Wednesday, 29 May 2013 08:00

Improving Student Learning through Formative Assessment

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Improving Student Learning through Formative Assessment

Just imagine if a pilot flew without adjusting for variables such as storms and headwinds. Visualize an airliner flying from London to Vancouver. It flies west for about 9 hours and then land. The pilot then asks, “Is this Vancouver?” and even if it isn’t, the passengers get off because the plane needs to start its next journey. This sounds preposterous, but this is often how assessment happens, or doesn’t happen, in the college classroom. Materials are taught and at the end of instruction, we discover whether students have learned it or not with a final exam. The students haven’t mastered the necessary skills, what are the options? Do we start from the beginning, adapt our teaching and learning pedagogy or, reinvent assignments and examinations?  No. We do nothing of the sort, as we are required to commence the next learning journey in the next semester. Formative assessment requires and encourages instructors to take constant readings on students’ knowledge, skills and attributes in the same way that a pilot takes constant readings on the plane’s position in the air. If the learning isn’t processing as planned, then we make adjustments. This is the foundation and principle of formative assessment.

Formative assessment is a method utilized by instructors to modify, adapt, accommodate and improve student learning. It is a feedback method which allows the instructor and the student to focus upon the details, practice, content and performance. Formative assessment assists students in identifying their strengths and weaknesses, and targets areas that need to be worked on. It also consistently helps faculty and instructors recognize which students are struggling and how to provide assistance to them. When incorporated into the classroom, formative assessment provides instructors the needed information to adjust their teaching methodology while learning is still happening. Ultimately, the process serves as a practice for the student on checking for understanding during the learning process and as a guide for instructors in making justified decisions about future instruction.

Formative assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning. It is only through assessment that instructors know what has been effectively learned, rather than just what has been taught. Formative assessment is minute-by-minute, day-by-day approach to evaluation and doesn’t happen at the end of a sequence of learning. This allows instructors the ability to reflect on their practice and the opportunity to make small adjustments in improving their practice in a more powerful way.

A requirement for implementing formative assessment successfully for all students is maintaining the right classroom atmosphere. The classroom culture must breed success instead of competition. The foundation of this culture is a belief by the instructor is that all the students are capable of achieving. In such a classroom, the content assembled from assignments, quizzes, class discussions, and practically any variety of evaluation used for formative purposes can make a difference to individual students if it is conveyed appropriately to them.  As Black and William (1998) put it, feedback to any student should be about particular qualities of his or her work, with advice on what he or she can do to improve it. Douglas Reeves (2008) suggests that feedback should appear not like a medical report, but more like a post- mortem. He believes that putting the learner at the heart of the process will achieve the most results. Formative assessment is not a process done by instructors to students, but rather it is a practice that is led by teachers with students to engage them in their own learning.

Dylan Wiliam (2011) suggests five objectives of “unpacking” formative assessment to ensure ultimate student experience and success in the classroom:

  1. Pose a question instead of telling students what they will be learning. Giving them the immediate answer spoils the journey and gives the game away
  2. Grab their attention by engineering effective discussions, task and activities that illicit evidence of learning
  3. Provide immediate feedback to move learners forward
  4. Activate and encourage students to become learning resources with one another
  5. Activate students as owners of their own learning

Formative assessment is a powerful learning tool.  How do you use it in your classroom?  Share your specific ideas and examples in the comments section below.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1) pp. 7-71.

Reeves, D. B. (2008). Leading to change: Effective Grading Practices. Educational
Leadership, 65(5), 85-87.

Wiliam, D.B.(2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Solution Tree Press: Bloomington, In.

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EET Staff

Over the years we have compiled articles from different members of the EET team. Sometimes they were written collaboratively and other times the staff author wasn’t written down. These articles were too good not to share, so we’ve labeled them as EET Staff.