Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Shift in Formative Assessment

Up until this year I have struggled with formative assessment. I get the idea behind it. I know that it's designed to inform both the student and teacher of where students are in their learning. As a teacher I can then adjust my teaching based on what students do and do not understand and hopefully students can focus on what they don't understand. 

In theory it all sounds good but I felt that there was always a huge hurdle to overcome. How could I get students to take formative assessments seriously if it wasn't going to count? We've all heard it before: "Does this count for marks?". To me this question translates into "How much effort do I need to put into this?". I didn't see much point in using valuable class time on an assessment if students we're willing to give it their best shot.

This year I have decided to change my perspective on formative assessment. I realized that formative assessment isn't for me at all. I know how students are doing on certain topics based on my observation and their conversations. I don't need a mark to justify this. The purpose of formative assessment is not to give me feedback, it's to give my students feedback about how they're doing. It should provide them with the tools they need to take the next steps in planning their learning. Following the assessment a student should be able to say "This is what I need to do in order to be successful".

A couple of weeks ago I decided to give my students a formative quiz. I let them know that the quiz didn't count for anything. I also let them know that the purpose of the quiz wasn't to inform my practice, it was to let them know how they were doing. The big difference this time is that I informed my students that there would be no marks on their quizzes. I decided that marks were a distraction from the learning. The purpose of formative assessment had to shift from grades to learning. Instead I provided only feedback. I circled things, underlined stuff, drew arrows and asked questions to help guide their thinking.

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The result is that when the quiz was handed back students didn't just look at their marks and file the quizzes away (either in their binders or the recycling box). There were no marks to look at. If they wanted to see how they did they needed to look at the questions and read the feedback. Reading the feedback led to them asking questions amongst themselves and if needed asking for my assistance. Some of them were upset about making silly mistakes, others were trying to make sense of the topics that they didn't really understand. Not only were they learning, they were learning from each other. This slight shift in focus for formative assessments has made them far more valuable in my class.