Formative assessment is the heart of the classroom. It’s the moment-to-moment information coming at a teacher that allows them to make key decisions and changes within a lesson or unit. It’s the tool that allows teachers to see their students’ learning and to make decisions about where to go next.
There are an abundance of tricks and techniques for using formative assessment within a lesson. It can range from something as simple as having students turn and share an idea or thought with a partner and the teacher listens in to get a sense of their depth of understanding, to using a technology-driven device like Plickers.
The purpose and goal of formative assessment is for the teacher to know what the students know quickly, without much loss of instructional time. Although the purpose is to know, the other positive outcome is that the students are thoroughly engaged in their own learning. Formative assessment creates an environment in a classroom that is fun; students are constantly moving and sharing their learning with peers and adults, while getting feedback about how they are doing and what they need to change. This creates an energy in the room that anyone who walks in can feel.
In a classroom where formative assessment is used as a learning and engagement tool, thinking is not an option for students; every student is expected to think and to learn. At my school, we use the acronym ESP – Every student Simultaneously Processing. This means all students are expected to process or do something with every question a teacher asks; thinking is mandatory not discretionary. Even if the teacher doesn’t get to hear every student’s response, the requirement to think keeps students checked in. The teacher might ask students to get into teams or partners and give them a deep-thinking question about a poem. Students then get 30 seconds to just sit back to back with their partner and think. Then the teacher asks them to turn face to face and share their answers. The students then go back to their desks and do a quick write-up on the question. The teacher may collect those papers, but they may also just call on a few individuals and ask whether anyone had a different idea. This will allow the teacher to hear multiple student ideas, but also get the sense of whether they were able to think deeply. This also gives feedback to students as well, and they get to see if their ideas are similar to their partner or if they were way off base.
A teacher at my school uses a quick informal formative assessment with his daily bell work. Students do a quick five question daily oral language warm up and then they simply check their answers with their partner. The teacher then asks whether any partners disagree. If so, those are the answers he goes over. If they all agreed, he knows they understood and he can move on.
Some examples from my practice both as a teacher and an administrator… Whiteboards can be used to quickly check on a student’s progress to date. If the class is working on the skill of ‘theme’ and the teacher has the students read a short passage to determine the theme of the text, the students can simply write down the theme on a whiteboard. The teacher can then ask the students to show their boards. The teacher can quickly scan to see who understands and who doesn’t and then make a decision on where to proceed next. This is the epitome of formative assessment and its role in instructional decision making. If the majority had the theme correct, they could move on and try a more difficult text or theme. If most missed it, they can back track and try again.
When the students are getting exactly what they need instructionally, they tend to stay on task and engaged. When I was in the classroom I did a lesson on similes and metaphors where each student had a ring of cards labeled A-E and they simply used A or B to show if an example was a simile or a metaphor. After each example, I had the students hold their cards close so no one else could see. I would then wait for everyone to have an answer then exclaim “show!” and they would all turn their cards. But they didn’t just turn their cards, they were looking around and checking whether they were right or wrong. You saw excitement and enthusiasm and the students were also getting quick and instant feedback on their own understanding.
As an administrator, I have walked into classrooms where all students are sitting in rows and working silently on various assignments which they turn in, the teacher grades, and then they receive it back days later with a grade on it. At no time in that process do they get feedback until the process is over. With the formative feedback process, when you walk into a classroom you can feel the energy when learning is active and moving.
I watched a lesson in an 8th grade language arts classroom that was focused on argumentative writing. Students used colored markers to identify specific information that should be in the essay, like a thesis statement or evidence. Students worked in groups of four and passed papers. Each student was focused on a specific area and used a specific color. At the end, the students received their own papers back and were able to see, pretty quickly, whether they had all the colors they needed or were missing a few things. When students received their papers back there was an excitement and energy to their conversations. I heard students realizing “oh yeah, I forgot to provide evidence for that point” or “whoops, I’m missing my thesis statement.” However, what really stood out to me was the dynamic between all the group members. I heard students give ideas and suggestions or offer to help after class. Students clearly knew what they needed to improve and without prompting, they created a plan to make the improvements prior to turning the assignment in. In this lesson, not only were students learning and improving their own writing, they were also building relationships with peers and having fun. It’s amazing how engaging is to let 13 year-olds use markers and talk to peers.