Simple Formative Assessment

I’ve gone on about the importance of accurate and meaningful assessment for students. As a background for this assessment, I have argued that it is imperative that students fully understand the criteria of success, so that they are not left guessing as to what you want, or what the discipline deems as success. There are obvious limitations to the precision that can be communicated up front, but it is clear that students benefit greatly from familiarity and understanding of criteria for assessment. What I want to talk about today is formative assessment—work that helps the student to understand her/his current achievement, and that helps her/him to move forward.

My aim to day is to be as simple as possible. Often teachers get caught up in systems, products and procedures that create a lot of work for the teacher, a lot of paper for the student, but do little real good. I want to go the other direction. What can a teacher do that involves very little work, provides meaningful feedback to the student and leads to a significant educational payoff? My answer is: simple formative assessment.

So what is formative assessment? The kinds of assessments that parents and students see most often are summative: they are reports of what the student has learned, boiled down to a grade and some comments. Summative assessment is important because it communicates a judgment of how the student did. Formative assessment communicates to the student (and teacher, and perhaps parents) how the teacher is doing. Furthermore, formative assessment should provide guidance for what the student should do next.

Unfortunately many teachers and students have twisted the distinction into something like this: Summative assessment counts for marks, while formative assessment doesn’t. This is a pathetic state of affairs. It leads students to ask the question “Does this count?” and to use the answer to determine how much energy will be put into the task. The point of education gets distorted from learning to gamesmanship. In situations like this, the strategy is for the teacher to give a test to students “not for marks” as a formative assessment and another test “for marks” as a summative assessment. While not a horrible practice, it’s pretty easy to see that it’s a lot of work, combined with dubious communications and the wrong incentives.

So let’s simplify this notion of formative assessment. At least some of it. What can a teacher do to provide meaningful feedback to students?

The most obvious answer is to talk to them. If you want to know if somebody understands something, engage him/her in a conversation and pay attention to what they say. You might need to jot down a few notes, but so what? This is about as clean as it gets. Little conversations about the material being learned (including criteria of success) can go a long way to helping the student see what is learned and what is to be learned, and the teacher to see what needs to be further taught or clarified.

Maybe the simplest way to get this feedback from students is to ask questions during whole class instruction. I mean real questions to real people. “Everybody got that?” is not a real question. It asks everything of no one, and no real response is expected. “Suppose, Mary that you needed to carpet this floor. How could you determine how much you need?” This is better. Mary knows right away that she is being asked and that she will be required to answer. She has time to think. The question requires her to provide a strategy and a rationale. If Mary can only give a partial answer, she can be guided, probed for further clarification, and be given direct assistance. In a very brief moment, the teacher learns a lot about Mary and Mary learns something about her own learning. This is cheap, fast and efficient. There is no good reason that a teacher could not ask similar questions of every student in the room, perhaps over two or three class periods. What’s more, the teacher can take anecdotal records to make sure that any needs that emerge can be identified and addressed in some appropriate manner.

Three decades ago, when I was a pre-service teacher I walked into a high school math classroom where the teacher used an old-fashioned method of seeing how students were doing. Half a dozen students at a time would go to the chalkboard (man I miss chalkboards) and all solve the same problem, usually from the homework. The whole class could watch, and students who were unsure could ask someone for guidance. Errors were spotted and corrected. It was amazing for a number of reasons. First, the classroom climate was such that no one felt embarrassed if they needed help. There was nowhere to hide, and everyone had a problem sometimes. Second, the students themselves identified areas of need and were able to seek assistance right away. Sometimes they didn’t know that they misunderstood something, so this brought it to light. Third, the teacher got high quality information about the students and was in a position to act immediately or at a later time, as judgment dictated. I brought this into my classroom at all levels and found it very helpful for everyone.

Today’s post is very simple, and very light-hearted. But I think it’s important nonetheless. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of feedback from student to teacher and from teacher to student. It is crucial that students know how they are doing in order to keep themselves on track. And I cannot emphasize enough that many—most—of the high-impact things we can do as teachers don’t involve large investments of time and money. You want to know what yours students know. So ask them. Then use their answers to help them to move their learning forward. It’s a lot of effort, but it’s also easy to do.

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3 thoughts on “Simple Formative Assessment

  1. It’s so refreshing, John, to hear from someone who is actually in the classroom. It’s just common sense, isn’t it, but so much of that seems to be lacking from the “evaluators” and “reformers.”

    Some other quick formative assessments: walk around and see what students are doing in their notebooks while working on a problem; make up a little three question exit slip for students to fill in in the last 5 minutes of class. It should cover the essentials of that day’s lesson.

    And simply allowing students to work together in groups, with the teacher overhearing conversations, is very valuable as well.

    I carry my own chalk. Can’t stand the expensive smelly dry erase markers.

    Liked by 1 person

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