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Bowling with Your Eyes Closed: Students Need True Formative Assessment

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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I've been bowling recently, as perhaps have some of you. There are some unusual things about bowling you can directly apply to improving classroom learning, so let's go bowling for a minute.

Imagine you are at a bowling alley. You have brought your own beautiful bowling ball, and you are wearing your stylishly patterned bowling shoes. As soon as you step up to the lane, however, someone ties a blindfold over your eyes so you can't see a thing. Undaunted, you launch your ball down the lane, and you hear the solid crash of a ball against pins. But there is so much noise in the building that you can't tell whether it was your ball or someone else's. You wonder, "Did I get a strike, or was it a gutter ball?"

How long do you think you would continue to bowl if you could not see what you were aiming at, and you never knew if you even hit a pin? I know I wouldn't last very long. It would be pointless.

The most enjoyable thing about bowling is seeing how you did after each throw. You are in charge of your own performance, and you get to see the results as a natural consequence. As with any endeavor, if you do it enough, you can often get pretty good at it, which is even more fun. Bowling is one of many learning systems that give participants intrinsic feedback to improve, and feedback is the most important element of formative assessment.

Education, just as bowling, is most fun and effective when the learner is in charge of his own improvement. He sees the goal, gives his best shot at meeting it, gets feedback to make corrections, and then can try it again. If the bowler does not knock down all ten pins on the first roll, he gets another chance to knock them down.

The bowler is dependent on being able to see what happens when the ball he has just released strikes the pins. The next time he rolls the ball, he applies what he learned from the first roll to do it better. If it works, great. He's achieved success. If it doesn't, then it is not failure. He simply tries again. Everyone is a lousy bowler the first go-around. It's the repetition that makes us better. So, why do we expect our students to knock down all ten content pins the first time they pick up the ball?

Please share your thoughts, and click here for the second part of this entry.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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Kara Harris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I liked your analagy of bowling to assessment. I see bowling as student's daily work. They get to try and try again. There is repetitive work and the chance to correct it. The assessment is more like a tournament. They have to take all of that practice and put it into one chance. However, in my classroom, I give them assistance, like cheat sheets with the formulas, for example, and they need to show me they know how to solve the equation using those formulas. So, they do get to, in a sense, "see" the pins. Also, one way they can improve their score is that I let students correct wrong answers--once. I give them a chance to see what they did wrong and correct it. I do that on many tests.

What is unfortunate is that on standardized tests they don't get that second chance, and if they are having a bad test day, they may do poorly. That is an unfair measure of their true ability.

B. Cahill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is very interesting for me to read this blog. As a first grade student many, many years ago, my teacher used a bowling analogy in regards to grading periods. She explained that students give school an effort, but it is usually not our best effort the first try, but with each new grading period, all the standing pins are knocked down and we are giving a new chance to start over and give it our best effort. To learn from our mistakes and apply what we have tried and changed. It is interesting to see a similar analogy, but from the teachers perspective.

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Your teacher was wise. Sometimes all we think about is the teacher perspective and forget that the student has a perspective too. The student needs to be aware of the learning process and needs to have an idea of how their brain works so they can help push the short term memory to long term. I would give a caution using this method of formative assessment, however. It assumes that students are going to give the first evaluation, their best performance, but if the student is not engaged in the process, he or she might be tempted to coast until they have to perform on the last try. If this happens, no learning will take place. It is the teacher's job to provide the necessary motivation to want to do their best each time--that way the student will be learning and improving as they progress. So, you don't want to present it cold turkey to students without some advanced preparation and incentives to perform. For example: "You will be taking a series of similar tests. When you score 90% on the test, you can then participate in the project. The longer it takes you to get 90% on the test, the less time you will have for the project...."

Ben Johnson , Natalia, TX

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I think you do grasp the idea of repetition in learning. Tournaments are excellent metaphores for the process of pushing short term memory to long term. Your last comment about not being fair that students only get one shot at the state standardized test is a valid concern. In Texas, students in 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 11th grade get several chances to pass the standardized reading, math, science and social studies tests. But even still, this defeats the purpose of summative assessment. (Although a nice safety net, students know that they will not be able to go on to the next grade unless they eventually pass the test) There has to be a point, where the student can demonstrate unequivically they he or she knows the material--an assessment from which the student is not expected to learn.

Since we have to play the testing game with NCLB, we really do not do our schools nor our students any favors, if we "help" them on tests. There is nothing wrong with summative assessments. My emphasis is to help teachers to effectively take advantage of all the formative assessments that will help the students be prepared for the summative assessment. The idea behind formative assessment is that the students needs to have specific feedback on his or her performance to be able to make corrections the next time. Any assignment can be formative if that requirement is met and the student has a chance to fix the mistakes and do it again. Now, you have to have some sort of incentive for the students to do their best each time--perhaps the first assignment is worth 100, the next time they take it, the assignment is worth, five points less. That way students will not want to coast.

Ben Johnson, Natalia, TX

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