Formative assessment: The keys to success

In any process that occurs over a long period of time, it is common to measure progress at multiple points rather than waiting until the end. Importantly, doing so allows us to inform our next steps and redirect our efforts and resources to elements that need attention. And, because teaching and learning are ongoing processes, we must be mindful of obtaining information while teaching and learning are occurring, not just after. This is where formative assessment enters the classroom.

Formative Assessment is a Process

Formative assessment, which is variously defined as an ongoing process of measuring students’ progress during learning, can be a powerful tool in influencing the trajectory of students while learning is current. In contrast to the purpose and timing of summative assessments and the use of their data, formative assessment is less of a “thing;” it is more easily thought of as a process that is ongoing and integral to the teaching and learning process.

Those who consider the use of formative assessment carefully embed opportunities for obtaining information about students’ position along the learning continuum. These opportunities might be formal – such as a reflective writing – or they might be less formal – such as a spontaneous whole-class “temperature check” during a lesson. The keys to the successful use of formative assessment as a tool to improve learning include that it is ongoing, occurs during the process of learning, and includes opportunities for feedback to which students can respond.

Formative Assessment Includes Students

There are several ways that students can become involved in the teaching and learning process, and each of them lends itself to helping students think about and take ownership of their learning. When students take ownership of their learning, they are appealing to metacognitive practices that can result in self-regulated learning. In applying fundamental practices commonly associated with formative assessment, there is no doubt that involving students in the process is key to engaging in it successfully.

First, developing and defining learning targets with students helps them to develop a deep understanding of learning progressions and the individual targets that define success. In becoming more familiar with what success looks like, students are able to position themselves in terms of their progress toward mastery. Indeed, this practice yields good information for teachers, as well, as uncovering misconceptions and misunderstandings.

Additionally, providing feedback to students further involves them in making decisions about their next steps. Students can use feedback to participate in their own learning. However, it is important that the feedback is descriptive in nature with regard to the learning target, not the task; the task is not the focus of learning, the learning target is.  The feedback provided to students is meaningful when it is “actionable,” which suggests that feedback should focus on the quality of responses in the context of what success looks like while leaving room for students to evaluate in which direction they should head to meet the benchmark indicating success.

Finally, providing students instructional rubrics or other tools that explicitly state how success is defined is important in the formative assessment process. In developing rubrics and scoring guides to be used in the teaching and learning process, we ask a singular question, “What elements of quality are found when the learning target is achieved?” Once we have the answer to this question, we can share with students the varying degrees of performance that indicate incremental success toward the learning target.

Formative Assessment Takes Time

Formative assessment does not occur overnight. Practitioners of formative assessment not only craft their skill in terms of using it well (from developing learning targets to providing feedback), but they must ensure that that culture of the classroom be such that students’ attitudes of learning are influenced through meaningful and useful tasks, interactions, and positive relationships.

Changes in teacher practice requires that teachers gain a working knowledge of the various elements of assessment literacy – including the development of purposeful tasks that elicit the right information about student learning, how to develop instructional rubrics and make them useful to students, and models for providing feedback to encourage self-regulated learning for students. Of course, importantly, it is essential that teachers also recognize the different types of learning targets, understand and apply taxonomies (such as Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge), and make the decision to embed the development of assessment within the development of lessons. To accomplish this, professional development opportunities should be made available in an ongoing process of learning and practice.

Classroom cultural shifts may be needed in order to create an atmosphere where students are capable and motivated to participate as evaluators of their own learning. Creating tasks suggested by student interests and varying tasks can lead to more engagement by learners. A classroom environment that focuses on the process of learning, rather than the grades associated with summative assessment, tends to result in a classroom where students find learning possible, valuable, and meaningful.  And, fostering an environment where students have the capacity to successfully interact with peers and teachers in the learning process supports the successful integration of formative assessment practice as a joint endeavor involving both teachers and students.

Failing to recognize formative assessment as an ongoing, dynamic process that involves both students and teachers often leads to an all-too-typical model that relies heavily on teacher-focused instructional activities rather than student-centered learning activities. Teacher practice, student attitudes, and organizational structures must be addressed in order to achieve student learning with a formative assessment approach.  In essence, practices, behaviors, and environments are all parts of a whole that influence the success of developing teaching and learning models that use formative assessment as a foundation.

Keys to Success

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