Formative assessments: real-time responses

My principal is talking to us about using “formative” assessments. Does this mean taking time away from instruction for more tests? When will I have time to teach?
—W.S., Overland Park, KS

While teaching a lesson, it’s easy to get wrapped up in what we are doing or to “cover” material. But how do we know what students are actually learning? We can wait for the results of state tests, we can give end-of-course exams, or we can create/use unit tests or final projects. These summative assessments help us make decisions about our courses and curriculum (assuming we look at the results), but they don’t tell us much about which students are having problems or have developed misconceptions during our instruction. And by then it could be too late to go back and review or reteach.

Formative assessments are ongoing, classroom-level assessments that are critical to discovering what students are learning during the instructional process, and they help us know if we can move on (if students have learned a topic) or if we need to revisit our instruction to correct any misconceptions or to fill in any gaps. These quick and focused checkups can provide just-in-time information on what students know or can do.

The good news is you probably already use many activities that could be part of a formative assessment process. Quick, frequent thumbs-up/down responses from the students give instant feedback during a discussion. Some teachers use small whiteboards or half sheets of paper on which students write and display short responses. Challenge students to quickly write down their understanding of the topic (as a short summary, graphic organizer, or diagram) in their notebook/journal, share their writing with a partner, and then summarize to the class. These activities could be warm-ups to get your class engaged or bell-ringers to wrap up the day’s lesson.

While students are working together, you can use a checklist of skills, lab behaviors, or quick questions to do “spot checks” while walking around the room. Many schools (including colleges) have clicker systems allowing the students to respond electronically. Vary the methods so they become an integral and enjoyable part of the learning process. Of course, traditional quizzes and lab reports can be used formatively. All of these strategies assume all students are involved, that we provide feedback (more than just a grade or percentage correct), and that we use the results ourselves to improve or validate our instruction. Students should see these activities as part of the learning process, not just as a special event.

Two recent NSTA periodicals focus on assessments: the January 2008 Science Scope and the April 2008 Science and Children (NSTA members can read these online). I’d also recommend the NSTA Press book Science Formative Assessments: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning. I showed it to some of my colleagues in other subject areas, and they said quite a few could be adapted to their fields.

I heard once that formative assessment is the tasting a chef does in the kitchen, while summative assessment is the guests celebrating a good meal. If the chef does not do any tasting, he/she is taking a chance on whether the meal will be appetizing for the guests!

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