Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Include Students in the Formative Assessment Process

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 10, 2012 9 min read
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Matt Townsley asked:

Carol Boston says “Black and Wiliam (1998b) define assessment broadly to include all activities that teachers and students undertake to get information that can be used diagnostically to alter teaching and learning. Under this definition, assessment encompasses teacher observation, classroom discussion, and analysis of student work, including homework and tests. Assessments become formative when the information is used to adapt teaching and learning to meet student need.” Where and how do we include students in the formative assessment process? What is the role of technology in this feedback cycle?

Formative assessment is a critical element in an effective classroom, and is also a buzzword that is often misused. Thanks, Matt, for raising this important question.

I’ll first try to answer your question, and then have articulate guests and readers respond, as well. My response is partially taken from an upcoming book that my colleague, Katie Hull-Sypnieski, and I are co-authoring.

Formative assessment, as I understand it, is an on-going process where both teachers and students evaluate assessment evidence in order to make adjustments to their teaching and learning. Robert Marzano has called it “one of the more powerful weapons in a teacher’s arsenal.”

The formative assessment process can strengthen students’ abilities to assess their own progress, to set and evaluate their own learning goals, and to make adjustments accordingly. Formative assessment can also elicit valuable feedback from students about what teachers are doing effectively and what they could do better.

Here are a few activities some of my colleagues and I use to integrate students into the formative assessment process:

Student Self-Assessment and Reflection

Activities which promote metacognitive thinking and ask students to reflect on their learning processes are key to the formative assessment process. When students are asked to think about what they have learned and how they have learned it (the learning strategies they’ve used), they are better able to understand their own learning processes and can set new goals for themselves. Students can reflect on their learning in many ways: answering a set of questions, drawing a picture or set of pictures to represent their learning process, talking with a partner, keeping a learning log or journal, etc.

For example, in my class last month, we did a unit on “celebrating mistakes” where students reviewed important things they had learned through mistakes they had made, and discovered how much we all wouldn’t know if we hadn’t been willing to risk making them. The teacher can use these kinds of responses to check for student understanding, but also to check the “pulse” of the class in terms of student motivation, confidence levels, and levels of metacognition.

Goal Sheets

Having students set their own goals and evaluate their progress toward achieving them is an effective part of the formative assessment process. Goal setting has a positive effect on student motivation and learning when the goals are specific and performance based, relatively short-term, and moderately difficult.

Goal sheets are an effective way to help students set goals and track their progress. It is best to identify specific goals. For example, “I will read in English for 20 minutes each night” is more specific than “I will read more.” Also, goals need to be achievable in a short period of time and not impossibly difficult. The teacher can model how to set effective goals and also how to evaluate one’s progress toward achieving them by asking students to periodically write or talk about what they have achieved, what they still would like to achieve, and how they will do it.

Online Audio Recording

Using an online audio recording site like Fotobabble or other similar sites is a way for students and the teacher to assess student progress in speaking and reading fluency. Students can periodically record themselves (speaking or reading a text) and then can reflect on their improvement over time.

Improvement Rubrics

Studies by Professor Carol Dweck and others have identified the importance for students to clearly see for themselves the growth in their own knowledge. One way my colleagues and I do this is by having students compare essays they write -- separated by several months -- and have students compare the two using an improvement rubric.

For more information on the topic of formative assessment, you might want to explore “The Best Resources For Learning About Formative Assessment.”

Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin, a veteran English teacher, trains educators throughout the country in writing across the curriculum, strategic literacy, and differentiated instruction. She is the author of Formative Assessment For English Language Arts: A Guide For Middle And High School Teachers:

Formative assessment, broadly defined, is up-to-the-minute feedback from students that teachers can use diagnostically to guide instructional decisions. Formative assessment is done intuitively by almost all teachers, whether that entails an anonymous survey to see who knows what or a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down directive to the class to see who feels ready to move ahead and who needs more work. But as we group such practices under the name “formative assessment,” we can refine them as such.

Summative assessments are those “big tests” that are recorded in the teacher’s gradebook. Summative assessments “count,” meaning that their results are used to sort students into groups: Who passes and who gets passed over? After summative assessments, either the student moves on to the next level, or the teacher moves on to the next topic, usually without regard to those students who are not ready to do so. “Oh well,” the thinking goes, “Pick up the pieces, learn what caused you to fail that last unit test, and swim in more shark-infested waters as we march through the mandated curriculum.”

Formative assessments lead to differentiation. If differentiation is not on the menu--if the teacher is going to proceed as scheduled without regard to who knows what--then what would be the point of formative assessment? That may explain why so many teachers don’t do it! We’re either teaching students or we’re teaching the curriculum, regardless of the students.

Where do quizzes fit in? Ideally, they fit somewhere in the middle. Quizzes “count” in the teacher’s gradebook, but they should also inform the teacher of students’ needs as units of study progress. Let’s say students are reading Great Expectations. Student A fails the quiz on Chapters 1-5 because she didn’t read them; Student B gets the same grade because he didn’t remember the particular details that the teacher included on the quiz. Hmm... This is why quizzes should test for important concepts, not minutiae. This is why our quizzes, when viewed as formative assessment, should provide guiding information for the teacher and at the same time hold students accountable for their assignments and attentiveness in class.

Response From Cheryl Suliteanu

Cheryl Suliteanu is a National Board Certified Teacher in Oceanside, CA. She is also a Candidate Support Provider for teachers working on National Board certification through the California Teacher’s Association Instruction and Professional Development department. She is a member of The Teacher Leaders Network:

It’s important to teach children about goals and objectives as early as kindergarten. In my kindergarten classroom, I post daily objectives prominently on the board. I explain the objective for the day in language arts and mathematics--not just what it is, but why we need to learn it. For example, I’ll say, “We will play ‘Top It’ today so we can practice recognizing numbers.” I then ask students to come up with examples of where they see numbers outside our classroom. One responds, “I see numbers in the grocery store.” We then talk about knowing numbers so we can use money. Another student says, “I see numbers on the TV.” Our conversation moves to how to find the channels we want to watch, and so on. These conversations motivate students, helping them understand how they can apply their learning in the real world.

Enjoying a learning experience deepens students’ connection to new concepts and skills. When highly engaged, students can function independently, freeing me to walk around and observe their application of number concepts. For example, one day I noticed that a student drew an incorrect number of circles for the number 8. I gave him a different color crayon and asked him to draw 8 circles again. After giving him two more opportunities to match the number 8 to an amount, I saw that he had the concept but lost concentration, forgetting to stop at 8. By observing him and asking guiding questions, I could discern that his problem wasn’t the math, but a potential issue with attention. Creating a stress-free environment for my students to explore mathematical concepts is a win-win for all of us: they have fun, while I collect data.

Reader Responses

Here’s a portion of Benjamin Stewart’s response (you can read more at his blog):

We include students in the formative assessment process by listening to them. We listen by taking part in informal discussions, instructional conversations, Socratic Method, academic prompts, performance tasks, quizzes and exams, eportfolios, etc. We listen to them not relying only on a limited number of forms of assessment, but rather through the collection of many different types of evidence that allow us to make better inferences on student achievement.

Peter Jory wrote:

We have been working on assessment for learning strategies during monthly PLC time for a few years now, and informing parents and students what those strategies are and how we are trying to use them classes in our monthly newsletters helps brings attention to our work. This week we toured classes and actually explained to classes directly what descriptive feedback is and why it is so important, as a lead off for “Feedback Month”. A grade 7 student asked, “If feedback is so important, shouldn’t every month be Feedback Month?”

Australian educator dpack left a great comment that’s too long to include here in its entirety but is worth reading in full. Here’s his last paragraph:

It amazes me that formative assessment is such a mystery in American education. It’s very simple ... once you get out of the standardized, computer marked, multiple choice question frame of mind ... and the way of thinking that says everything must be marked for a grade. It does require time ... and teachers talking to kids ... which is really the best part of teaching, anyway!

Dave Orphal writes:

I’ve started letting my student co-write the grading rubrics in my classroom. I’ve been very impressed with how serious they take the job of determining what criteria they should be graded on and what elements make an excellent example of the project that they will create. I’m writing a three-part piece about this on my blog at TransformED. (Editor’s Note: TransformED is one of my favorite blogs)

Extra Credit? also left a comment describing an excellent question-asking activity. I’ve run-out of room here to repeat it, but I’d strongly encourage you to check-out her/his description.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Amy, Cheryl, Benjamin, Peter, dpack, Dave and “Extra Credit?” for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.