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March 2014 | Volume 71 | Number 6
The Bridge Between Today's Lesson and Tomorrow's
Carol Ann Tomlinson
Formative assessments can improve both teaching and learning, if you follow these ten principles.
There's talk aplenty in schools these days about formative assessment. That's encouraging, because formative assessment has great potential to improve both teaching and learning. Listening to the conversations sometimes, however, reminds me that it's easier to subscribe to a word than to live out its fundamental tenets.
I see formative assessment as an ongoing exchange between a teacher and his or her students designed to help students grow as vigorously as possible and to help teachers contribute to that growth as fully as possible. When I hear formative assessment reduced to a mechanism for raising end-of-year-test scores, it makes me fear that we might reduce teaching and learning to that same level.
Formative assessment is—or should be—the bridge or causeway between today's lesson and tomorrow's. Both its alignment with current content goals and its immediacy in providing insight about student understanding are crucial to helping teacher and student see how to make near-term adjustments so the progression of learning can proceed as it should. I worry when I hear educators say they have purchased formative assessments to give once a quarter or once a month to keep tabs on student achievement. These assessments are not likely to be well aligned with tomorrow's lesson, nor are they able to provide feedback rapidly enough to influence daily instruction.
The best teachers work persistently to benefit the learners in their charge. Because teaching is too complex to invite perfection, even the best teachers will miss the mark on some days, but in general, teachers who use sound formative assessment aspire to the following 10 principles.
1. Help students understand the role of formative assessment.
Students often feel that assessment equals test equals grade equals judgment. That association leads many discouraged students to give up rather than to risk another failure. It causes many high-achieving students to focus on grades rather than learning, and on safe answers rather than thoughtful ones.
It's important, then, for teachers to help students understand that assessments help them learn and that immediate perfection should not be their goal. Teachers can communicate this message by telling students,
When we're mastering new things, it's important to feel safe making mistakes. Mistakes are how we figure out how to get better at what we are doing. They help us understand our thinking. Therefore, many assessments in this class will not be graded. We'll analyze the assessments so we can make improvements in our work, but they won't go into the grade book. When you've had time to practice, then we'll talk about tests and grades.
It's essential for teachers to help learners both understand and experience the reality that sustained effort and mindful attention to progress feed success. That belief needs to be a cornerstone ethic in the classroom.
2. Begin with clear KUDs.
The first step in creating a worthy formative assessment occurs well before the teacher develops the assessment. It happens when the teacher begins to map out curriculum. At that point, the teacher asks the pivotal question, "What is most important for students to Know, Understand, and be able to Do as a result of this segment of learning?" Absent clarity on the essential knowledge, understanding, and skills for a unit or lesson, the curriculum wanders. But with clarity about KUDs, the teacher is able to focus curricular decisions squarely on what matters most for student success.
KUDs also lay the groundwork for pre-assessment and ongoing assessment. A pre-assessment provides a "dipstick check" of student status as a unit begins. It need not be wholly comprehensive, but rather should sample student standing in relation to the material so the teacher has a reasonable approximation of who may experience difficulty, who may show early mastery, and who may bring misunderstandings to the unit of study. Other formative assessments will follow regularly and often, and together they will form an image of a student's emergent development.
Alignment between KUDs and formative assessments—and later, between formative assessment results and instructional plans—is imperative if formative assessment is to fulfill its promise.
3. Make room for student differences.
The most useful formative assessments make it possible for students to show what they know, understand, and can do; therefore, it's useful for teachers to build some flexibility into formative assessments. For example, a student who is learning English may be able to draw and label a diagram of the relationship between density and buoyancy but not write a paragraph explaining it. The prompt, "Use an example from your experience to illustrate the idea that a person's culture shapes his or her perspective," is more likely to draw a meaningful response from a broader range of students than the prompt, "Explain the relationship between culture and perspective." Likewise, asking students to illustrate how fractions are used in sports, music, cooking, shopping, building something, or another area they are interested in is more likely to be revealing than asking them simply to explain uses of fractions.
In formative assessments (as in summative ones), it's acceptable—and often wise—to allow students some latitude in how they express what they know, understand, and can do. Assessment formats and conditions can vary as long as all forms of the assessment measure the same KUDs.
4. Provide instructive feedback.
Although formative assessments should rarely be graded, students do need useful feedback. Comments like, "Nice job," "I enjoyed this," or "Not quite" don't help learners understand what they did well or how they missed the mark. Feedback needs to help the student know what to do to improve the next time around. For example, it's helpful for a teacher to say, "The flow of your logic in this section is clear, but you need additional detail to support your thinking." It offers a student little guidance if the teacher simply says, "Not quite there yet," or "Weak effort."
When feedback serves its instructional purpose, students are clear about the learning targets at which they are aiming, and they understand that assessments show how they are doing in reaching those targets. They trust that teachers will use the assessments to help them achieve, and they know that there will soon be follow-up opportunities for them to use the feedback in improving their performance.
5. Make feedback user-friendly.
Feedback should be clear, focused, and appropriately challenging for the learner. As teachers, we sometimes feel our job is to mark every error on a paper. Not only is that practice time-consuming, robbing us of time we could more potently use for instructional planning, but a sea of "edits" without clarity about which comments matter most, how they connect, or what to do next is likely to evoke a negative response from a student.
To realize its power, feedback must result in a student thinking about how to improve—the ideal is to elicit a cognitive response from the learner, not an emotional one (Wiliam, 2011). It's seldom useful to send students a message that their work is stellar or that their work is dreadful. Praise and shame shut down learning far more often than they catalyze it. It's more fruitful to straightforwardly share with students their particular next steps in the learning process, based on goals that are clear to teacher and student alike. The teacher sees where a student is in a learning progression and points the way ahead for that student. In other words, feedback is differentiated, pointing each learner toward actions that are challenging but achievable for that learner.
For example, a teacher who is working with students on using sources to support an opinion provides criteria for the effective use of resources for this purpose. In writing an opinion piece, some students may have difficulty synthesizing ideas from multiple resources. A second group of students may synthesize proficiently but rely solely on obvious interpretations of text. To move ahead, the first group of students needs specific guidance on how to synthesize ideas from resources. The second group needs direction in plumbing ideas more deeply. Both groups will receive feedback in the area of using resources to support an opinion, but their feedback will focus on aspects of the skill set that move them to their next step in development.
6. Assess persistently.
Formative assessment should permeate a class period. A great teacher is a habitual student of his or her students. A keen observer, the teacher is constantly watching what students do, looking for clues about their learning progress, and asking for input from students about their status.
These teachers walk among their students as they work, listening for clues about their understanding, asking questions that probe their thinking, taking notes on what they see and hear. They ask students to signal their level of confidence with the task they are doing with thumbs-up, thumbs-down, or thumbs-sideways, for example, to gain a sense of how the class as a whole is faring. They ask students to write answers to questions on whiteboards or to respond with clickers so they can get an in-process sense of how individual students are coming along.
They use start-up prompts to see what students learned from last night's homework. They use exit cards to assess student understanding as a class ends. They spot-check student work with an eye to seeing how students are progressing with a particular skill. They talk with students as they enter and leave the classroom, at lunch, or while waiting for the school buses to leave. They solicit and are alert to parent input about their students' strengths, attitudes, work habits, and goals.
It isn't really so much that these teachers use formative assessments often. It's that they do so continually—formally and informally, with individuals and with the group, to understand academic progress and to understand the human beings that they teach. For these teachers, formative assessment is not ancillary to effective teaching. It is the core of their professional work.
7. Engage students with formative assessment.
Time was when doctors examined patients, made diagnoses, and provided treatment plans with limited conversation about their observations or alternative courses of treatment. More recently, physicians have learned that outcomes improve when patients and doctors exchange information and examine treatment options together.
It's easy for teachers to stick with the traditional classroom paradigm that casts them in the role of giver and grader of tests, diagnoser of student needs, and prescriber of regimens. Things go much better, however, when students are fully engaged in the assessment process.
Students benefit from examining their own work in light of rubrics that align tightly with content goals and point toward quality of content, process, and product—or in comparison to models of high-quality work that are just a bit above the student's current level of performance. They benefit from providing feedback on peers' work, as long as the feedback is guided by clear criteria and a process that enables them to provide useful suggestions.
Students also need to be involved in thoughtfully examining teacher feedback, asking questions when the feedback is not clear, and developing plans that specify how they will use that feedback to benefit their own academic growth. Students who are consistent participants in the formative assessment process should be able to say something like this:
Here are four goals I'm working on right now. In this piece of work, here's evidence that I'm competent with the first and third goals. If we look at my work from a month ago and then at this most recent piece, I can show you evidence of my progress with the second goal. I can also tell you two things I'm going to work on this week to make sure I become more confident and more skilled in working with the fourth goal.
8. Look for patterns.
The goal of reviewing formative assessment is not to be able to say, "Six students made As, seven madeBs, ten made Cs, and so on." Neither is the goal to create 32 lesson plans for 32 students. Rather, it is to find patterns in the students' work that point the way to planning classroom instruction that both moves students along a learning continuum and is manageable.
Patterns will vary widely with the focus of the assessment. In one instance, a teacher may see some students who have already mastered the content, others who are fine with computations but not word problems, still others who know how to tackle the word problems but are making careless errors, and another group that is struggling with prerequisite knowledge or skills.
In another instance, a teacher may find that one group of students can provide causes of an event but no evidence for their reasoning, while other students are able to provide both causes and evidence. In still another case, a teacher may see students who understand the general idea being assessed but lack academic vocabulary to write with precision, while other students are using appropriate academic vocabulary. The possibilities are many, but the goal is to look for clusters of student need and plan ways to help each group of students move ahead.
9. Plan instruction around content requirements and student needs.
There is little point in spending time on formative assessment unless it leads to modification of teaching and learning plans. In other words, formative assessment is a means to design instruction that's a better fit for student needs, not an end in itself.
On rare occasions, formative assessment will indicate that everyone in the class needs more practice with a certain skill or more engagement with a particular understanding. Much more frequently, however, formative assessment points to a need for differentiated instruction during at least some of an upcoming class period, in homework, or in both. John Hattie (2012) says that
teachers must know where students are and aim to move them "+1" beyond that point; thus the idea of teaching the class as a whole is unlikely to pitch the lesson correctly for all students. This is where the skill of teachers in knowing the similarities across students and allowing for the differences becomes so important. (p. 97)
An assessment is really only a formative assessment when teachers glean evidence about student performance, interpret that evidence, and use it to provide teaching that is more likely to benefit student learning than the instruction those teachers would have delivered if they had continued forward without using what they learned through the assessment (Wiliam, 2011).
10. Repeat the process.
Formative assessment is more habitual than occasional in classrooms where maximizing each student's growth is a central goal. In such classes, it simply makes no sense to teach without a clear understanding of each student's development along a learning trajectory. It is wasteful of time, resources, and learner potential not to make instructional plans based on that understanding. Assessment of each learning experience informs plans for the next learning experience. Such an assessment process never ends.
A classroom is a system with interdependent parts—each affecting the other for better or worse. The learning environment, quality of curriculum, use of formative assessment, instructional planning, and implementation of classroom routines work together to enhance student learning—or, if any of the elements does not function effectively, to impede it. Fruitful use of formative assessment is an essential component in the mix.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.
Wiliam, D., (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
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December 2013/January 2014 | Volume 71 | Number 4
A Day in a Mastery-Centered Classroom
Kelly Morgan Dempewolf
What learning might we unleash if classrooms were more like tutoring programs?
After eight years of teaching high school science, I turned my classroom upside down. Over the years, I'd put together a real-world applied curriculum and made progress toward inquiry-based teaching, but I felt like my classroom was still far short of what it could be.
I realized that a student could essentially copy all the homework, ride on the coattails of lab partners, and flunk every test, yet walk out of my course with a D. That student would have an endorsement that they passed my chemistry course while learning essentially nothing. I was giving these high school juniors and seniors zero responsibility for assessing their own knowledge and determining next learning steps. I wasn't doing my part in preparing these students for learning in the real world, where they would have no teacher to assign appropriate work, assess progress, and let them know when they do and don't understand something.
These realizations meshed with my study of Bloom's "2-Sigma Problem."1 Bloom compared the effects of tutoring to those of traditional classroom instruction and found that 98 percent of students in a tutoring situation scored better than average students in a traditional classroom setting. The thought of essentially all my students performing above average was too enticing to ignore.
But I was one teacher in a classroom full of students—far from a tutoring environment. How could I change my classroom to come as close to tutoring as possible? What aspects of tutoring could I incorporate into my teaching?
To show how I answered that question, I'll describe a typical day in a 10th–12th grade chemistry course I taught several years ago. The active class period I'll depict reflects a lot of time spent at the beginning of the school year helping students learn classroom routines—where things are located, what they need to do each day when they enter the room, and so on. When I taught these classes, I'd at first have to remind students of these things (they're teenagers after all), but after a few weeks, they'd function quite independently and take responsibility for their learning time.
Beyond "It's Not Fair"
When I first began teaching for self-paced mastery, I needed to overcome the idea that being fair means keeping everything the same for everyone. Although "fair doesn't mean equal" may sound obvious, believing it was hard for me. How could I incorporate aspects of tutoring-based education—like asking some students to repeat a learning task or having a struggling student do one activity while a different student tackles another—without students and parents complaining that conditions weren't fair? Or even believing it myself?
I finally changed my conception of "fair" to this: Fair is making sure that every student has what he or she needs to learn and understand the content. After all, is it fair to ask a student who understands a concept to keep working on it because others in the class haven't reached that point yet? Or to move on from a chapter when several kids haven't mastered its lessons yet, simply because the majority of the class—or the schedule—is ready? Once I made this shift, I shared my thinking with students and parents. I've never had a complaint about fairness. Now let's view a typical day in the chemistry class.
All In a Day's LearningThe Class Grid
Before the class period begins, I glance at the class grid. This lists students' names in the left-hand column and all the required activities for this class—section quizzes, labs, chapter tests, and chapter performance assessments—along the top. As soon as a student successfully passes a quiz or completes a lab, test, or performance assessment, I enter the grade into this grid. This gives me a quick visual assessment of where students are in the course. I can see which students are several sections behind—and consider what those learners and I can do to address this lag—or see who's moving ahead—and start preparing labs or copying materials those kids will need.
As students enter the classroom each day, they get out their unit organizers and choose seats at one of several clusters of desks scattered around the room; there's no assigned seating because students may collaborate with different peers each day, depending on what they're working on.
For example, Carla successfully passed a section quiz on naming chemicals during the previous period. She's now ready to start a section on writing formulas—but the classmates she's been working with for a while aren't ready yet. So Carla finds a new group that's currently studying that topic. With this system, a student who's been absent can pick up right where he or she left off just by asking which group of students are working on the content that learner was immersed in.
As they settle in, students write in their organizers the date, what they accomplished during the last class, and what goals they have for this period. This chance to refresh themselves on what they did the previous class is especially important because this class uses block periods; it's been two days since these kids have been in my classroom. The organizer contains a grid for each of the different sections of the textbook that students are working on. This grid lists each of that chapter's sections in the first column; the other columns contain the learning objectives each section addresses, a list of learning opportunities available to fulfill those goals (with required activities for that section, like labs, marked in bold), and suggested completion dates for each item, as shown in Figure 1.
The Unit Organizer
FIGURE 1. Student Grid for Section on Antacids
Chapter 2: Antacids
How is science a human endeavor?How do scientists work to gather, analyze, communicate and validate data to form and change models?How does the structure of a compound determine its properties?How does matter undergo changes and how do we use chemical equations?How are mixtures different from pure substances?What are the characteristics of acids and bases?
Learning Resources (Check those that you complete)
Suggested completion date
Define and distinguish between pure substance (elements and compounds) and mixtures (homogeneous and heterogeneous)
Reading guidePowerPointPractice 1–1Discuss with peersDiscuss with teacher
Explain and practice nomenclature rules in naming chemicals: binary ionic, multivalent ionic, polyatomic ionic, and covalent
Reading GuidePowerPointWorksheet 2–2Practice 2–2Discuss with peersDiscuss with teacher
Explain and practice nomenclature rules for writing chemical formulas: binary ionic, multivalent ionic, polyatomic ionic, and covalent
Reading GuidePowerPointWorksheet 2–3Practice 2–3Discuss with peersDiscuss with teacher
Define and distinguish between acids and basesExplain and practice nomenclature rules for naming and writing acids and bases
Reading GuidePowerPointWorksheet 2–4Practice 2–4Discuss with peers
As students plan for the day's class, many glance at the whiteboard, where I've written a "suggested" set of goals for this week. This suggested schedule may not match theirs, and I often need to remind them that it's fine to be ahead of or behind it. When I first implemented student-paced learning, I didn't give students any suggestions, fearing that doing so would reflect the teacher-paced approach I was moving away from. Yet students seemed to need some measure of whether they were on track, so I began posting this guideline.
After setting goals for the period, students select learning opportunities to meet those goals and set off to accomplish them. Jane chooses to read a section in the chapter on antacids and answer end-of-section questions. Frank and Adam use a printed reading guide (available in a self-serve file drawer and on the class website) to work through the textbook for the section they are studying. Xavier and Rick move together to a classroom computer with headphones to watch a PowerPoint presentation I created about balancing chemical reactions.
Five students who failed their last section quiz come to their folders, which are hanging in a milk crate, to review their unsuccessful attempts (all graded quizzes are kept there—unsuccessful ones so kids can study for their next attempt and successful ones to review for chapter tests). One of these individuals, Marly, feels ready for another attempt. She hands me her unsuccessful quiz, I hand her a new one, and she sits at the front worktable to complete it.
Meanwhile, a group of students working together on a practice worksheet sends a representative up to the front desk, where the answer key notebook is located. Students aren't given credit for worksheets and reading guides; these are considered "learning opportunities." Thus, learners are encouraged to check often with the answer key. Practice doesn't make perfect, I believe; practice makes permanent—and I don't want students practicing incorrect algorithms because that could turn into a habit that is extremely difficult to correct!
The representative, Sara, reports to the group that they still aren't getting it right and turns to me for help. "Wait for me at the front board," I reply. "I'll be back after I get this group started on their lab."
I head back to the lab area (the back half of my classroom), grabbing a tub that has the materials for the lab Chris and Stephanie are ready for and meet these two at a lab table. We go through a pre-lab, discussing techniques and equipment that are new to them, making sure they're ready for the lab, and reviewing safety information. When they complete the lab, the girls will come find me. I'll ask them a few questions to ensure they got what I wanted them to get out of the experience. Later, I'll grade the lab worksheet they've completed.
Meanwhile, I hurry back to the front of the room where Sara and her group wait for a minilecture and discussion. We spend five minutes discussing the type of problem they're struggling to understand, working through some examples. When I think they're getting it, I send them back to try more problems on the practice worksheet. They only need to do as many as they feel are necessary to ensure they've mastered writing chemical formulas.
I notice Marly has finished her quiz. I sit down with her and we grade it together, talking over the one problem she got wrong. Marly takes her successfully passed quiz to her folder while I record her grade, then peruses her unit organizer for possible learning opportunities within the next section.
Students continue to move through activities, working in flexible groups, seeking me out when they have a question or need help, making decisions about when they are ready to be assessed with a quiz. They take responsibility for their own learning until the bell rings.
Filling in Gaps
A common concern about student-paced courses is that some students will fall behind—and continue to fall. However, the readings I've done about tutoring and mastery learning described exactly what I saw in my classrooms: Some students struggled in the beginning of the course because they didn't have the same prior knowledge as others, but as they learned at their own pace and with individualized feedback, the holes in their knowledge closed up. Once the gaps were addressed, students often caught up with the "suggested" schedule.
In a teacher-paced classroom, gaps in prior knowledge are often not addressed by teacher or textbook. It's assumed that all students have the knowledge. Also, gaps may be different for each individual. The class moves on before those struggling students can catch up. In a course that continually builds on prior knowledge (such as in math courses or many science courses), lagging learners might never catch up, as their foundation is never fortified.
Occasionally, I discussed this idea of filling in knowledge gaps with students who were trying unsuccessfully to keep up with the suggested schedule so they wouldn't feel frustrated and give up. It's key that students understand the importance of background knowledge. Later in their lives when there's no teacher guiding their learning, they'll need to be able to assess their knowledge gaps and find ways to close them.
"Yes, But"—Why It's Worth the Work
As you can see, this course wasn't self-taught; it was self-paced. Flexible communities of students worked together to understand and then to individually demonstrate their understandings.
Teaching a student-paced mastery learning course was the hardest work I've ever done. I had to juggle the work of several small groups, monitor students' use of time, make sure I had materials prepared in advance for the fastest moving students, and in general be on my toes. However, the results were more than worth it.
I saw students begin to self-regulate their learning. Yes, in the beginning they asked for quizzes immediately after an unsuccessful attempt and just tried to "get through" the sections. But within several weeks, they realized that approach wouldn't get them anywhere, and they began to take time to learn the content before retaking a quiz. They learned to judge when they were ready and when they needed more time or practice. By choosing their own path through the material, they saw that some learning opportunities work better for some types of content or some people.
I required students to show mastery (at least four out of five correct) on section quizzes but placed no such requirement on chapter tests. Because students had mastered each section before the test, however, no student got lower than a C on any chapter test (tests that were identical to those I gave before I taught this way).
Yes, I had to repeat a minilecture several times to different students, because I delivered content when students were ready for it. But I'd much rather repeat a discussion when I know all students are prepared for the material and are engaged than lead a discussion once with a whole class—some of whom aren't ready, aren't listening, or aren't getting it.
I was able to quickly deliver individualized feedback. Yes, at times students had to wait a few minutes for me if I was, say, discussing a quiz with someone. But the benefit of individualized feedback is immense in terms of understanding and progress. And often students solved their own problem or figured things out for themselves while waiting!
My self-paced classrooms weren't quiet, but I was OK with that. Classes more closely resembled a real-life work environment. Occasionally, students were off-task, but they were far more engaged in course content in this environment than were my students from previous years who sat silently listening to my lecture.
Yes, some students finished the required course content early (and got to choose independent study projects). Some didn't finish it at all.2 But I'd rather send a student out the door with a B that reflects mastery of eight of nine units in a course than have a student who demonstrated none of these competencies "complete" that course with a D.
Most important, students felt the respect I had for them. The students who understood a concept quickly and were ready to move on were allowed to do so. Students who took more time knew that I wasn't going to move on without them. It took these learners a while to get used to the idea that they couldn't hide or slide by and that they were going to have to learn the content and demonstrate their understanding before moving on. Such a class may be the first experience a lagging student has had with someone saying, "I'm absolutely not going to leave you behind."
Once my high school learners realized I meant this, the stragglers caught up. Respect is powerful.
Kelly Morgan Dempewolf, a former high school science teacher, is program manager of an education grant funded by the National Science Foundation at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.
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