Formative Assessment: Helping to See If Students “Get it”

Formative Assessment: Helping to See If Students “Get it”

Last August, I had to fly in a 20-seater plane. This flight was a problem because I hate to fly. I really, really hate to fly. Fortunately, my colleague kept turning around in her seat to ask for a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from me so that she could determine if I needed some soothing talk, a hand to hold, or a tissue to sob into. The learning target for that Marshall flight was “I can successfully fly in a small plane to my destination without dying from sheer panic.” No, we did not have a rubric at the time to measure what we meant by “successfully.”

Donna’s thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach contained a lot of implied questions:

  • How successfully are you managing your anxiety in this metal tube at this moment?
  • Do I need to support you more or differently to get through this nightmare?
  • Where are you in terms of meeting today’s learning target? Are you moving forward or frozen in sheer panic?

The entire flight, my colleague elicited real-time evidence to help her determine how to best support me while giving me opportunities to check in with how I was feeling. As I reflected on how I felt, I adjusted my level of positive self-talk, which is a strategy I rely on to tamp down fear of certain death.

Welcome to formative assessment: provide a clear learning target, gather evidence, promote reflection, make adjustments, provide feedback, and so on. Both the flyer and the flying companion participate in the process of measuring progress toward the learning target. Formative assessment is my key to flying well. Actually, Sudoku and counting out minutes are my keys, but this article is not about games and counting routines.

More formally, formative assessment is a process where student evidence is used by teachers to adjust instruction on an ongoing basis and by students to determine effectiveness of their learning. Formative assessment and summative assessment are both valuable tools for eliciting evidence; however, there are some notable differences:

What is Formative Assessment?  What is Summative Assessment?
Assessment FOR learning Assessment OF learning
Happens during instructional process and is ongoing Evaluates learning at the end of a project, unit, course, term or school year
Provides information needed to adjust instruction Determines whether and to what degree students have learned the material they have been taught
Invites students to be part of the learning process Compares students against some standard or benchmark
Increases metacognitive skills Used for accountability
Develops self-assessment strategies

In other words, formative assessment is about the teacher and the student doing something NOW. Summative assessment is about doing something NEXT TIME.

When we think about formative assessment, we often realize we do this type of assessment already. What I realized about my own teaching is that I was doing formative assessment, but I wasn’t doing it nearly enough, dedicating class time for it, giving it equal weight to the content I was teaching, or using it to target students’ self-reflection skills.

The question I’m often asked is “What type of formative assessment should I use? Which kind is better?” Thinking more broadly, what evidence do we want and what is the best way to get it and use it? In the paper, “Focusing Formative Assessment on the Needs of English Language Learners” (2014), the writers suggest that a teacher create or choose a formative assessment task by answering the questions below:

  1. What do I wish to measure?
  2. What evidence of learning is needed?
  3. What are the characteristics of tasks that will elicit this evidence?
  4. Do I need information from this task to help me adjust my instructional activities or to help students gain insights about how to adjust their learning strategies? Or both?

Remember that the evidence of learning can be used by both teachers and students. As teachers, we use the evidence in real time to make instructional adjustments that will help students better meet the clear learning targets we’ve set for them. When students examine the effectiveness of their own learning strategies or can articulate where they are in terms of where they need to go, the formative assessment process strengthens students’ metacognitive thinking and autonomy. For example, here are some powerful metacognitive questions for students:

  • What are my strengths relative to the learning target?
  • What have I seen myself improve at?
  • Where are my areas of weakness?
  • What do I need to do better?
  • What are the next steps in my learning?

Want to see more examples? View 60 formative assessment tools and 40 reflection questions.

This newsletter article is just a taste of formative assessment. For more information, examples and guidance for creating formative assessments, don’t miss the upcoming Formative Assessment Webinar! Andy Nash of World Education in Boston–and a national expert on formative assessment–is leading a webinar just for MN ABE practitioners. Join us on Tuesday, May 1, at 2:00 pm.

Register NOW for Incorporating Formative Assessment into Lesson Planning >>

Kristine Kelly, Literacy & ELA Coordinator ATLAS