Formative assessment is about using instructional practices that provide evidence of where students are in their learning so teachers (and learners) can make adjustments day-to-day and even minute-to minute.
When student learning becomes the focus in the classroom, the environment totally changes. Students become increasingly responsible for their own learning and for supporting their peers in their learning, as well. Using formative assessment in the classroom is a key to activating thinking, reflection, and learning.
According to the National Research Council’s “How People Learn” report, there are three key factors for improving understanding, each supported by the use of formative assessment. Let’s take a closer look.
1. Engaging students where they are
There are several formative assessment practices and strategies that you can use to help find out where students are in their learning and provide them the opportunity to engage from the very beginning of the lesson. Teachers might use entrance tickets, pre-assessment, KWL (What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I’ve Learned), an anticipatory guide, or card sorts, among other strategies. Giving students the ability to assess where they are helps them become more self-directed in their learning. To use these strategies we, as teachers, have to be really clear on the learning targets and making sure our students are, too.
2. Organizing, retrieving, and applying the learning
Learning is more than just accumulating facts, procedures, and processes. Providing schemas for students helps them organize what they’ve learned. These schemas are what help students integrate the knowledge into new situations and give them the opportunity to build on what they’ve learned.
There are a wide variety of formative assessment strategies that allow teachers and students to see evidence of learning. It may be as simple as a “data binder” where the student accumulates artifacts of his learning, can monitor his progress over time, and can set goals for himself. Or it might be a learning journal or portfolio (science, math, writing, etc.) where she keeps up with vocabulary lists, writing outlines, edited work, science experiments, and other activities or assignments that might be used as a reference when she gets stuck. Formative assessment strategies, such as having students design questions, participate in a Socratic seminar, dinner dialogue (teacher sends home a question parents might pose at dinner to allow everyone to share points of view or tell a story), sequencing, and synectics all encourage students to think about what they’ve learned, organize it in different ways, and apply it to take the learning to a deeper level.
3. Building metacognition
Education scholar, Royce Sadler said students need to have three things to be successful in the classroom:
- Understanding of where they are going and what good outcomes look like (clear learning targets and success criteria)
- Ability to determine where they are in relation to that target – where they are now (self-assessment)
- Ability to plot a course to help them get where they need to be – to reach their goals, their targets
What happens in your classroom that fosters these three criteria for success? According to Pellegrino et al, “Metacognitive skills can be taught.…people can learn mental devices that help them stay on task, monitor their own progress, reflect on their strengths and weakness, and self-correct errors.” This list is not just helpful, but necessary for our students to really learn. (And it piggybacks nicely with Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset.)
Formative assessment practices give us plenty of opportunity to foster both a growth mindset and metacognition in our students – practices that set the stage for learning. Providing clear learning targets and success criteria help students know where they are going and give them a picture of quality. Teaching students to self-assess and monitor their progress give them the ability to make decisions about what they know, don’t know…and what they will do about it.
When we set the stage for learning, we give students tools, resources, and processes to help them plot their learning course. And we change both the culture in our classroom as well as what learning looks like.