Finding a Happy Place for Formative Assessment


EduFact: Teachers are expert planners of fun, creative, engaging lessons. Our minds naturally connect everyday experiences to something useful for the classroom. Like Happy Gilmore, we are full of positive intentions. We never intend to miss the target, but reality reminds us that learning is messy–for teachers and students.

Here is a typical, well-crafted lesson:

Unit: Finding Success in the Short Game
Essential Question: What does formative assessment have anything to do with golf?
Environment: Happy Land (the classroom)
Learning Target: I can make a putt.

Everything is set. We even spend time preparing the classroom over the weekend to ensure a memorable learning experience. And then it happens…

We capture the attention of (most) students and provide appropriate instruction. We model, coach, demonstrate technique, offer multiple opportunities for success, and remain positive and calm. But learning is a messy process. One size does not fit all learners, no matter how cool a lesson may seem. Students learn at varying paces and in different ways. Immediate results are not guaranteed. Frustrations mount. Some quit, shut down, or smash things… and that just describes the teachers. We can make lessons clear and learning fun, but there are always obstacles impeding success. Student anxiety multiplies in the face of failure–especially when repeated over time.

So, despite our good intentions, where do we go wrong? Remember, teachers are experts at planning learning experiences; therefore, we spend the most time planning lessons in isolation. Then, after several activities, assignments, and quizzes, we direct our remaining attention to the final test–the summative assessment. Instead, McTighe and Wiggins suggest backward design for unit construction (what I consider seeing the big picture). They advise teachers to begin by identifying the desired results, determine acceptable evidence, and then plan learning experiences. This forces teachers to communicate clear outcomes and criteria for success. Anything that does not build toward such standards may be eliminated. The emphasis shifts to the formative process with assessment FOR learning.

Solution: Professional Development & Embedded Formative Assessment

We hear plenty about formative assessment, but how much emphasis is it given in lesson planning? Formative assessment is often misunderstood, as evident in frequent conversations among staff. Formative assessment is NOT:

  • a matter of compliance, effort, or behavior
  • grading homework for completion
  • about points
  • to be calculated in a grade
  • to punish or intimidate
  • to be feared

This is where more professional development is needed, but often neglected (or avoided). So what does Dylan Wiliam, formative assessment expert, suggest?

There is not one specific model for how teachers embed formative assessment. In fact, Wiliam reassures, if we start with a common definition and purpose of formative assessment, we can use our individual personalities to make it work for our learners. There are plenty of strategies available; using them to maximize learning is the challenge.

Formative Assessment is Informative

For students, formative assessment is:

  • communication of what they know and can do during the learning process
  • standard-specific feedback linked directly to learning targets
  • essential for engagement

For teachers, formative assessment is:

  • feedback about instructional practices
  • a guide for differentiation
  • the only way to know what to plan FOR tomorrow

Inevitably, the big question emerges: If this assessment is formative, does it count? Response: Yes, it counts. Everything. We. Do. Counts. For learning. Better communication–consistent, growth-minded–helps break old habits of point chasing and eventually results an emphasis on learning.

Students will have greater success if they know where they are going. Proper use of formative assessment shows students where they stand in relation to these outcomes and provides paths for improvement. Formative assessment should also predict student success on summative assessments (and help teachers evaluate the quality of their instruction and final assessments).

If teachers and students alike find their happy place in the learning process, students should respond to any degree of challenge with confidence. With clear outcomes, specific feedback, and multiple opportunities to show evidence of learning, students should find success–even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.


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