Tag Archives: formative feedback

Colored Cups and Group Questions

Last week I had students complete their first true group assignment. The assignment was more of a reading task than a computational task. It was loaded very heavily with vocabulary words including:

Independent and dependent variables
Ordered Pair
x-axis and y-axis
Input and Output
Multiple Representations

In years past, groups have really struggled with this assignment. They often hit a point where they get stuck and then just flat out give up.

To head that off, this year I decided to provide the groups with a tool that is a combination of two strategies I learned about over the summer.

The first part of the tool is red, yellow and green colored cups.  I grabbed these at the dollar store.


I learned about using colored cups when I watched The Classroom Experiment, a BBC Documentary featuring Wiliam Dylan.  Students use the cups as a formative feedback signal to teachers. If they are okay and understand, the green cup is on top. If they’re struggling a bit, they move the cup to yellow. And if they’re completely stuck and need help, they move the red cup to the top. What I really liked in the video is that students could signal the teacher without having to stop working to raise their hand. It also seemed that students seemed less intimated about moving their cup to red than they would have been about raising their hand to ask for help.  It was easy for the teacher to say, “Everyone with a red cup, please come to the back tables for help,” when she noticed five or six students with red cups.

With my group assignment, rather than giving a set of cups to each student, I gave a set of cups to each group. I then explained to them the process of asking a Group Question. I learned about this in the Group Work Working Group Morning Session of TMC14. @cheesemonkeysf explained to us that, in her classroom, before a group may ask a question, they must make certain that each person in the group understands the question and can clearly state the question. One person, the resource manager, signals the teacher to ask the question.  In many cases, that signal would be raising their hand.  For the activity in my class, the signal was to turn the cup to red. The teacher responds to the signal by calling on a student in the group to ask the question. If that student is unable to state the question, the teacher asks them to signal her again when every member of the group is able to state the question.

What worked well: 

Students worked together much better than they had in previous years. In previous years, I had to ‘get after’ some students for working ahead and leaving their group in the dust. I didn’t see one instance of a student working ahead this year. At one point, I noticed a group member was turning the cup to red and I heard a girl in the group say, “Wait, wait! What’s the question?!” They question was resolved within the group and they didn’t need to signal for my help. There were a few times when I called on a student who wasn’t able to state the question, so I walked away and returned in a few seconds.  Really, students didn’t need my help all that much.  This was great because it freed me up to walk around the room and examine student work, and clear up misconceptions where needed (it really was a difficult assignment).

What didn’t work well: 

I sometimes didn’t notice when a group had turned their cup to red.  The group would be waiting for me, and I wasn’t aware because I was busy in some other part of the room.  In the future, I’m going to instruct them to come and tell me that they have a red cup if it takes me more than 30 seconds to notice.  I may not be able to help them right at that instant, but I want them to notify me so that I can come and help them next.

Another small thing that I didn’t like, is that a few students got distracted by the cups and played with them and made noise with them. Actually, I didn’t mind so much, that they played with the cups.  In fact, I’ve got one student this year who I think honestly needs to have a few things to play with just to keep him from bouncing off the walls. (It makes me kind of sad, because he keeps asking about his citizenship. I think he knows he’s been labeled as a ‘bad’ student by past teachers because of his hyperactivity. I don’t mind it and actually love the joyful energy he brings to class.)


What I didn’t like is the noise that the cups made if everyone was playing with them. So I had students take a couple seconds to and have everyone tap a cup on the desk and listen to how loud and distracting the sound was. Then I asked them not to do it again.  Seemed to work pretty well.