Friday / June 14

Using Formative Assessment to Create Active Learners

Many people associate the term “formative assessment” with something teachers do to gauge student understanding and adjusting instruction accordingly, mostly through embedded instructional tasks. While this is an important part of formative assessment, the real “bang-for-your-buck” with formative assessment comes with implementing a host of instructional practices that help students become intentional and active learners. This requires a shift in the focus of formative assessment from being solely in the hands of the teacher to a responsibility shared between teacher and students:

If formative assessment is exclusively in the hands of teachers, then it is difficult to see how students can become empowered and develop the self-regulation skills needed to prepare them for learning outside university and throughout life.[1]

10166219_RFThis quote suggests that the student has an integral role to play in the implementation of formative assessment. Imagine a classroom in which students are the key consumers[2] of the formative assessment information they generate! This image of formative assessment suggests a role for students, making sense of and acting on the information about their own learning that is generated by various formative assessment practices.

So what are some of these formative assessment practices that teachers can use to bring their students into the formative assessment equation?

  • Sharing learning targets in a way that ensures students understand what they mean
    A solid learning target used in a formative assessment context needs to convey two things to students: 1) the observable evidence a student will produce during the lesson; and 2) the important idea to be learned. This latter part of a learning target is often known by the teacher, but not often shared with students. Without knowledge of this important second piece of the learning target, students may learn how to “do” various procedures and skills, but have no idea what they are supposed to understand as a result of all this “doing.” There are numerous ways to share this information with students so they can understand it sufficiently to use it during a lesson.
  • Revisiting learning targets together throughout a lesson
    Once learning targets are introduced to students, it’s important to then help students learn to use them as “guideposts” throughout a lesson. Revisiting the learning target can provide an opportunity to

    • refocus students on the important learning for the lesson;
    • pause as a whole class and summarize important learning; and
    • model for students how to evaluate their own progress against the success criteria.
  • Providing “formative feedback” to students to guide their work
    Research on effective feedback to students converges on the idea that students need to understand three things: 1) What is the learning goal that the student is aiming for? 2) Where is the student’s learning currently in relation to that goal? 3) If the student has not yet met the goal, what does he or she need to do next to be able to meet the goal? What I call “formative feedback” answers the second and third questions.
  • Providing opportunities and support for students to respond to the feedback to revise their work or their thinking
    Providing the feedback only gets you halfway there; in order for students to benefit from the feedback, they need opportunities to respond to the feedback. Though it is tempting to see this as an “add-on” to a lesson that is often already pressed for time, teachers that have embraced this practice have found that some very important and significant learning takes place when students are given time to respond to formative feedback, proving it time well-spent.
  • Building in structures and routines for helping students learn to self-assess their work against the success criteria
    As students become more accustomed to using learning targets as a learning tool for themselves, and as they become familiar with receiving and acting on formative feedback, they are in a better position to learn to assess their work against the success criteria for a lesson.

This vision of formative assessment is all about a classroom environment in which information about learning is readily shared between teacher and students. As teachers, we can help all students learn to participate in their learning in this powerful way.

[1] Nicol, D., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

[2] Andrade, Heidi L., “Students as the Definitive Source of Formative Assessment: Academic Self-Assessment and the Self-Regulation of Learning” (2010). NERA Conference Proceedings 2010. Paper 25.

Written by

Susan Janssen Creighton is a senior mathematics associate at Education Development Center (EDC) in Massachusetts. She has worked in mathematics education for 30 years, both in schools and at EDC, where her work has focused largely on K–12 mathematics curriculum development and mathematics teacher professional development. Currently, her work focuses on helping mathematics teachers adopt and successfully implement formative assessment practices, and on supporting teachers’ understanding and use of the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice. As a member of the NSF-funded project, Formative Assessment in Mathematics Classrooms: Engaging Teachers and Students (FACETS), she was a lead facilitator for several of the participating districts. She is a co-author of Bringing Math Students Into the Formative Assessment Equation.

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