Friday, December 6, 2013

Formative Assessment

An idea that has been coming up a lot in several different contexts for me is formative assessment. Let me start by stating what formative assessment is, and what it is not. Formative assessment is information gathered from students to assess their current understanding, with the purpose of using that information to make instructional decisions. Formative assessment need not be a formal exam, and cannot be an exam if it will not impact instruction after the exam. Thus, when I am speaking with folks in school districts, sometimes I say “formative assessment” and this is interpreted to mean something like quarterly (or whatever frequency) benchmark tests. In fact, my experience is that teachers rarely are given the time or resources to use benchmark tests as formative assessment. Instead of informing further instruction, they disrupt instruction, as teachers interrupt their regular lessons to review for the benchmark exam, and after the exam, hurry to move on to whatever is next on the overstuffed curriculum pacing guide. As described here, benchmark tests are NOT formative assessment. Instead, when I think of formative assessment, I think of day-to-day tasks that allow the teacher to gather information about what students know, and give the teacher the chance to address gaps and other issues students are having in understanding the ideas of the course.

This semester, one of the best things I learned was how to build questions that would serve as good formative assessment. The questions I have been using were described in my earlier post discussing how I deal with misconceptions. Since this post is about formative assessment, I want to describe how I react to students’ responses to the questions. The questions I have been using are frequently true-false questions, or sometimes multiple choice. Students are first given time to respond to the questions alone (most commonly I have been using Google Forms to collect their initial response), and then to discuss their responses with their peers. Since the discussion may alter their opinions, I then ask for a show of hands for each answer choice. I have seen a few things happen. 
  1. Sometimes there seems to be broad consensus on the correct answer. In that case, I will ask one or two students to summarize the reasons for the correct choice, record the answer for the class, and move on.
  2. Sometimes, the hand votes are close to equally split between two choices. In this case, I try to get at least one person on each side to articulate the reasons for their answer choice. Then I either ask follow-up questions or I ask other students to add to the arguments for each side. Sometimes this is enough for students to see which is the correct choice. I hear students saying things like, “Oh, I didn’t think of that example,” or, “I changed my mind.” If I feel that there is consensus, then I will record the correct answer at the board and summarize the discussion. If the discussion is not progressing, then I usually prompt students to come up with one or more examples or to draw a graph or diagram related to the statement. Since the topics in these questions are not new, students generally have enough knowledge to resolve the questions. Lastly, I may refer them back to previous work that we did, or pull up the work of a student from the previous class meeting. One of these moves is generally enough to push the discussion toward the correct answer.
  3. The third thing that sometimes happens is that I see very few hand votes. I generally take this as a sign of confusion. In that case, I will do one of two things. Sometimes, I tell the students that I see very few votes, and that they need to go back to the discussion with their partner for a couple more minutes to settle things before we can have a class discussion. Then we vote again. More typically, I call on students who raised their hand to explain their thinking, and then call on those who did not vote to see if they are following the argument. After enough students have participated, and I am satisfied that the main ideas have been discussed and reiterated sufficiently, I will ask students for any final questions, and then summarize the discussion and record our answer.  
Formative assessment can be a powerful tool. How do you assess students and use that to inform your instructional moves?

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