Formative Assessment 301 – Part 1: Supporting Formative Assessment in the Classroom

This first module begins with an overview of the formative assessment process and serves as an advanced introduction to supporting high-quality formative assessment processes in the classrooms.

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


Welcome to Module 1: Formative Assessment: Supporting high-quality processes in the classroom. This module is part of Micro-Course 3: Supporting teachers to accelerate learning using formative assessment processes in the classroom, created by the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and the Center for Assessment. There is an Introduction Module to Micro-Course 3 that explains the purpose, organization, and intended use of each micro-course and should be watched first, if you have not already done so.

As a warm-up to this module we ask you to consider the following questions: What recurring questions, topics, or themes emerge when you talk to teachers about formative assessment processes/practices? What questions do you have about how to promote high-quality formative assessment processes within your school?

Please pause the video and respond to these questions either alone or with colleagues. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video.

It is important to begin by ensuring we are operating from a common definition and understanding of what formative assessment is (and isn’t). We use the Council of Chief State School Officers definition: “…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.” Notice that we did not define formative assessment as an exit ticket, or non-graded assessment, although both are true. Instead we focus on use.

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 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.”

As a school leader, what is your role in ensuring high-quality formative assessment processes are taking place in classrooms and that teachers understand what is meant by formative assessment and the strategies they can embed in their daily practice?

We created a discussion tool for school leaders that can be used in at least two ways. The discussion tool, which can be downloaded using the link on the slide, has a three column table.
The first column contains the five embedded formative assessment strategies from Dylan Wiliam’s framework. The second column contains key questions that can be used to prompt thinking about gathering evidence of these practices taking place in classrooms. Therefore, the first way this tool can be used is during classroom observations. Discussing which strategy or strategies the teacher plans to use during their observed lesson beforehand will then aid debriefing with the teacher after the observation. The third column is blank to leave a note-taking space for recording observations about how teachers embed these strategies during instruction. A second way this tool can be used is during informal discussions or professional development. The generated ideas about practices that could be used to promote these formative assessment strategies could be synthesized overall or by grade level, for example, and then shared across teachers in a school (or district) to promote best practices with respect to formative assessment. The third column in this case would then serve as a note-taking space to record discussion notes.

The remainder of this module is designed to explain each of the five embedded formative assessment strategies in more detail. Key questions from the discussion tool are listed on slides for each strategy using gray call out boxes. Then potential observed or discussed practices are provided for each of the strategies. Specifically, what is it a teacher might do and what evidence might a school leader see related to each formative assessment strategy. You will see the observation image on each slide with those selected ‘look fors’. They are by no means exhaustive of every potential way a teacher might embed each formative assessment strategy.

Let’s begin with the first embedded formative assessment strategy: learning intentions and success criteria, or where the learner is going.

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. 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 students should be able to articulate it as well.

Therefore, the key questions that can be used to prompt observation or discussions include: Is it clear what students are trying to learn? Has the teacher illustrated what success, or hitting the target, looks like?

Some observational evidence that could be used to support the claim that the teacher has made the learning intentions clear, includes:
Writing the learning goal(s) for students to see.
Talking with students at the beginning of every lesson (and during the lesson, as appropriate) about the learning goal for the day and how it connects to the big idea of the unit.
Asking students to generate connections from the lesson to the big idea of the unit.

Is there other observational evidence that you can think of? Anytime you see the word “Other…” throughout these observation slides, feel free to pause the video and brainstorm alone or with colleagues other things a teacher might do.

With respect to success criteria, teachers may:
– Use high- or low-quality student work samples from previous years to discuss with students what makes the student thinking stronger or weaker in light of unit goals and success criteria.
– Discuss rubric criteria and create student-friendly versions of the teacher rubric can help students to internalize success criteria.

Can you think of other observational evidence?

Teachers may also elicit evidence of student learning progress through classroom questioning strategies that collect evidence from more students, more often, and more systematically rather than the practice in which teachers ask questions to only a few interested students and then answer their own questions rather than letting the students respond, or when teachers ask questions that limit student thinking. There is a range of questioning techniques that teachers can use including open-ended discussion questions in various settings, student conferrals that elicit and nudge student thinking or work forward, and so on.

Teachers may also elicit evidence of student learning progress through formative assessment techniques and strategies that extend thinking during discourse. For example, a teacher can provide responses to student ideas that help the students explore their ideas more deeply and thoughtfully. Or teachers can provide feedback during class discussions and encourage more elaborate answers, as well as engaging students in asking probing questions of the teacher.

What other observational evidence can you think of?

The third aspect of the framework is that feedback that moves learning forward has certain characteristics and features that makes it more/less useful for improving performance. For example, the quality and type of feedback is important. High quality 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.” The feedback should not be too far out ahead of students so that they are frustrated; or too far behind so they are apathetic; 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.

You will want to examine whether, how, and to what extent the teacher provides this type of feedback to students.

Some ways a teacher might provide feedback, or set the conditions for feedback to occur, include:
– Providing written feedback or conferring with the student on the quality of the student’s thinking and work product in relation to the learning targets and success criteria.
– Asking students to self-assess and reflect on their learning goals; setting new learning goals.
– Creating opportunities for peers to give feedback to each other on the quality of each other’s work and suggestions for improvement.
Can you think of anything else?

The fourth aspect of the framework focuses 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.

Reciprocal teaching has similarities to peer tutoring; or when students become the teacher in small group settings.

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. 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 the content knowledge and skills.

The key question for you as a school leader to investigate is how does the teacher activate peers as learning resources for one another?

A teacher might accomplish this by:
– Assigning collaborative work (e.g., project, task, activity, question, problem set, etc.) for students to complete interdependently.
– Asking a student to lead a small group of other students in teaching a certain concept or skill.
– Creating opportunities for students to provide written and/or oral feedback that helps their peers improve the quality of their work in relation to the learning goals and success criteria.
Are there others you can think of?

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—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? Those are just a few examples.

The key point here is that teachers can 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.

Teachers might also activate students as owners of their own learning by asking students to reflect in writing or discuss with others about their understanding of the learning goal, their progress along the way, what they are learning about themselves as a learner, what they need to stay on track, and so on. These types of reflections can be quick or more extended, and may occur before, during, and/or after instruction using open-ended reflection questions, reflection diaries, and discussion prompts.

Are there other ways that students demonstrate being active agents of their own learning?

This presentation included selected examples of ways a teacher might incorporate the five formative assessment strategies. For additional examples, please see the two hyperlinked resources.

In closing, it is important to remember that the formative assessment process operates within a classroom assessment and instructional system. In the graphic on the left-hand side of the slide you see that formative assessment information, including readiness pre-assessment data, informs differentiated instruction and ambitious teaching practices in a recursive and cyclical fashion. This process for a unit of instruction typically culminates in a classroom summative assessment which gathers evidence about student achievement at the end of a period of instruction for grading and reporting purposes.

As a school leader you play a key role in supporting classroom teachers as they instantiate this classroom assessment and instructional system. Supporting high-quality formative assessment processes is a critical component of this system; especially as research has found that formative assessment positively impacts student achievement more than any other school-based strategy.

Modules 2-4 in Micro-Course 3 go deeper into supporting teachers in the 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: supporting teachers’ understanding and use of formative assessment processes, supporting teachers’ selection or creation of formative assessments, and supporting teachers in engaging students and their peers in the formative assessment process.

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) Define formative assessment and explain how it differs from summative classroom assessment.
2) Why is the formative assessment process essential to improve teaching and student learning?
3) What are characteristics of high-quality formative assessment processes?
4) How could you apply the content of this module when thinking about the nature of feedback that teachers need to improve their professional practice? In other words, how do formative assessment processes also apply to the professional learning and growth of teachers?
5) What is one key takeaway and one lingering question you have after listening to this module?

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Related Resources


Experts from the California Subject Matter Project (CSMP) share 3 meaning-making strategies you can use to engage students in your classroom.

Formative Assessment 101 – Introduction

This video will provide you with the information you will need to understand the intended audience, guiding questions, organization, and proposed uses of the four modules in Micro-Course 1 as well as how Micro-Course 1 relates to the modules in Micro-Course 2. Both micro-courses focus on learning acceleration using formative assessment processes in the classroom.

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