Waters (2012) suggested that every minute a teacher spends on formative assessment is a minute lost from instruction (p. 8). But I doubt that formative assessment and instruction are really a zero-sum game. As my master teacher told me over 20 years ago, a good assessment should be a learning experience too. The trick, I think, is for the teacher to break out of the comfortable routine of measuring all learning with quick and easy multiple-choice tests, to be more precise, the sort of test questions that have single, predetermined correct answers. Designing a good formative assessment takes time, to be sure, so why not use that time to students’ advantage by incorporating a thought-provoking article or short video clip into an assessment?
A good formative assessment should require students to formulate ideas that extend beyond the context(s) in which the information was taught. A few years ago, I taught a high-school anatomy course with partner who is a formative assessment guru. She requires her students to write quick paragraph assessments based on one or two brief excerpts from articles. She carefully designs her writing prompts so that students not only summarize the key concepts from the article and their prior learning, but also apply that knowledge to solve a critical-thinking problem that they have not encountered before. Some of the prompts even ask questions that have more than one possible answer, so there is an opportunity for the assessment to provoke further discussion and debate in the classroom. She grades these short-paragraph assessments efficiently and holistically based on rather simple criteria:
- Did the student demonstrate sufficient mastery of what has been taught recently?
- Was the student able to make a logical conclusion about the critical-thinking problem that was supported with evidence?
Based on the results of each assessment, she is able to make immediate adjustments to her instruction—and student groupings—the very next day.
As I was completing my own self-assessment for this assignment, I realized that an effective formative assessment should also contain a question or two that asks the student to express his or her own assessment of progress. I don’t think it’s necessary to ask students to complete the exact same questions before and after their learning, as we have been asked to do this week. But I do think that students should be asked to reflect on how their thinking has changed over the course of a unit or an entire course term. Such assessments need not be lengthy; in fact, every lesson can easily be concluded by asking students to rate their own understanding of the lesson on a scale from 1 to 5. Over longer time scales, I think students should be asked to write reflections on learning goals every couple of weeks. Such writing can be a powerful learning experience for both the student and the teacher, who might gain valuable feedback that can be used to adjust upcoming lessons and/or improve the course for the next year.
Strategies such as these can be employed in a traditional classroom; in fact, I doubt any of these ideas is really new. But in an online or blended learning environment, these formative assessment techniques become essential, because teachers and students might not be in the same classroom at the same time, or they might not even be in the same part of the world. Teachers of online courses must take formative assessment very seriously because the students are not physically present, so their body language, attitudes, and emotional states might be complete mysteries.
Technology, of course, opens up whole new categories of possible formative assessment techniques. As Horn and Staker (2012) described, formative assessment can be constantly interwoven throughout learning by using adaptive instruction tools like Lexia (para. 6). In my school district, the printed math textbook has been completely replaced with GoMath and ThinkCentral, both of which are adaptive, interactive learning learning modules published by HMH. Students in such programs are constantly asked to solve problems independently, and the computer software makes instant decisions about the next step, whether a student needs remediation or intervention, or is ready to progress to the next step. These tech tools are sometimes aggravating when they do not work, and I doubt they can replace the intuition and interpersonal relationship of a dedicated teacher. However, even the most skeptical tradition-minded teacher must admit that technology is opening the door to many new assessment methods, and that traditional paper tests with multiple-choice questions are going the way of the dinosaur.
Horn, M., & Staker, H. (2012, November 14). Formative assessment is foundational to blended learning. THE Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology. Retrieved from https://thejournal.com/articles/2012/11/14/formative-assessment-is-foundational-to-blended-learning.aspx
Waters, J. K. (2012). Resolving the formative assessment catch-22. THE Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology. Retrieved from http://online.qmags.com/TJL0912?pg=20&mode=1#pg20&mode1