In a post about teaching techniques, Maryellen Weimer cautioned readers about loving techniques for the wrong reasons. When I talk about formative assessment or formative instructional practice, I do share information about strategies and techniques to use that support the pedagogy. But for me, formative assessment goes far beyond the use of strategies and is more about a way of being in the classroom. It is about the engagement of both the teacher and the learners in gathering the evidence of learning to see where “they” (the entire classroom learning team) are in relation to the learning target or goals and using that evidence to make adjustments (on-the-fly) to both learning and teaching to get closer to where the members of the team want or need to be.
Dr. Weimer shares that…
…a collection of techniques has got to be monitored and managed, and that requires a lot more sophisticated skills than those needed to acquire a collection. Even a good technique doesn’t work well for all teachers all the time. There are no cure-all solutions that function effectively with all kinds of content and for all kinds of students. No technique is going to be implemented equally well by all teachers. Our thinking about what a technique can accomplish needs to be a bit less optimistic.
I couldn’t agree more. Over the past 15 years, I have watched teachers embrace the idea of formative assessment, become more mindful of strategies they were using, gather strategies to add to their toolkit, and work hard in their classrooms to implement and integrate those strategies. Where efforts sometimes fall short is in using the results and data gathered from using the strategies.
As part of a process, planning when to use formative assessment within a lesson is valuable, as is being able to use a formative instructional strategy in-the-moment – both of which take practice. The key is using the results and teaching students to use the results. Eliciting and gathering evidence of learning is work for both the teacher and the learners. It is the use of the data that make it formative. Let’s talk about three ideas to consider when it comes to making the use of the data formative.
- The use of formative assessment has to be such that the data collected allows the teacher to differentiate the levels of understanding among the learners.
- Both learners and teachers need to be able to use the results to see what the level of understanding actually is, and when the learner can make adjustments independently or may need assistance.
- When the learner’s understanding is deep enough, the skills and knowledge transfer to new situations. The evidence gathered should provide information about that transfer. This data gathered and used formatively informs the decisions learners and teachers make regarding next steps.
To gather this evidence of learning we need to consider two useful tools: the use of pre-assessment (prior knowledge and misconceptions) and quality questions. If we can ask questions that provide results that clearly indicate what students, know, don’t know, think they know, and have misconceptions about, we can begin to:
- Set goals for instruction (learning targets and success criteria)
- Help students set learning goals
- Design and provide instruction that fills in the gaps and extends the knowledge, understandings, and skills
- Ask more quality questions or create quality tasks that help move learning forward
- Provide learning-focused feedback (focused on the learning targets and success criteria) that gives students information about where and how to improve
- Teach students to use the feedback (formative data) to deepen their understanding
- Guide students in using their data to monitor their progress in learning and meeting their goals
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? What makes it a challenge for some is the time element. Time to plan for this process. Time to teach students about the different types of data they generate and how to best use them formatively. Time to have students use their evidence of learning to make immediate adjustments to their work and their learning tactics. Time to plan for Options A, B, and sometimes C, so that when we elicit evidence of learning we have an idea of how we are going to act on the data—make it actionable.
Bransford et al in Knowing How People Learn said:
Classrooms need to be learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment rich, and community centered. How do we get there without a plan? How do we make time and space to use any results we gather about learning without a plan? If we can move to thinking about our instruction as responsive lesson planning, we can begin this process of intentionally using the results we gather via the formative assessment process. Think about it this way—responsive lesson planning is a planning approach designed to respond to students’ unique needs prior to and throughout the lesson. With this approach, teachers intentionally plan to use, teach students to use, and make time for students to use the evidence of learning gathered on an ongoing basis.
Bottom line is that to use the results—the evidence of learning—YOU have to plan for it. What does your planning look like? What tips can you share? Tell me about it on Twitter at @kdyer13.