You are on page 1of 17

EXPLORING

THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR


STUDENT UNDERSTANDING





Exploring the Accuracy of Fist-to-Five Formative Assessment Strategy to Check for Student
Understanding
Lindsey Crider Bloodworth
Samford University
EDUC 591

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING


ABSTRACT
The purpose of this study was to better understand how the fist-to-five formative
assessment strategy actually works with students since Birmingham City Schools has made
fist-to-five one of its recommended core components of instruction. This qualitative
research project seeks to answer the following research questions: Are students engaged in
using fist-to-five to demonstrate their understanding? Do students accurately represent
their understanding when showing their hand signal in front of the class? and Do students
fist-to-five self-reported numbers provide a reliable measure. Ultimately, the study found
that students were engaged with fist-to-five as a useful tool to report their understanding
to their teacher and were almost honest in their reporting their understanding. This study
concludes that using the fist-to-five formative assessment strategy to check for
understanding is a simple technique that can help instructors gauge student understanding
in a quick, reliable way.

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

Though educators have been assessing student learning and progress for a very long
time, recently the language of formative and summative assessment, along with data
tracking, has come to dominate the discussion of student progress. Books like Nancy Frey
and Douglas Fishers The Formative Assessment Action Plan: Practical Steps to More
Successful Teaching and Learning and Teach Like a Champion promise that using formative
assessment strategies will improve both teaching and student learning. However, the
definition of formative assessment is not always clear when educators begin discussing
how to evaluate student learning and track progress through formative assessment.
In the late 1960s, formative assessment began to be discussed as a formal
evaluation system utilizing tests that would give teachers feedback on how their students
were progressing in order to see where students needed to improve (William, 2011, p. 33-
34). Early discussion of formative assessment focused on what role evaluation has in
improving the curriculum as it is being taught (William, 2011, p. 33). Though the
foundational work in formative assessment is still relevant, the definition of formative
assessment has expanded since the 1960s. According to W. James Popham (2006), the idea
of what formative assessment is has evolved over the years to be understood as an
instructional tool teachers can use to improve instructional practices throughout class
instead of just as a test that teachers deliver to gauge student readiness or understanding
before a summative assessment (Popham 2006). Indeed Nancy Fisher and Douglas Frey
find it unfortunate now that too often formative assessment has been reduced to two or
three district benchmark tests, with little attention given to the data that surrounds us
every day (Fischer and Frey, 2014, p. vii).

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

In order to better understand formative assessment, a working definition of is


necessary. According to Popham (2006) the official FAST SCASS (Formative Assessment for
Students and Teachers State Collaboratives on Assessment and Student Standards)
definition of formative assessment is that formative assessment is a process used by
teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching
and learning to improve students' achievement of intended instructional outcomes
(Popham, 2006, p. 6). The focus of this definition is on the assessment occurring during
instruction rather than as a separate test. In their book Checking for Understanding,
Formative Assessment Techniques for Your Classroom Fischer and Frey (2014) advocate for
multiple methods that teachers can use to implement formative assessment strategies to
check for understanding in the classroom throughout instruction (Fischer and Frey 2014).
It is this kind of embedded assessment that advocates for the use of all student response
systems, like the fist-to-five method (William, 2006, p. 88). Teachers use the fist-to-five to
gauge student understanding of concepts and topics as they are being covered in class.
Fischer and Frey (2014) express the scale as, Five fingers means that you have a deep
understanding and can explain this step or idea to others in the classtwo to four fingers
indicate varying levels of understanding and a fist or one means you have no idea what
just happened (Fischer and Frey, 2014, p. 54). (See Figure 1.)
The fist-to-five method is recommend for Kindergarten classrooms all the way to
high school because it allows the teacher to have an immediate understanding of student
knowledge and, if needed, adjust instruction. Another benefit of using fist-to-five is that it
increases student engagement and therefore provides additional learning opportunities for
students (Fisher and Frey, 2014, p. 56). As a first year teacher, I was told that one of our

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

district instructional priorities was to utilize formative assessments to check for


understanding throughout instruction. The recommended method is the fist-to-five student
response model. Without questioning or researching the approach, I began to use fist-to-
five in my classroom. At times, I found utilizing fist-to-five very helpful for gauging both
individual and class-wide understanding of a topic or text while teaching. This year I have
found fist-to-five very helpful when the entire class is confused because then every student
feels comfortable being honest, but I began to wonder about the accuracy of the assessment
when some of the class, and particularly the less advanced students, were looking around
at the answers of their peers when responding to the questions.
The assumption with student response formative assessment strategies is that
students will tell the truth about their understanding. While the assumption is not a bad
one, it fails to account for the times that students do not accurately represent their
understanding, whether out of a sense of embarrassment or lack of sufficiently
understanding the scale they should be responding on. Indeed Dylan William points out
that the problem with techniques such as fist-to-five is that they are self-reports and
self-reports are unreliable (William, 2011, p. 88). His solution suggests a change in self-
reports from useless questions into powerful tools by changing the types of questions
instructors ask through all student response systems like fist-to-five (William, 2011, p. 88).
When I began to question the use of the fist-to-five method in my class as an
engaging and accurate tool, however, a review of the research on formative assessment
strategies like fist-to-five reveals that the effectiveness of such informal strategies did not
seem to be researched at all. Rather, sources on formative assessment provide a variety of
formative assessment strategies to teachers to use within their own classrooms to see what

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

works for them and their students. Clearly the main goal of the strategies is to get
meaningful feedback from students. Yet, in order to see if these strategies actually work,
research needs to be done to gauge the effectiveness of these student response formative
assessment strategies in gauging student understanding of content. This study seeks to
begin filling this gap in the research.
The purpose of this study was to better understand how fist-to-five actually works
with students since Birmingham City Schools has made fist-to-five one of its recommended
core components of instruction. This qualitative research plan seeks to answer the
following research questions: Are students engaged in using fist-to-five to demonstrate
their understanding? Do students accurately represent their understanding when showing
their hand signal in front of the class? and Do students fist-to-five self-reported numbers
provide a reliable measure for how well the students comprehend the material in an
English classroom?
METHOD
Participants and Setting
This study was conducted in an urban city magnet school freshman English
classroom. The students ranged in age from 14-15 years old. No students had IEPs. The
class meets three times a week, twice for 90-minute blocks and once for 35 minutes on
Wednesdays. I provided instruction for both classes.
Student desks were arranged in short rows of three and four, with all desks having a
view of the front of the classroom where the Promethean board and instructor podium is
located. Some student desks face desks on the other side of the room. This arrangement

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

allows all students to have a good view of the instructor and Promethean board but also
see their peers fist-to-five responses.
To get feedback on student engagement using fist-to-five, all 113 9th grade freshmen
were surveyed to get an understanding of student engagement across all class periods and
achievement levels. The selection of the classes for the focus of this research was based on
the size of the class, 17 students in both Classes A and B, and the range of student reading
comprehension levels1. 34 students total were evaluated for in class use of fist-to-five. Class
A reading levels range from 5.2 to PHS (Post High School) and Class Bs range from 6.4 to
PHS. Since I most often use fist-to-five to check for comprehension of texts when reading
difficult texts like The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet, I wanted to select classes of students to
focus on that had a wide range of reading levels present.
Design and Procedures
The design of the study involved three main processes. First, in order to gauge
student engagement with and opinion of fist-to-five, I surveyed all my students in all
classes, 113 total. The purpose was to see whether or not students were engaged in the
response system, were honest in their reporting, and found it helpful for reporting their
scores to the instructor. On a short survey, students were asked to respond to the following
questions: 1. Do you like the using fist-to-five response system in class? 2. Are you always
honest when responding in class? Why or why not? 3. Do your other teachers use fist-to-
five? If not, what methods do your other teachers use to check for your understanding?
Secondly, as Class A and Class B read Romeo and Juliet Act Three, Scene Five and Act
Four, Scene 1, I frequently assessed for student understanding using fist-to-five. In Class A I

1 Student reading levels were measured at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year by
the Gates-Macginite diagnostic reading comprehension test.

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

recorded fist-to-five responses five times. In Class B, I recorded fist-to-five responses four
times. The only difference in Class A and Class B was that I recorded Class As response to
the question How well do you understand what has happened in Romeo and Juliet up to
this point? This question was left out for Class B.
For each check for understanding, I had students show their score with their fingers,
and recorded their responses. Then, I had students write down the number related to their
understanding at that moment on an index card in order to see if the responses would
differ when students knew no one else would see their answers. The purpose of this step of
the process was to see if students were being honest in their public showing of fist-to-five
and, therefore, whether or not the instructor would get an accurate assessment of student
understanding based on the hand signals shown.
Finally, in order to see whether or not students use of fist-to-five actually predicted
their comprehension of the content, I gave students in Class A and Class B the same quiz at
the end of the class period on comprehension of the major events from Act Three, Scene
Five and Act Four, Scene One. While reading, I assessed for understanding using fist-to-five
and students answered guided reading questions as they read the scenes. Before the quiz, I
had students record what they thought was their level of understanding on the fist-to-five
scale in the heading of their quiz. I then compared the level of understanding the student
reported he/she had about the text to the grade he/she received on the 10 question
comprehension quiz. The hypothesis was that students with reportedly higher levels of
understanding (4-5) should do well on the quiz (1 or 2 missed questions), and students
with reportedly lower levels of understanding (2 and below) should do poorly (missing 4
questions or more).

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

RESULTS
Student Opinion and Engagement
Of all 113 surveyed students, only 8 students reported that they disliked using fist-
to-five. (See Figure 2) The most common response for why students disliked using it was
that fist-to-five was inaccurate. The rest of the students, 93%, reported enjoying using
fist-to-five and their reasons were similar to the following: yes because it lets the teacher
know where we are in the class or lesson and I like it because you can see where the
students are. Multiple students pointed out that fist-to-five as helpful to them in
considering their own comprehension in addition to helping me know what the class does
and does not understand.
Student Honesty
The student honesty results using fist-to-five consist of two parts. First, the students
self-reported responses on the survey answering whether or not they are always honest
when responding to fist-to-five prompts. Secondly, the fist-to-five response cards as
compared to the actual number the student held up in class at the time I asked a question
to check for understanding.
On the survey, only 17 of 113 students (15%) reported that they were ever
dishonest when using fist-to-five in class (See Figure 3). Only 3 of 17 students (18%) in
Class A reported not always being honest (See Figure 4). In Class B only 1/17 students
reported not always being honest in his/her response (See Figure 4). Students that were
dishonest gave reasons similar to the following in their explanation of their answers: I
dont like the whole class knowing when I dont understand or comprehend something
because sometimes its embarrassing. No one wants to be the only one to not understand

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

10

when everyone does. However, the vast majority of students reported being honest and
gave reasons similar to the following: There is no reason to lie if you understand or not
and Heck yea [Im always honest], why I gotta lie?
Reliability
To test whether or not a students perception of their understanding using the fist-
to-five scale predicted their success on a comprehension quiz, I gave Class A and Class B the
same 10 question comprehension quiz.
In Class A, 15 students reported a level 4 or 5 understanding of the text, and 2
students reported a level 3. 11 students that reported a score of either 4 or 5 missed two
questions or fewer, demonstrating comprehension of the text. However, 4 of the students
that reported a 4 or 5 missed 3 questions or more. Of these 4 students, 3 of the students
had diagnostic reading levels lower than a beginning 9th grade level at the beginning of the
year. Both students that reported a level 3 understanding of the text missed three
questions on the quiz. For class A, 13 of 17 students perceptions on their understanding
(using fist-to-five) did accurately line up with their comprehension of the material. For 4 of
the 17 students, it did not. (See Figure 5.)
However, In Class B 14 of 15 students reported either a level 4 or 5 understanding
and the lowest reported score was a 3. The maximum number of questions missed by any
student was 2, demonstrating comprehension of the text. For class B, students perceptions
on their understanding (using fist-to-five) did accurately line up with their comprehension
of the material.

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

11

DISCUSSION
Student Engagement and Usefulness of fist-to-five

Clearly, a vast majority of students enjoy using fist-to-five in class and recognize its

usefulness for the learning process. The survey feedback was valuable because it confirmed
that students appreciate having a way to demonstrate their understanding to the teacher in
a simple way. In addition, because I always explained when lower scores were shown, the
students said that they knew that showing the instructor their true number would lead
them to a better understanding of the text.
The study demonstrated that fist-to-five was most helpful for me, the instructor,
when a majority of the class did not understand a certain portion of the text and signaled
the teacher with lower scores, a 3 or lower generally. When the whole class understood
what was going on, I noted that students were more vocal in their responses to the text,
answered guided questions more quickly and were observed to be more engaged.
It should be noted that, during reading of complex texts, fist-to-five should not be
the only method of gauging student understanding. Rather, teachers should also rely on
student feedback through facial expressions, comments, and body language. I observed that
when students understood the language and what was going on in Romeo and Juliet, their
knowledge presented itself in multiple ways. Using fist-to-five along with knowledge of
students, teachers can assist students in gaining a better understanding of texts.
Student Honesty
My hypothesis was that students, especially students with lower comprehension
that struggle in English, would not be honest in showing their fist-to-five score in front of
the class but would honestly report their level of understanding on the index card where

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

12

they reported their scores so that no one could see but the instructor. However, the
hypothesis proved to be untrue. To begin, a majority of students reported being honest
during the survey stage of the study.
Then, during instruction almost all students honestly reported their level of
comprehension of the text and there were few discrepancies in the numbers students
displayed to the class and the numbers students reported on their response cards. In Class
A there were only 5 instances of discrepancy in public and private fist-to-five scores. In
Class B, only 3 out of 60 instances of checks for understanding did not line up with the
students public fist-to-five score and their written fist-to-five score. Additionally, in the few
instances when the discrepancy occurred, the score only differed by one number, a 3
instead of a 4, for example. In Class A and Class B there were no instances of a student
reporting a higher score publicly and a drastically lower score privately on the card.
However, though the results demonstrate that students are almost always being
honest about their level of understanding when using fist-to-five, it is still vital for
instructors to have strong relationships with their students and know their strengths and
weaknesses to know whenever there is a departure from honesty for whatever reason.
Instructors should not rely only on the number that students hold up to check for daily
understanding, particularly with students that have lower reading comprehension levels
and struggle in English.
Additionally, it should be noted that this study was conducted near the end of the
school year and students were very familiar with one another, the teacher, and the fist-to-
five method by the time of the study. Had this study been done at another time of the year,
particularly the beginning, it might have yielded different results as trust among peers and

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

13

with the teacher was still being established. This possibility underscores the importance of
building trust and relationships in the classroom in order to increase student engagement,
response, and learning.
Reliability

Based on the differences in student quiz scores in Class A and B, I can draw no

conclusion on whether or not fist-to-five accurately predicts a students performance on a


comprehension quiz. In Class A, I need to review the fist-to-five scale with students to
ensure students fully understand what displaying a score of 5 means. Additionally, a slight
change in teaching and questioning approaches from class to class could also account for
the discrepancy in results.
It should also be noted that the students took a multiple choice comprehension
check quiz to demonstrate their understanding and a different assessment tool might have
allowed students to better demonstrate their understanding. More research would need to
be done on the reliability of students fist-to-five scores in predicting student success on
comprehension quizzes.
Thus, overall I found that fist-to-five is a useful tool in checking for student
understanding during instruction because students engage with the method and feel
comfortable giving an honest assessment of their understanding to the teacher.

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

14

References
Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2014). Checking for Understanding: Formative Assessment Techniques
for Your Classroom. 2nd Edition. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and
Curriculum Development.
William, D. (2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.
Popham, W. J. (2006). Transformative Assessment. Alexandria: Association for Supervision
and Curriculum Development.

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING


Figure 1 Fist-to-Five classroom diagram.

15

EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

16

Figure 2: Student Engagement

8, 7%
Dislike Fist-to-Five
Like Fist-to-Five

105, 93%


Figure 2 demonstrates that a majority of students are engaged with using the fist-to-five
method to check for understanding in class.

Figure 3: Student Honesty

17, 15%

Always
Not Always Honest
96, 85%


Figure 3 demonstrates that a majority of students are always honest in reporting their
level of understanding when using fist-to-five.


EXPLORING THE ACCURACT OF FIST TO FIVE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT STRATEGY TO CHECK FOR
STUDENT UNDERSTANDING

17

Figure 4: Student Honesty


18
16

16
14

14
12
10

Class A

Class B

6
4

0
Always Honest

Not Always Honest

Figure 4 shows the comparison of students in Class A and Class B that say they are honest
or not honest in reporting their true level of understanding when using fist-to-five.

Figure 5: Quiz Results-Class A

Level 4-5:Reported level of


understanding accurately

Level 3: Reported understanding


accurately
4
15

4
Repored Level 4 or 5--missed more
than 3 questions

Figure 5 shows the breakdown of student quiz scores based on their reported level of
understanding on the fist-to-five scale.