Formative Assessment 101 – Part 4: Using Evidence of Learning to Adjust Instruction

Key to the conversation in this module is the concept that formative assessment is a process that is inseparable from instruction. Formative assessment processes are the bridge between teaching and learning.

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


Welcome to Module 4: Closing the gap, Part 1: Using evidence of learning to adjust instruction and better meet students’ needs. This module is part of Micro-Course 1: Learning Acceleration Using Formative Assessment Processes in the Classroom (Introductory Version) created by the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and the Center for Assessment.

As a warm-up for this module, consider the following question: What instructional strategies have you used or know about to help close the gap between where students are now in their learning and where they need to go?

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

Key to the conversation in this module is the concept that formative assessment is a process that is inseparable from instruction. Formative assessment processes are the bridge between teaching and learning. There is no way for a teacher to know if a student ‘got it’ after teaching a lesson unless evidence of student learning is collected–and formative assessment processes do just that. This gathering of evidence of students’ knowledge and skills is then used to adjust instruction to support learning.

The purpose of this module, therefore, is to explain different strategies for using the evidence collected of student learning before, during, and/or after instruction to help all students demonstrate grade level proficiency expectations by the end of the year.

Therefore, this module will focus on steps 2-4: analyzing student work using quick sorts, adjusting instruction, using flexible grouping and feedback mechanisms, and then repeating the process over again focusing on the important big ideas and concepts in your content area and grade level.

We start with Step 2: analysing student work using quick sorts. Student work is meant to be a broad term. Evidence of student learning may be more informally collected such as through teacher observation, anecdotal notes, teacher discussions with students, or listening in on student discussions with their peers. Or, evidence of student learning may be more formally collected from student written or oral explanations, or other types of written student work samples, products, or artifacts.

The key part of this step is sorting the student work or observations into three piles or three groups. A teacher can look for both evidence of students’ developing understandings that can be built upon, as well as issues or concerns evidenced in the student work, to sort into groups or piles. For simplicity, we are going to explain a scenario where a teacher sorts the work into three piles based on the level of student understanding demonstrated: Group 1 is not presently demonstrating understanding of the key concept or skill, Group 2 demonstrates some understanding, and Group 3 demonstrates complete understanding.

If most students are sorted into one group, whole group instruction is likely the best option. If students are spread out and sorted into all three groups, whole group instruction is likely not the best approach. Teachers should prioritize students who do not yet appear to understand, perhaps putting them in a teacher-led small group. Students who demonstrate some understanding could be paired with those who demonstrate complete understanding, or students who demonstrate some understanding could be grouped in a student-led small group to respond to feedback provided by the teacher. There is not one right way to flexibly group students, but the grouping should match the students’ learning strengths and needs. If most students demonstrated complete understanding then the teacher should feel confident that they can move on in the curriculum.

Just note that three groups is not a magic number. We chose three because it is a manageable way to consider creating flexible groups.

This slide was also used in Module 2 which focused on pre-assessment, but it provides an example of how you can use a one question pre-assessment to sort student work into three piles. Module 2 also contains examples for math and ELA.

Step 3 focuses on adjusting instruction using flexible grouping strategies and feedback mechanisms. Let’s start with discussing what flexible grouping means. To do so, consider the question: What are all the ways you can think of to group students in your classroom? Please pause the video and respond to this question either alone or with colleagues. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video. 

We thought of at least four ways a teacher can group students in his/her classroom:

  • Independent or individual
  • Pairs
  • Small groups (more similar or less similar learning strengths/needs)
  • Whole group

We use the term flexible groups because it is important that grouping doesn’t become a form of tracking. Tracking is more common in high school, but it is where students are placed into tracks such as honors, college prep, etc. and students cannot easily change the level of classes into which they are placed.

Instead, flexible groups are fluid and dynamic. The groupings change frequently and change to meet the different strengths and learning needs of students. Teachers might make group assignments such as pairs or small groups based on the results of analyzing student work using quick sorts. Or, students might choose to work with a particular partner or group based on their interests or learning strengths/needs. Flexible grouping offers students the opportunity to work with classmates who are either similar or quite different in skill levels or interests from them.

This slide shows an example of flexible grouping in a sixth grade social studies class over the course of a week. Notice how the student, Juan Carlos, pictured at the top changes groups throughout the week based on formative assessment information. On Monday, Juan starts with all students during whole group instruction and then is placed in a small group with three to five other students based on his pre-assessment results. On Wednesday at the end of class, Juan works with a partner where he is able to help the other student who is struggling with the content using peer feedback and what is known as reciprocal teaching strategies. Then on Friday, Juan is able to choose a group to work in based on shared interests in a topic. This example is not intended to be a formula–just an example of how a teacher can flexibly group students in different ways over the course of a week in response to student learning strengths and needs.

The other part of step 3 is that the teacher adjusts instruction not only using flexible grouping strategies but also using feedback. Feedback can come from the teacher, peers, or the students themselves. Feedback supports accelerated learning or closing the distance/gap between where a student is currently and where they need to go.

As you can see on this slide, the end learning targets or goals for the unit are the same for every student because they come from the state content standards; however, students vary in their learning profiles along the pathway to grade level proficiency expectations and that is where feedback is necessary to close the distance.

But not just any kind of feedback will do. A grade on a paper is a type of feedback, but it really doesn’t help students to know how they can improve. So let’s take a minute and consider characteristics of useful formative feedback. Think about some area of learning or performance you have tried to improve in your life. Perhaps that is cooking, writing, teaching, playing the piano, and so on. What type of feedback was most useful to you to support improvement and growth? Please pause the video and respond to this question either alone or with colleagues. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video.

Our list includes the following. As we describe our characteristics, how does your list compare to ours? What similarities/differences are there?

First, useful feedback was related to our end goals and success criteria. If my end goal is to learn how to bake by following a recipe, feedback related to other types of cooking is not going to be helpful. Second, the feedback must be actionable, descriptive, specific, and timely. I need to know exactly why and how I could change or adjust what I’m doing and I need that information in a timely way–while I’m in the process of learning. Third, the feedback must be just right–not too far out ahead of the learner, or too far behind. If I’m just learning to bake, then feedback about advanced baking techniques is not going to be useful when I haven’t mastered the basic techniques. Similarly, feedback about something I’ve already mastered in baking isn’t going to challenge me to continue improving.

Over the next three slides we share how the flexible grouping strategies mentioned previously (independent, pairs, small groups, whole group) can be linked with feedback mechanisms to better support students’ needs. The key idea is that flexible grouping and feedback is used to help students to know how to close the gap between where they are at in their learning and where they need to go.

This slide shows examples of ways feedback can be supplied from the teacher, [click enter to go to slide 13] this slide focuses on examples of feedback mechanisms from peers, [click enter to go to slide 14] and then this slide shows examples of student self assessment and feedback mechanisms.

Embedded within each slide are hyperlinks with short 2-3 minute video clips of teachers illustrating what the feedback mechanism looks like in a real classroom. These are examples only, and not exhaustive of all the strategies that could be used.

Take a few minutes and choose at least one video per slide to view. What do you notice? What stands out to you? How could you use a similar technique with your students to help accelerate learning and close student learning gaps?

Two final thoughts as we wrap up Micro-Course 1. The goal of all formative assessment and instructional processes are to help all students demonstrate grade level proficiency expectations by the end of the year. Some students will need more intensive interventions and supports within and outside of the classroom, which goes beyond the scope of this module. Some students will need enrichment. Formative assessment and instructional processes allow you to adjust instruction to meet students’ needs.

And remember, use professional judgment and conversations with other teachers to decide what knowledge, skills, and/or understandings are most critical in your content area and grade level. There are simply too many content standards to make everything a priority. These content standards should be where you focus on closing gaps.

You can always re-listen to previous modules to remind you about the purposes and uses of formative assessment, as well as strategies to elicit evidence of student strengths and learning needs before, during, and after instruction.

We believe that it is essential to take a few minutes to reflect upon what you have heard and try to apply it to your professional practice. Pause to reflect and respond to the following:

  1. Describe the four steps involved in helping to close the gap between where learners are and where they need to go?
  2. Consider an upcoming lesson. How can you collect evidence of student learning before, during and/or after instruction?
  3. Describe how you could sort the resulting student work, observations, or discussions into three groups to adjust instruction. If you collected the actual evidence of student learning, do the quick sort rather than describe it.
  4. Explain how you can use flexible grouping strategies and feedback (from teacher, peer, and/or student) to close learning gaps and accelerate learning for the upcoming lesson.
  5. What is one key takeaway and one lingering question you have after  listening to this module?

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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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