Musings on Formative Assessment

Teaching, like anything, is a skill that can be learned and refined over time, so they say. As a musician, the concept of honing a "practice" over time appeals to me. I don't mind waiting out the five to ten years it may take to start to feel competent. Although "waiting" is a misnomer. There is a lot of well-intentioned, yet misguided effort with a plentiful helping of of trial and error, a dash of laughable mistakes, and a few spoonfuls of back peddling and adjustment, before you'll finally reach what we call "an average day at work." Thank goodness I have some teaching experience under my belt, because formative assessment in the theoretical plane simply doesn't cut it. 

Flashback to CELTA. Without knowing the term "formative assessment" at the time, I now realize that what we were doing by asking "CCQs" or Concept Checking Questions, was a kind of formative assessment. I thought I had "taught" my first few lessons, simply by writing the material on the board, and going through the planned practice material I had prepared. But the teacher-trainers observing me begged to differ. "How do you know your students learned anything?" they'd said. Through my rosy-tinted glasses at that time, since I just wanted to be done with the pressure of being observed, CCQs seemed like a distracting element that was blocking me from completing my lesson. But after I tried asking the CCQs, I recognized that students usually appear to know more than they actually know. You can't simply ask, "do you understand?" which will induce the automatic response of, "yes," which proves nothing. There is no way of knowing they know without formative assessment. As soon as you define a term, for example, you should reframe that definition into a pointed question that comes at the same idea from a different angle to see if that definition stuck in their minds. I also realized that as students, it is our duty to prove what we know by giving evidence to the teachers. Otherwise, we may even fool ourselves into believing we know more than we actually do.

Skills and knowledge are truly known when we can flexibly bring up concepts up in conversations, use them as analogies, explain them to children, and present them in front of crowds of strangers. As someone who memorizes quickly, my own knowledge has often been deceptive. I learn fast but forget just as quickly. The role of formative assessment by a teacher is to make sure those ideas stick and become readily available from our memory banks, even when it seems least relevant. Formative assessment involves giving students lots of various opportunities to check themselves and each other, too. Giving a quiz is just one predictable form of assessment, but when a student checks the boundaries of their own learning through self-assessment, they really gain a sense of self-awareness. When they are called on to peer review other students' work, they again learn to model the process of checking for proof. Sometimes students have a much greater influence on their peers in comparison to the teacher. This is why having both individual and group assessments is useful because peers learn from each other. 

In the context of English Language Arts, which I intend to teach, formative assessment requires methods of getting students to prove they have comprehended what they've read as well as having them demonstrate proper use of difficult vocabulary words, English grammar and style conventions, and give debates and oral presentations that reveal a level of analytical thought that usually develops over time in a very cloaked manner. In fact, the skills we demonstrate in English Language Arts have often accumulated over a long period of time for the students. Therefore, we need students to identify what they already know in writing through annotations of reading (Diigo is an excellent tool for this), revisions using tracked changes (kudos to Google docs), comparisons of distinct texts, graphic organizers, highlighters and visual representations that reveal the ability to interpret texts and mold and develop ideas about texts in writing and express in different registers, make different rhetorical appeals, and practice writing in a variety of genres, all while using a long list of figures of speech. In addition, classic tools that are used across the curriculum such as observation, whiteboards, exit tickets, KWL, CCQs, popsicle stick selection, five finger understanding, one paragraph summaries, etc., are all excellent strategies for ongoing formative assessment.

However, the teacher also has to provide formative assessment in a way that collects insightful data that can be analyzed at a later time. This is because teachers are ultimately responsible for their group of students as a whole when faced with reviews from administrations and departments about their students' progress. For this reason, teachers require sleek and slick methods of data collection. Simple rubrics to assess the responses of students, polls, and digital quizzes or response tools like Socrative allow teachers to grasp exactly where their students fall on the spectrum of learning towards their goals and objectives. Using this data, teachers can see what they've been trying in class that students respond well to, areas the students don't seem to be progressing in, and specific students' progress. I intend to keep detailed notes in the form of spreadsheets with 1-4 grades (emerging, developing, proficient, or advanced) and notes taken during class, as I monitor the students' performance during formative assessments.

With this data, along with the knowledge gained through relationship building with students, a teacher can predict ways to fine tune and develop their lessons in a more productive, motivating manner. Students can be grouped according to what the data says, by level or content area strength or weakness. Students can also receive differentiated goals and lessons planned according to the data that is chosen based on a realistic path to meeting goals. Finally, students can take part through self-reflections on the path to reaching these goals. Students should also be given adequate examples or models that represent the different levels of achievement. This will help students recognize through their reflections the relative level of their own work in comparison to that of a standard or criteria. 

My philosophy is that I should do whatever it takes to avoid inducing a state of autopilot, where students just coast through the lessons with relative disinterest, doing just enough to get by. It actually takes a lot of planning and insight to avoid this. Students need relevant, interesting, and engaging stimuli to keep them from simply tuning out. They also need the skills to become metacognitive thinkers who are able to step back and look honestly at their own work. As a writer, myself, I know that this is one of the most difficult parts of learning and improving my own work. It demands a certain level of emotional detachment to read our own work as others may read it. Therefore, with formative assessment, it is not just the teacher's but also the students' responsibility to remain engaged and support their own learning. 

Ultimately, formative assessment is a means for helping students get in the habit of taking given feedback and using it to develop their work. They should be challenged to stretch themselves and willing to embrace failure on the path towards improvement. Students need safe spaces to learn where they feel their achievements as well as their errors will be recognized without great consequence. Formative assessment is the low-consequence developmental style of assessment that students benefit from to gradually evolve. When paired with summative assessments, which can help push students to raise the bar, formative assessment helps students get from point A to point B. With support, creative planning, and activities that reduce the feeling of judgment through gamification and the creative use of technology, I feel that students will feel more open to engaging with difficult material.  


Erica Eller