Unpacking Quizzes

Pedagogy, Standards-Based Grading

One new thing we’ve done in class this year is “unpacking” quizzes. Basically, students are able to preview an assessment before they take it and ask questions about it. The results have been encouraging, and the strategy has promoted good discussion among groups. In addition, I believe student anxiety has been reduced because there are no surprises about what will be assessed.

How does it work?

I print out one quiz (the exact quiz we will be taking) per group in the class (8 total quizzes for my classes because I have 8 groups of 4 in the room). After we complete our warm up, I hand one quiz to each group, and I set a 3 minute timer on my phone. The students are then released to talk in their groups about the quiz. I ask that they put writing utensils away, but they are allowed to discuss with their group how they’ll approach each question on the quiz. In addition, I tell them to think about questions they may have for me as they unpack together.

After the 3 minute timer is done, I begin to take questions from the groups and answer them as a whole class. During this time, we usually clarify what each question on the assessment is asking and discuss how we may get started on potentially confusing problems.

As soon as we are done with the whole class discussion, I take up all 8 quizzes, and we move on to the day’s lesson. Overall, the process takes about 5 minutes.

When is the best time to unpack?

I’ve tried two options so far, unpacking at the beginning of a unit and unpacking toward the end of a unit. I’ve found that the second option is better.

When I first started unpacking quizzes, we unpacked toward the beginning of a unit in order for students to know what was coming and, theoretically, think about what they needed as we went about the unit. However, I noticed there was much better discussion whenever we switched to unpacking quizzes toward the end of the unit. I think the discussion ends up being better because students now have some prior learning to pull from since we’ve been learning the concept for a few days. Therefore, more students have knowledge to share during group time. In addition, the sense of urgency is greater when the quiz date is approaching. I think this also helps promote better discussion.

So, I usually prefer to unpack 1 to 2 days before the assessment date.

Sentence Starters

A team of teachers in Bartlesville Public Schools came up with a great list of sentence starters you can display for students as they work together. Check out this Google Doc to see what they came up with!


2 thoughts on “Unpacking Quizzes

  1. The idea of handing over an assessment to a student who is not about to take it, and who will take the very same assessment later, stresses me out. Why shouldn’t it? OR, what do you do to keep them from taking advantage of the situation? I saw where you said that you remove writing utensils. Is that all?

    1. Thanks for the question, Michael. It does seem stressful for sure, but I’ve found it leads to great discussions, and it helps motivate students to dial in on challenging problems in class because they know they’ll need it to be ready for the quiz. I think it helps kids focus better too because there are no surprises, and they can tell the content I’m giving them in class aligns with the assessments.

      In order to prevent kids from taking advantage, I have their desks in groups of 4 (this is our set up every day anyway, so it’s nothing new for them), and no writing utensils are allowed. I also circulate the room throughout the time that the quizzes are out and remind them that we’re only talking about strategies and not necessarily what the correct answer is (having them in groups of 4 makes it easier to monitor the process as well). As soon as my timer goes off, I immediately take up all the quizzes.

      Students also know that it’s no use to just have the correct answers when quiz time comes because they’re going to have to show all work and explain anyway. It’s hard to fake that part.

      And I just try to continue to reinforce the culture in the room that grades aren’t important to me, but learning is. My goal is to constantly take down pressure while still pushing them to new levels of challenge. Full credit retakes and unpacking quizzes are just a couple components that reinforce my words that we don’t need to put too much pressure on ourselves while working hard to learn challenging math.

      The positives have definitely outweighed the negatives when it comes to unpacking. I’ve seen very few negatives actually.

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