How to gather the data you really want about student misconceptions

Let’s say you have a binder full of the data I talked about last time.  You know which students got which questions wrong on your latest assessment.

How do you use this information to help those struggling students?

You can’t.  Knowing they answered a question incorrectly is useful, but you need to know why.

That’s where clinical interviews come in.  I like to think of clinical interviews as the diagnostic interview a doctor does when you come into the office.  The doctor doesn’t try to fix what’s ailing you without first making sure he or she has correctly diagnosed the problem.

We need to do the same with students. We need to understand how they are thinking about the math before we can try to help them.

Clinical interviews are used in research to gather data about how a child is thinking.  You give a student a problem and then ask questions as he or she solves it.  The objective is not to teach students but rather to collect information about how they are thinking so that you can later determine the correct remediation.

I know that it’s not realistic to do this with every child in your class.  However, you can learn a lot by trying to incorporate them at times with certain students.

Try this experiment:

Look at your spreadsheet of data.  Take one child who is struggling and try to figure out why.

Give them a task from the assessment (you will need to be careful about how you choose this task) without any answer choices and ask them to think aloud as they work on it.  This may be uncomfortable for them at first since they aren’t used to making their thinking explicit.

You can prompt them to think aloud by asking them:

  • Why are you doing _____?
  • How do you know ______?
  • Tell me more about what you just did.
  • What are you thinking about?

As they talk, listen carefully and try to find out what thinking is producing the misconception they are displaying.

A main assumption that I work with when doing these interviews is that children do what makes sense to them even if it seems like nonsense to me.  My job is to figure out what makes sense to them and why.

The more of these you do, the better you will get at seeing things through the eyes of your students. You will start to anticipate the mistakes student will make. You will start to anticipate what might be problematic about certain models you are using. You will begin to discover that the meaning you see in manipulatives or diagrams is not necessarily why they see.

After you have diagnosed what is going on, you can better plan what to do next.  I’ll talk more about ways to analyze the data you gather from these interviews another time.

Want to know more? Check out:

Solving for Why:  Understanding, Assessing, and Teaching Students  Who Struggle with Math by John Tapper

Buschman, L. (2001). Using student interviews to guide classroom instruction. Teaching Children Mathematics, 8 (4), 222-227

Ginsburg, H. P., Jacobs, S. F., & Lopez, L. S. (1998). The teacher’s guide to flexible interviewing in the classroom: Learning what children know about math. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon

4 thoughts on “How to gather the data you really want about student misconceptions

  1. Nicora Placa Post author

    Very true! I think it’s done with good intentions…we don’t like to see students struggle so our first instinct is to help them avoid the mistake. But I agree with you about the importance of building the “why” groundwork.

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