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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A few months ago, I wrote for Edutopia.org about the power of focusing on a few, high-priority standards as a strategy to improve student learning. Many other elements also need to be in play in a classroom in order to produce the results that we all want to see for our students.

To name just a few: The learning environment needs to be one in which students feel respected and safe to take risks; kids need to feel that their learning has a purpose and that the curriculum is relevant to their lives; and students need feedback on their progress -- they need to know what they're trying to accomplish, where they are in relation to the goal, and what they need to do in order to get there.

It is the teacher's role to make sure this happens.

The Multi-Tasking Teacher

Although to be an effective teacher it often feels like you need to be one of those Hindu gods with a dozen arms, I believe that educators do need to hold standards and objectives in one hand and formative assessments in the other. We then need to juggle them back and forth. It's essential to break down a high-priority standard into bite size learning objectives that are measurable and then it's absolutely critical to have a way to check, every single day, on how well students mastered that objective.

Having a well-written learning objective, in student-friendly language, is not enough.

This isn't easy. In fact, there's nothing easy about teaching. But it is essential that every time students leave our classroom, we ask a number of questions:

  • How do I know that they learned what I wanted them to learn?
  • How well did they learn the objective?
  • Who mastered it and who didn't?
  • Which parts of the objective did students struggle with? What misconceptions did they have?

If we don't answer these questions, all of our careful planning and breaking down of standards and creating a positive learning environment and making curriculum relevant is useless.

As educators, we are responsible for learning, not teaching.

So how do we do assess every day how well students mastered the objectives?

The Key: Formative Assessment

A lot has been written about on-going, formative assessments, but my favorite resource is Checking for Understanding by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey This book is a quick and easy read, very accessible and full of dozens of ways to thoughtfully and systematically monitor student learning.

Fisher and Frey define a formative assessment as one that serves to improve instruction and provide student feedback and which is administered throughout instruction. Students use the results to monitor their own learning; teachers use the results to check for understanding and then to plan their next instructional moves.

In contrast, a summative assessment is administered at the end of a course or unit, and is used to measure student competency. Teachers use these results for grades.

If formative assessments are used consistently, and used well, neither a teacher nor a student should ever be surprised by his/her final grade, and I would argue that the great majority of students should be successful.

A Few Examples

Formative assessments can be:

  • Questioning strategies that are used with the whole group or individuals
  • Think-pair-share, during which the teacher circulates and listens to students sharing
  • Individual mini-white boards for ongoing assessment during a lesson
  • An "exit ticket," which is a quarter or half sheet of paper where students write about their learning for the day, or answer a brief question or two
  • Hand signals, as a quick and easy way to check for understanding

I imagine that most teachers are familiar with these strategies and many others.

Recently I observed a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher who used a variety of formative assessment techniques to ensure that students mastered their objective (to analyze characters and identify the setting in a picture book).

As the teacher read the story, she instructed students to use specific hand gestures when they heard repetitive phrases and to repeat those phrases out loud. This engaged students, assured that they were following the language patterns, and allowed the teacher to check that all students heard and understood a repeating phrase (important oral language development for English Language Learners).

Then she had students talk to each other about the characters and share their ideas with the whole group. Finally, she distributed three response cards to the children: one card said "who," another said "when," and the last said "where."

The teacher named a character or aspect of the setting, such as "sheep," and students had to hold up the card that identified the literary element. In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and to provide corrective feedback.

Planning is a Must

When I write lesson plans, I have a column in which I write the activity that students will do or where I detail my instructional moves. Next to that is another column where I identify the formative assessment strategies that I will use during those activities.

In order for my checking for understanding to be as useful as possible, I need to carefully plan and consider which strategy will be most effective with the planned activity. If I don't plan, I tend to use a few strategies over and over, or I don't get the most accurate data. This doesn't mean that I don't throw in a spontaneous strategy now and then, but it assures me that I'll get the student data I need by the end of that lesson.

What have you learned about formative assessments from using them? Do you have a strategy to check for understanding that you find effective? Please share your ideas and expertise with us!

Comments (69)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

susan donnelly's picture

Thank u so much I cant tell you how these explanations, examples, as well as these reminders boasted my confidence and morale as I am planning to return to the classroom
This has deepen my understanding
I can envision my new students being successful while using my content and skills
I hope Im making sense

Nahil's picture

Hello Elena,
Great reminders. I am a foreign language teacher who used various strategies with her students. However, I feel that they do not even care about what I am doing. When I talk to them about their progress, they say "what is wrong with letter F" they mean their grade in this subject. I need help with reaching these students. I really wants to make a change. Help me. By the way I teach high school 9-12.

Samantha F.'s picture

As a preschool teacher, I often find myself being creative with formative assessments. My students are between the ages of 3 and 4. It can be difficult to judge which students have mastered the material and who is struggling. The learning objectives seem so simple, but challenging at the same time because the students are so young. There can be many factors that cause information to be missed. It might just be a matter of whether they were able to remain focused or if something distracted them during the lesson and focus was lost. Creating engaging lessons with lots of movements have help with this.

When it comes to formative assessment, I try and make it fun. For example, at circle time, which is whole group, I will execute the lesson/activity. Then, similar to the "exit ticket," if we are working on colors, I may ask, "If you are wearing something blue, please go to your desk for small group." If assessments occur during the lesson, I may ask for everyone wearing yellow to stand up and jump. Following whole group is small group and the two are always connected. During this time there are aides in the classroom who assist me in circulating the room. We sit with our student groups and discuss the material from whole group. An example would be, if we read a book during whole group, we would use questioning or follow up activities to check for understanding. This works very well because we are able to utilize one on one time. If a student seems to not grasp the material, we can further explain or allow other students in the group to help or assist the struggling student. I think that experimenting with various formative assessments can be useful. Depending on the age/grade level and the teacher's style, the most effective assessments can vary.

Dreanna Dallas's picture
Dreanna Dallas
5th Grade all subjects Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I also think that it is important to offer more than one formative assessment to allow students the opportunity to comfortably explain their understanding of the learning objective. Extroverts may prefer Think Pair Share while introverts may prefer a writing assignment.

My favorite is the white board activity. I usually give my students old worksheets or construction paper and let them answer a few questions. I even mix it up by challenging the boys against the girls or winter birthdays versus summer birthdays. Most importantly, we talk about the mistakes and use them as learning points.

Nahil Ireiqat's picture

Hello Elena,
Great reminders. I am using most of the assessment's strategies you talked about in my classroom. However, I am not getting any responses from my students. I teach foreign language to high school students (9-12) and I am the only FL teacher for this group. I'd like to start a PLC to share ideas and opinions.

Stacy D's picture

Thank you for a great article! I am in the process of working on my masters in special education. I have been home with my 3 children for the past 15 years and am getting ready to get back into teaching. I look forward to gaining new insights and ideas through following your blog.

Steven Craig's picture

I teach in Florida where they are working on passing a law that ends tenure and ties teacher pay directly to student performance. And if students are not performing well for long enough, the teacher can be fired. Many teachers are getting incredibly stressed about the implications.
There are problems with the law. They haven't really defined how they will measure performance and how it will be appropriate to each subject. However, I think most teachers are panicky because they feel that too much is out of their control. I don't think most realize how big an impact they can have. This blog post would be a good place for them to start.

Andrea's picture

I took a formative assessment class in my undergraduate studies, my professor even came to my work and gave a professional development. Even with all of this, I still do not use them like I should. I feel that I use more summative assessments with different modes of response. I do feel like I know my students enough to know when they are struggling. I only have 5 students right now as I have a 6:1:2 self-contained classroom. This makes it very easy for me to see when a student is having difficulties. However, I should use more of what I was taught about assessments and many of them are fun for the students!

Alison's picture

Reading these posts have been a very valuable learning experience for me. I have just recently started my Master's Degree in Education and we are currently talking about Professional Learning Communities. Currently I am trying to move my focus from teaching to learning. Your analysis Elena, reiterates to me the importance of asking key questions: What do I want my students to learn? Will I know if they are learning? What will I do when some students are having difficulties learning? I will look more closely at the strategies you have shared with this community and see how I can make use of them.

Scott Habeeb's picture
Scott Habeeb
Author of The Ninth Grade Opportunity

It's encouraging to see the response to this topic. I would encourage those of you who are exploring the topic of Formative Assessment (or Assessment FOR Learning) to check out http://salemafl.ning.com.

A little about the site: It is a Ning (or social network) all about Formative Assessment. It started with our school system's exploration of the topic. It has now grown into a site with members from across the country and around the world. It's a great place to share ideas, find ideas, discuss, and connect. I would encourage all of you reading this excellent blog post to check it out - you won't be disappointed. If nothing else, you might want to try using the Ning model in your own school system.

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