green light” means they are 100% sure they understand that concept.

At first, I found that students wanted to impress (or maybe distract) me, so they would give themselves lots of green lights. Now I remind them that the traffic light is just for them, and that I might not ever see it, so it’s important for them to be honest with themselves about how well they understand. If I’m working one-on-one with a student during office hours, I can ask them questions about a particular learning objective to draw out how well they understand the content, and help them determine where they really fall on the learning spectrum.

Once a student has completed the traffic light, I point out that they’ve just prioritized what they need to study for the test. Spend the most time on the red light material, fill in the missing parts on the yellow light material, but don’t forget to review the green light material as well.

Not exactly red/yellow/green, but this student has evaluated what they know

Students use the right column in a few different ways. Some of them will go through their notebook and write which pages or activities relate to each learning goal. That way they know which notebook pages to study. I also remind them to look at the labs we’ve done, since those won’t be in their notebooks. Some students jot down notes or summaries in the right column, using it for retrieval practice of what they know. After they finish, they can go back through their notebooks to fill in the blanks or correct misconceptions. A lot of these students will also use the traffic light as a jumping off point to make a more detailed study guide for themselves.

Using the Traffic Light to summarize what they know

Up to now, we’ve created the Traffic Light as a retrospective view – once we’ve created the unit test, we make the Traffic Light to focus students specifically on what they need to know for the test. For example, if I taught how temperature, pH, and substrate concentration affect the rate of enzyme reaction, but the test question only assesses temperature, then the learning objective will focus students on just temperature. On the one hand, students feel like they aren’t “wasting their time” (minor eyeroll here) studying information that won’t be on the test. On the other hand, I don’t want to create the impression that some of the concepts taught weren’t “important enough” to be on the test. I’m sure the truth falls somewhere in between those two extremes, but sometimes it feels like we’re aiming for fewer student complaints. Ideally, I would like to use the Traffic Light as a prospective view by introducing it at the beginning of a unit so students can track their progress as they learn. It would be more of a roadmap for the unit so students can see where we’re going from the beginning of the unit.