At the recent annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, both education professors at San Diego State University and teachers at Health Sciences High and Middle College, said the most important components of formative assessment are strong feedback and “feed forward.”
All too often, teachers mark mistakes on writing assignments and hand them back to students, who then simply throw their papers away, said Frey. That feedback loop is ineffective and can reinforce misconceptions. Strong feedback, on the other hand, is timely, specific, actionable, and useful, she explained. Students are given opportunities to re-learn and practice the skill again right away.
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Teachers should also “feed forward” by asking themselves: How will I use what I learned in the feedback process to inform my instruction? This helps teachers anticipate misconceptions and decide what needs to be re-taught and to whom,explained Fisher and Frey. Too many teachers, they said, fail to both track their feedback and use the data to alter their upcoming lesson plans.
Fisher described the formative-assessment process used at his school. “We’re not editors marking every error to fix” on an assignment, he said. Rather, teachers correct an error the first time they see it. The second time they see the same error, they put the student’s initials on an error-tracking sheet. Then they can easily see which students are struggling with the same skills and pull them for small-group instruction. Students bring their assignments to the small group, re-learn the skill, and correct their own errors.
It seems simple. And it can save teachers time in correcting papers. But in order for it to work, Fisher and Frey emphasized, teachers need to be flexible in their planning and willing to veer from whole-class instruction.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2012 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook