Formative Assessment 201 – Part 1: Learning Acceleration (Advanced)

The first module of this micro-course begins with an overview of the formative assessment process and serves as an advanced introduction to key concepts for educators.

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Developed by Carla Evans & Jeri Thompson
National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment


Welcome to Module 1: Formative Assessment Processes and Learning Acceleration (Advanced version). This module is part of Micro-Course 2: Learning Acceleration Using Formative Assessment Processes in the Classroom (Advanced version) created by the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and the Center for Assessment. There is an Introduction to Micro-Course 2 module that explains the purpose, organization, and intended use of each micro-course and should be watched first, if you have not already done so.

First, we ask that you think about the following question either alone or with colleagues: What are the first words that come to mind when you think of the words ‘formative assessment’? Please pause the video and respond to this question. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video.

As you considered the words ‘formative assessment’ did you describe something similar to the definition you see on this slide? “…a planned, ongoing process used by all students and teachers during learning and teaching to elicit and use evidence of student learning to improve student understanding of intended disciplinary learning outcomes and support students to become self-directed learners” or did you define formative assessment as a quiz, worksheet or exit ticket?

Take a moment to reflect on what came to mind when you thought of the words ‘formative assessment’ and what differences/similarities there are with this definition. Pause the video and resume playing after further reflection.

How did you think about the word “planned” in the context of formative assessment? We want to clarify that formative assessment may, at times, be unplanned in the moment of instruction, for example, when student misunderstandings and misconceptions become apparent. However, when you think about the word “planned” consider that you are focusing on the learning targets and supporting underlying expectations to support student learning and that should always be in the forefront of your mind before, during, and after instruction. In this sense, formative assessment is always planned.

There are two main types of classroom assessment processes. Throughout our modules, you will hear us use the term ‘formative assessment’ as shorthand for ‘classroom assessments intended to be used in formative processes’ to elicit evidence of student learning to adjust teaching and learning to better meet students’ needs. We use the term ‘summative assessment’ as shorthand for ‘classroom assessments intended to be used in summative ways’ such as to document student achievement of state content standards at a point in time, such as at the end of a unit of instruction. 

One misconception that we often encounter is the belief that the assessment instrument itself is formative or summative by design. Meaning, a multiple-choice test must be summative and an exit ticket must be formative. However, assessments are not formative or summative by design, but based on how the teacher uses the information gained through the assessment. The same exit ticket, quiz, test, or performance task can be used formatively or summatively. It is all about the inferences made from the assessment evidence. Formative processes support conclusions intended to be used during the teaching and learning cycle to improve student understanding.

The following example is adapted from Dylan Wiliam in his book, Embedded Formative Assessment, in which a teacher who is preparing students to take an AP exam decides to have the students take the exam, but then instead of grading the exam, she puts the students in groups of four and hands back their exams. The teacher then has students review their responses, compare answers, and discuss what the best answer would be. They then have a whole-class discussion. The AP exam was designed for summative purposes, but the teacher used it formatively.

We think it is important to situate the formative assessment process within a framework. This framework supports the implementation of effective formative assessment strategies.

As you can see here on the slide, this framework is a 3 x 3 matrix with three key processes and three groups of individuals involved in the process. Dylan Wiliam argues in his book that all teaching boils down to these processes and roles. We will use this framework to guide our conceptual understandings and practical applications of formative assessment processes in this module.

The processes are (1) finding out where learners are in their learning; (2) establishing where they are going; and (3) determining how to get there. These processes are viewed through the role of a teacher, a peer, and a learner. Crossing the roles with the processes, we can group these nine cells into five key strategies of formative assessment with one big idea.

The processes are (1) finding out where learners are in their learning; (2) establishing where they are going; and (3) determining how to get there. These processes are viewed through the role of a teacher, a peer, and a learner. Crossing the roles with the processes, we can group these nine cells into five key strategies of formative assessment with one big idea.

The big idea is that “evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to better meet students’ needs–in other words, teaching is adaptive to the learner’s needs.”

Adaptive teaching is essential to accelerate learning. The teacher knows the end of grade-level expectation (or learning goal), but they must figure out where students are at in their individual learning in relation to that end goal. Teachers then use this formative assessment information to determine how to close the distance or the gap between the end learning goal and where the student is currently–this is what it means to accelerate learning. To accelerate learning, teachers must use formative assessment processes to adjust and monitor their teaching every day so they can flexibly group students into small groups to re-teach a concept, or to re-teach a concept to all students in the class, or to move on in the curriculum because all students seem to understand and demonstrate the concept. It is continuous feedback between the teacher, students, and the content because students do not progress at the same pace or start from the same place. 

The next series of slides take a deep dive into each of the five embedded formative assessment strategies, starting first with: where the learner is going.

The teacher, students, and peers clarify, share, and ensure understanding of the learning intentions and success criteria. The learning goals, or learning targets, are aligned to and derived from the broader curricular goals and state content standards. Learning intentions reflect the idea that teaching should always be an intentional process. It’s critical to ask and answer: What will my students be trying to learn? What does success (or hitting the target) look like?

This means that not only does the teacher need to clearly know and be able to describe the lesson’s learning target and success criteria, but also that student should be able to articulate it as well. Module 2 goes into more detail with how a teacher can clarify, share, and help students understand the learning targets and success criteria for a unit and/or lesson.

After being clear about what it is you want students to learn, it is now time to determine where they are in their learning progress, or to elicit evidence of student learning for formative purposes—which is the second strategy in the framework. In the blue box you see a few key purposes of collecting this evidence: to identify student learning strengths and needs before, during, and/or after instruction, to differentiate instruction, and to inform future instruction. By making student thinking visible, teachers can thoughtfully make these instructional decisions.

This is accomplished when the teacher engineers effective discussions, tasks, and activities that elicit evidence of student learning progress. This can be implemented in many ways including designing tasks and activities that produce evidence of student learning progress, high-quality classroom questioning strategies, and extending student thinking during discourse. To that point, we linked two high-quality resources: a document with 60 formative assessment techniques and a guidebook that contains practices that can be incorporated into any curriculum to elicit student thinking.

Pause the video now so you can link to these two resources and explore the contents for a short while. Then come back and resume playing the video. Micro-Course 1, Modules 2-3 go into more depth on strategies to elicit evidence of student learning before, during, and after instruction.

Now that you are back from previewing some formative assessment strategies, we want to identify another common misconception, which is that formative assessments should be graded. However, formative assessment data has no appropriate use in student evaluations or grades. Numerous studies have shown that when students see a grade on their paper along with comments, they only look at the grade. As soon as you put a grade on it, the learning stops at least for the moment.

Additionally, we know that there are many unintended negative consequences associated with grading. One of those is the impact of grading on student motivation and future learning.

The third aspect of the framework is that feedback that moves learning forward has certain characteristics and features that make it more/less useful for improving performance. For example, the quality and type of feedback is important. Feedback should be (a) related to the learning targets and success criteria; (b) actionable, descriptive, and specific; and (c) appropriate to the student’s zone of proximal development. Think of this as the “Goldilocks Principle”. High-quality feedback should not be too far out ahead of students so that they do not understand it, or they feel it is beyond them, or too far behind so they don’t see the point of responding, but just right so they are motivated to improve.

High-quality feedback can come from a teacher, a peer, or a student through self-assessment. In any case, if we circle back to Dylan Wiliam’s big idea from earlier, the purpose is to adjust instruction, better meet students’ needs, and adapt to learners’ needs. Module 3 will go into more depth about feedback.

The fourth aspect of the framework is a focus on peers as learning resources. This is often overlooked in classrooms, but there are many ways in which peers can become a part of the formative assessment process. Three are listed on this slide: collaborative learning, reciprocal teaching, and peer assessment. Collaborative learning, often simply referred to as collaboration, is when students work interdependently in order to accomplish group goals—the group needs everyone in order to accomplish the task. This is not students dividing and conquering group work and basically working independently but parallel but as part of a group. True collaboration also requires individuals to be held accountable for their contributions so they are not free-riding and sitting back and letting a few do all the work. We have all experienced and observed that before!

Reciprocal teaching has similarities to peer tutoring; or when students become the teacher in small group settings. As the quote says at the bottom of the slide—you never really understand something until you try to teach it to someone else. Additionally, you never really understand what you don’t know about something until you try to teach it to someone else.

And, finally, peer assessment. This is not about evaluating or grading each other’s work, but providing comments, questions, or feedback that helps their peers improve the quality of their work in ways that benefit the recipient. Students who engage in peer assessment become activators of thinking for one another. For example, students examine each other’s work and provide feedback, pose questions, or make suggestions for improvement based on the established success criteria. By engaging in this process, students not only help one another, they also have the opportunity to refine and deepen their own thinking about content knowledge and skills. Module 4 provides a deep dive into peer and self-assessment.

And the final framework strategy is activating students as owners of their own learning. In order for this to happen, and for students to take an active role in their own learning, they must (1) understand the learning goal; (2) aim for it; and then (3) use assessment evidence and success criteria along the way to modify or adapt their learning strategies to stay on course towards reaching the learning goal. Archery is a helpful analogy here. The student understands they are using the bow and arrow to try to shoot the middle of the target; the student aims for the center; and then can use assessment and success criteria to adjust their aim towards that goal (where their arrow lands based on the direction they aimed, the strength of pulling back on the bow, or other necessary skills to get a bullseye).

In other words, students should be constantly asking themselves: Where am I going? Where am I now? And What do I need to do next? The benefits of actively engaging students as owners of their own learning is that it connects to what is known about self-regulated learning—including the critical importance of metacognition and motivation.

Metacognition is often defined as “thinking about one’s own thinking.” Metacognition is the internal dialogue taking place in the mind of a learner. For example, when a student is thinking about their own thinking, they consider how they made progress in relation to goals, or the process they applied to a particular question or task—Where am I getting stuck? Was it the most efficient approach, or an approach that will likely lead them to an accurate answer? How has a similar approach worked out in the past and how should that inform their subsequent actions? Is this easier than the last problem I did? Those are just a few examples. The key point here is that teachers support students as active agents in this process when they think aloud and model for students what they are thinking so students can hear their internal dialogue and internalize that process for themselves over time.

This module includes only selected examples of ways a teacher might incorporate the five formative assessment strategies. For additional examples, please see the hyperlinked resource that provides a set of rubrics that qualitatively describe what a teacher might do along a continuum from beginner to more advanced related to each formative assessment process. Note that there are ten rubrics because some of the formative assessment processes are broken into multiple rubrics (e.g., learning goals and success criteria are two separate rubrics). Teachers can use these rubrics to self-assess and reflect on the quality of their formative assessment processes over the course of a unit (see pages 23-26 that describe how to use the rubrics for that purpose). Additionally, the rubrics can be used for peer observation purposes. See pages 26-30, which describe that process in detail.

In closing, it is important to remember that formative assessment processes operate within a classroom assessment and instructional system. We want to make sure we don’t lose the forest when we are taking a close look at some of the trees.

In the graphic on the slide, you see that formative assessment practices occur before, during, and after instruction and inform ambitious teaching practices in a recursive and cyclical fashion. This process for a unit of instruction typically culminates in a classroom summative assessment that gathers evidence about student achievement at the end of a period of instruction for grading purposes.

Modules 2-4 in Micro-Course 2 go deeper into specific aspects of Dylan Wiliam’s framework. This slide provides an advanced organizer so that you know which module you can go to in order to find out more about certain topics including where the learner is going, how to get there, and how to close the gap.

We believe that it is essential to take a few minutes to reflect upon what you just heard, organize it in your own mind, and to apply it to your classroom assessment practice. Pause to reflect and respond to the following:
1. Create a web or concept map that explains the formative assessment process.
2. Describe a couple of ways in which your formative assessment practices could shift as a result of listening to this module.
3. Think about an area of performance you tried to improve in recent years (e.g., writing, cooking, playing the piano, etc.). What type of feedback contributed to your improved performance? How does that relate to what was discussed in this module with respect to the quality and type of feedback that is more/less useful?
4. Explain how formative assessment processes operate within a classroom assessment and instructional system.
5. What is one key takeaway and one lingering question you have after listening to this module?

Also, if you are interested in reading more about the formative assessment process, we list some high-quality books on the topic on this slide.

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