Formative assessment is a teaching tool that supports all learners, but it is especially critical for students who are struggling, as it holds the potential for changing the learning outcome. I remember this well because Ms. Connie Wambold, a very wise professor and mentor from my speech-language pathology program, always pointed out: “If you want them to be successful, then you have to show them what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.” I knew that these were true words because Ms. Wambold demonstrated their effectiveness as she immediately reinforced and corrected my understanding of phonetics. (This is a personal learning journey that I shall save for another time.)
As Ms. Wambold explained, when teachers use formative assessment during learning tasks, students get immediate feedback on their learning. This is an important consideration for students that struggle because corrective feedback is a necessity during the learning process. As a struggling learner, students often do not realize why they are struggling. Providing them with immediate feedback draws attention to the tasks that support their learning and those that don’t. Awareness of what works for them as a learner, and what doesn’t, allows them to begin to recognize the supports they need during the learning process and when they need to use them. This awareness begins the process of learning to differentiate between content and learning strategies.
Students identify strategies that help them learn.
As students identify the strategies that help them learn, they begin to recognize that they can use this information to support the learning process. Knowing how to learn, or in this case, the way that one learns best, separates the learner, the content, and the strategy they are using into different categories. When students can differentiate themselves from content and learning strategies, they begin to take control of their learning — because learning then becomes about adjusting the content or the strategy that they are using, instead of being a task that they are not good at or can’t accomplish. This movement begins a purposeful decision-making process.
Students take control of their learning.
When students make decisions regarding their learning, they are taking control of their learning. Having control over the learning process further promotes a positive growth mindset, which in turn, promotes success at learning. In this scenario, a positive cycle for learning is established and successes are highlighted, instead of failures. This type of success promotes effort rather than intelligence as a primary element of the learning process. In other words, if the student wants to learn the skill, he or she can. It may take some additional work because they haven’t had this experience in the past, but they can master the skill if they are persistent.
Smaller “chunks” of content help students process more effectively.
Finally, lessons that include multiple formative assessment events and strategies break learning tasks into manageable parts. This helps students focus their learning, as time demands are reduced and feedback is provided multiple times at shorter intervals. Utilizing shorter intervals for focusing helps students that have difficulty with maintaining attention to task. This also breaks content into manageable “chunks” that students can stop and process, before moving to the next component of the learning task.
Three skills that are often deficient in struggling learners — control of the learning process, identification of strategies that support learning, and processing content effectively — are often not identified as critical components of the intervention process, but they are components that can mean the difference between success and failure. By using formative assessment as part of the intervention process, interventionists can not only close content gaps for struggling students, they can close learning gaps. Including tools such as MAP Skills as part of the lesson planning process can make interventions more effective.