• The Spark

Getting Formative Assessment to Work

Author:  Sheila W. Valencia, Professor of Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Washington, Seattle  | 10/12/2017

Assessment continues to be a “hot” topic and, as most “hot” topics, it has been a source of some debate. Although there is finally general consensus that students in the U.S. spend too much time taking summative standardized and state tests, there is also general consensus and research to support that we should spend MORE time engaging with students in high-quality formative assessment! In fact, studies have shown that students in classrooms where formative assessment is used effectively make large gains on standardized achievement tests. What’s more, high-quality formative assessment produces larger gains for low-achieving students than other for other students; that means that formative assessment can help close the achievement gap while raising achievement overall.

Now, I know this may sound crazy—that we should be doing MORE formative assessment—but, if we really understand the definition of formative assessment and some quick and powerful tips for engaging it, this makes good sense.

First—the definition.

The goal of formative assessment is to improve student learning—not to measure it, record it, or even report it to others. Formative assessment occurs when teachers adjust their instruction based on what they notice about a student’s learning and they share that information in a variety of ways to help the student learn better. Some people call this assessment for learning as compared with assessment of learning. So, it is not that formative assessments take place frequently or even that they are integrated with instruction that makes them makes them work; it is the use of the information by teachers and by students to move learning forward.

Second—what it looks like.

Formative assessment is embedded in everyday instruction. It happens quite frequently, on a day-by-day and even minute-by-minute basis as teachers are interacting and observing students at work. It is often “on-the-fly” but, more important, it is sharply focused on what you are teaching and how students are responding. It can include observation, questioning, even paper/pencil activities but it must help you modify your instruction. And it must always provide feedback to the student that causes him to think—not to simply get the correct answer.

Here are two main tips for making formative assessment more effective and efficient.

Tip 1. High-Quality Feedback

An essential component of effective formative assessment is the quality of the feedback you provide to students as well as how you use the information to shape your teaching. To be effective, feedback must be specific, timely, and non-evaluative. It must also provide opportunities for students to revise and improve their work and deepen understandings.

  • Provide feedback that is specific to the learning task and causes the student to think. General feedback such as “Great job,” or “Try that one again,” or “Change the letter a to an o,” does not lead to thinking or to learning. Instead, try feedback such as, “That’s an interesting analysis of this character. An analysis uses all the information in the story— not just parts. Let’s review the clues you used to review your conclusions.” Or, “Let’s review the sounds of /a/ and /o/. Now let’s read these words.”
  • Extend wait time before providing feedback. Research shows that most teacher feedback happens within 1 second! Try waiting 3–5 seconds before providing feedback or prompts to stimulate student thinking.
  • Provide feedback “just in time”—that means that feedback happens as close to the actual activity as possible so that it is useful and students can act on it immediately.

Tip 2. Formative Assessment Strategies

Use strategies to elicit students’ understanding so that you know what they can do and what they understand. These shouldn’t take a long time to do or to respond to. The point is to make them an efficient and natural part of instruction.

  • Have students use whiteboards during a lesson. Periodically have them respond on the board and hold up so you can see all at a glance, provide specific feedback, and adjust your teaching immediately. (e.g. provide more/less practice, more explanation, demonstration, etc.)
  • Teach students to use “signal cards”–green (Easy for me), yellow (OK but I’d like a little more help), red (Hard, I need help)—to signal to you how they are feeling about the new learning. Students leave the card in a corner of their desk as they are working so you can intervene as needed. This strategy also helps students develop their own self-assessment abilities as they work with you over time.
  • Have students respond to a brief question related to the lesson using a sticky note and leave the note on a response board. Look through these to plan your follow-up lesson or to individualize work with students.
  • Ask questions that get students to think—rather than simply do. Treat questions as an opening to a dialogue rather than a check on “knowing.” For example, “Who would you rather have for a friend, Charlotte or Wilbur?” or “Think of another word that has the same beginning sound as “blue” and write it on your white board.” Use follow-ups such as, “What makes you think that?” “How did you figure that out?”
  • “Flip” typical workbook pages or classroom tests after students respond individually by supporting and providing feedback as they collaboratively review, discuss, and revise their responses. Turn the activity into a quest for learning and thinking rather than a test for the teacher. By making formative assessment an efficient and effective part of your instruction, you can join with your students to improve teaching and learning!

Lead the Way to Literacy in Your School or Classroom

View the recording of Dr. Sheila Valencia’s fall Leadership Talk, and learn more about the entire fall Lead the Way to Literacy webinar series.

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