Handhelds in the Classroom: Test-Taking with the Backchannel

My students spent the past two days using a Twitter backchannel to communicate, share ideas and resources during a math test. Here’s a taste of what it looked like:

It doesn’t seem all that interesting when you look at this little sample, but I saw some wonderful things in the classroom.

I saw students very quiet in a setting that needed to be, yet still communicating through the backchannel. I witnessed them interested in responding to tweets for help, and sharing advice or strategies through the twitter stream. Most importantly, I saw students focussing on feedback and improvement during a ‘test’, rather than on their grade or what ranking they would be assigned as compared to the standard.

Afterwards, we had a class discussion where I asked the students a) Is this cheating? b) what is challenging about leaving the backchannel open? and c) in what ways did the backchannel help you? Here are a sample of their responses:

Is this cheating?

At first I thought it was, but then I realized it’s not cheating because it doesn’t help just to get an answer.

It’s not cheating because we’re just trying to help each other get better.

Some people would call it cheating but it just helped me get the math better.

What is challenging about having the backchannel open?

It’s so weird being allowed to do it that it’s kind of distracting at first, but then you learn to use it only when you need it.

Sometimes it’s distracting.

So many people say so many different things that I don’t understand it sometimes.

In what ways did the backchannel help you?

It let me talk but still stay quiet.

It made the test fun.

It helped me focus.

It helped me compare my thinking to other people.

At first I was embarrassed to ask questions, but then I saw some people like S—– who are good at math asking questions so I thought ‘Fine, it’s OK.’



  1. This is true collaboration! The reflection process after the math test is very important for getting students to recognize the strategies that assisted them in their learning process.
    Exciting times! Thanks for leading the way.

  2. I love this post and what you’re doing with your students! Your students are engaged learners who are also assessing effective learning and their learning styles. Thanks for posting this.

    1. Thanks! Actually, I have to admit that this is one of the hardest things I have ever done as a teacher. Not because of the kids, but because of all the adults that I have to ‘prove’ it to. Sometimes draining;-)

  3. I must admit that when I first read your post I thought ‘that’s an interesting idea, but it’s not something I would ever do’. As the week went on I thought about it more and more and every time I thought about it I started to accept the idea more and more. I went from ‘I’d never do that’ to ‘I might give it a try sometime’ to ‘I’m trying it next week’.

    I teach a grade 10 math class. Many of my students lack confidence in math. I think this just might be what they need to gain some confidence. Can’t wait to give it a try.

  4. Great thought provoking post-thanks. Makes my first attempt at using iTouch in class seem insignificant, when I see where this could lead! Brilliant use of handheld tech at its best, educational use of Twiitter, and above all, a great example of collaboration. This isn’t about a test score, it’s about real learning. Fantastic!

  5. Incredible Royan, I am so glad that you were willing to step outside of what we generally think of acceptable test behavior and gave your students the opportunity to make test taking a more authentic experience.

  6. Interesting … Love the exchange between the students that help making their peers think about the answer and process rather than simply giving the answer.

    It reminds me of a comment I heard at the QUEST conference a few years back about making our teaching/test with questions that would make good use of tech rather than forbid tech … !

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