Using Failed Assessments to Coach Students in an Online Learning Environment


Kelli Hicks
Wednesday, May 25, 2016 - 7:30pm

My Own Learning Coach

When I was in college, I worked part-time as a custodian cleaning one of the buildings on campus. One of our responsibilities was to clean and polish the hard-tile floors in the long hallways. There were three levels of floors, and each one had a different machine with varying levels of difficulty that was used to clean it.

The first six months I worked at this building, my supervisor, James, always had me work the burnisher on the main floor. After six months, he decided it was time to teach me how to buff the other two floors. He took me to the top level and showed me the intricacies of working the buffer. 

James was confident I could run this machine. Immediately, I began to lose control of the buffer. I could hear James yelling over the roar of the engine, “PUT YOUR WEIGHT INTO IT!”  After denting a radiator along the wall of the hallway, I let go of the handles, stopping the machine. I simply didn’t weigh enough to counteract the spinning pad. James took over the buffing of that level that day and sent me back down to burnish the main floor.

The next day, James took me to the basement level and showed me the smaller buffer. The controls were identical to the first one I had tried, but the machine was smaller. This time, I was able to control the machine. I turned a corner and began the long stretch of main hallway. James left me to my work. 

I hated the buffer, but I was still very excited that I was successfully using a machine I had failed at so miserably the day before. When I was nearly done, I looked up and saw James peeking around the corner. When we made eye contact, he gave me a silent cheer with his arms up and left again. He had been there, watching me succeed and cheering me on.

I have always been grateful that he didn’t let me stop when I failed the first time. I have also always been grateful that he was there with me the entire time I successfully used the smaller machine. He coached me and celebrated my success with me.

Student Assessments and the Teacher’s Role

Assessments in an online learning environment are like the three machines I learned to use in college. Each type of assessment caters to the strengths of different types of students. And while we hope that students are most often able to show their strengths with the types of assessments they are good at, they will not be able to confine themselves strictly to one type of assessment.

Our job as teachers in the online and traditional brick-and-mortar world is to coach students. If a student fails a test, do we say better luck next time OR do we immediately jump in and coach them to success—like James did with me? 

If we leave students alone after a failure, what they take from the experience is that they can’t do it. As a result, in the future they probably won’t even try. However, if we take them by the hand and show them they CAN do it, we will give them enough confidence to succeed on future attempts.

Here are four ways you can coach a student who has failed an assessment:

1) Meet with the student in a virtual classroom and go over the assessment. What did the student miss and why did the student choose those answers?  Often, we will find that the students are using good logic even if they get the questions wrong.

All they need is coaching so they see what is really being asked in each question. Other times, we might find that a student somehow managed to make it through an entire lesson or unit without really understanding the concepts. In both cases, some one-to-one time in a virtual classroom can correct the issue so the student doesn’t fail again.

2) Have the student do a “test-fix.” Have them go through the test and write their answers on a separate sheet of paper as well as why they chose those answers. Then have them note the correct answers and why they are the correct answers. 

This will solidify the concepts for the questions they had answered correctly and help guide them to the correct answers on the questions they missed. Where appropriate, this test-fix can be used as extra credit or even replace the failed test score.

3) Send the student some help on the concepts that were missed such as videos, vocabulary, or study guides. After the student has reviewed the material, have him create a tutorial video, a course announcement, or a how-to document that teaches the material. 

When done correctly, these documents can be added to the course resources pages to help other students. Students can be given extra credit, have a test score replaced, or even use these created items to retake an assessment, where appropriate.

4) Have the student review the lessons and use one of their talents to reteach the concepts.

For example:

a. A student who likes to draw could create a comic strip or graphic novel to teach students how to find the area of a rectangle in a math course. 

b. A student who likes to sing could modify the lyrics of a song to summarize the story of a book or play in an English class. 

c. A student who likes to skateboard could create a video of himself doing tricks on his board and relate those tricks to a historical event. (For example, as the student goes over a jump, the narration could relate the speeding up of the skateboard to conflict before WWII and the jump could be a certain event that triggered one country to join the war.)

Students are creative.  And you will find that, if you let them show off their talents, they will be able to find numerous ways to relate whatever they are doing to whatever you are teaching.

And of course, don’t forget the ever-important step of being there for the student! Cheer on the student while the student is reviewing concepts or retaking the assessment, and make sure to congratulate them on a job well done afterward, regardless of the score earned. You may not get a thank you right then, but I can guarantee you that the students will be thinking it.

About the Author

Kelli Hicks is a teacher with more than twelve years of experience, including four years teaching online English, sociology, and ESL courses for Fuel Education. Additionally, Kelli serves as the State Lead Teacher for Utah, and is a shift lead for the FuelEd Academic Support Team (TAMS). Kelli has taught both online and within traditional brick-and-mortar schools focusing on at-risk and ESL students. She graduated from Utah State University with a bachelor's degree in English education, minoring in sociology education with an ESL endorsement.



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