Formative Assessment Triptych: Lenses Onto Learning, Teachers & Learner

17 Feb

As teachers we often use formative assessment – the Classroom Assessment Techniques or CATs of Tom Angelo and Patricia Cross – to track, analyse and tailor the learning and teaching we bring to classrooms, activities, assessments and course design.

What if we also approached formative assessment as a powerful tool – one that in the hands of students engages learners in tracking and owning their own movement toward meeting learning aims in a process of unlearning, learning and relearning?

Formative Assessment 1: Offering a Lens on Student Learning

We’ve written often about ways teachers might infuse formative assessments into course design and class session plans in order to gain a sense of what and how students are learning, and to gather data that help us with planning next class sessions as we analyse when and where and why learning doesn’t quite happen or breaks down at particular junctures.  For example:

Formative Assessment 2: Providing a Focus on Teaching Practices

We’ve also blogged in earlier posts about several ways to draw on formative assessment in gathering Midterm feedback on teaching aimed at helping us as teachers to re-calibrate teacher and student learning practices going forward. Whether you conduct midterm assessments at Weeks 5 and 10, or at Week 7 in a 15-week semester these links serve as a reminder of resources available for teachers to consult in setting up mid-term assessments of learning and teaching. For example:

Formative Assessment 3: Creating Prisms onto Learning 

What's Next

I sat down to write this post, however, with an additional lens on formative assessment: Formative assessment tools and practices launch  students into becoming overtly aware that they are, indeed, learning.  Each small bit of writing a record of ideas from the middle and the midst, the middest, of learning.

Incorporating this third intentional use of formative assessment does recognize that students who are asked midterm and final course evaluations to assess whether they have learned in a course will need to recognize that they have been learning – incrementally and specifically – in order to offer evidence-based comments.  They will need to gather, review and analyse their own store of data about their learning in order to determine whether – and what – learning has happened.

The first two uses are really about student learning, we just don’t often leave the evidence of that learning in their hands for further study, on-going reflection. We collect the data, and generally we report on it, not returning the individual bits of formative assessment – the survey inputs, the short writings, the quiz or concept tests.  A first task then is to discover ways of selecting analog and/or digital technologies for delivery of formative assessments that will make it possible for the assessment data to be shared simultaneously with the teacher and saved for the students’ own records.

For example: When I have students write on index cards, I generally have them write “longer short response” on one card, then compose a Tweet-like summary on a second card.  I vary which one of these I collect.  In each case, both teacher and student walk away from the class session with a record.

In another scenario, where students have access to technology, I devise ways they can send information to me and to themselves.  So, if I’ve set up the formative assessment via a Moodle Poll or Google Survey, I can share anonymized data for students’ review; or I can ask students to write the response into a word or email document then paste the response into the Poll or Survey.

A second task involves thinking about how to phrase an already chosen formative assessment prompt so that what students write, generate, share is both useful to a teacher gathering data and to a student building a personal record of learning.

To think on possibilities for engaging students in creating small reminders of their learning throughout a course, please read on to think through eight examples  that set proposing how familiar formative assessment practices could be adapted so that students gain practice in recording their own learning in frequent, short bursts of writing.  

New Clothes – aka, Transfer and Apply

With a given topic—thesis statements, push-pull factors, the scientific process, etc.—ask students to describe how a particular concept/skill/idea/component of the topic could be used in some way other than how they’ve learned from classroom and preparing for class work.  You could also ask students to write their understanding of the “old clothes” – the original idea.  This they might write out ahead of coming to class so that by the end of a class session their writing time allows for amending of original idea as well as writing out the “new clothes” idea.

Three Misunderstandings

Ahead of a reading a key article, or just before a pivotal discussion/presentation, require students to list what they think might be the three most common misunderstandings of the current – and do ask them to specify the potential misperceivers (aka audience) they suspect would hold these misconceptions.

Three Questions

Ask three questions about the topic, then rank them in terms of their importance/value.

Explain What Matters (aka Audience-Specific Paraphrase)

Explain the most critical part of a given topic to a self-selected audience (must clarify) in two or fewer sentences. (Audience can be anyone!)

Entrance/Exit Tickets
Ask a “crisp question” – clearly worded and specific to the learning context – at the start of a class session (or before class starts through a Moodle Poll or Google Survey or another student response tool that allows browser rather than in-person access) so that students provide their responses on an index cards, a scratch off quiz form, or the comment box provided by the virtual tool you’ve selected.

Similarly, the question can be asked at the end of the session.  Or, better still, students can be asked to review the Entrance Ticket response at the end of class in order to amend their initial responses – noting what they’ve changed, why, and based on what information.

A teacher can review this information to assess initial understanding of something to be discussed that day, to plan for a follow up class session, and/or as the starting point for planning a problem-solving activity for small groups of students.

Don't Rely on Sat NavThe Whiteboard – Initial Insights and Take Away Ideas

Whether small, personal-sized white boards – or a stash of mid-sized PostIt notes, or the assorted white boards on walls in a classroom, or the virtual white board of an online Adobe Connect or Illuminate session, this more analog tool can usefully provide a real-time understanding of how students are viewing/analysing particular concepts or aspects of the course subject matter.

Again, by responding to a crisp question – clear and requiring thought rather than memorization – students can mark their learning by posting individual/group/team responses on whiteboards as they come into a classroom, or as the culminating activity for a class session.

How to record the responses?  Phone cameras are handy devices.  And, to make the photos accessible, I’ve asked students to share transcribing responsibilities.

3 – 2 – 1
Whether an instructor, TA, or student group is presenting or leading a discussion or lab session for the day, a class session might be closed by instructing students to write out:

  • 3 ideas/issues etc. presented (in the preparatory readings/activities; in the class session just completed),
  • 2 examples or uses of the idea/information addressed in the session/preparation materials, and
  • 1 unresolved/remaining question or 1 important/key question resolved during the preparation/session.

Again, these can be shared with partner or small group for further discussion, can be collected by the teacher to inform a next class session and/or shaping of a study guide that will support students in preparing for an upcoming exam.


Finally, the examples I’ve shared here draw on two blog posts I’d recently encountered and on practices I used in classrooms of various sizes for a variety of departments across a long span of teaching undergraduate courses for majors and non-majors:

And the suggestions for this third focus for formative assessment draw on what Robert Boice discovered in his study of academic writers: Those who changed their habits – in order to write regularly rather than in binges, and to keep a record of their writing, perhaps even telling others about the regular short writing practice – increased their yearly writing productivity.  In one easily accessible report on the research, Tara Gray reports it this way:

Participants were divided into three groups: (a) The first group (“controls”) did not change their writing habits, and continued to write occasionally in big blocks of time; in 1 year they wrote an average of 17 pages; (b) the second group wrote daily and kept a daily record; they averaged 64 pages; (c) the third group wrote daily, kept a daily record, and held themselves accountable to someone weekly; this group’s average was 157 pages (Boice 1989:609).

In asking students to make use of short focused formative assessment sessions to record, change, synthesize, question and claim their learning invites them to compose themselves as learners, to see how learning happens in particular contexts, and to begin making explicit connections between parts of a course, between once separate courses, and between where they have been and will be as learners. 



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