The power of formative assessment

I've spent the last week reading through Dylan Wiliam's Embedded Formative Assessment, the must-read guide on what is arguably the most effective way we can help our students learn. If you haven't read it yet, pick up a copy — it's both practical and enlightening  — thanks to reader Mark for the tip!

According to Wiliam, our job as teachers is to engineer effective learning environments that create student engagement and allow teachers, learners and peers to ensure that learning is proceeding in the right direction. Formative assessment (FA) is the perfect tool to ensure that this actually happens.

In this post, I'll provide a brief overview of what formative assessment is and why it's such a great tool.

What exactly is formative assessment?

Anyone who has spent some time in the classroom knows that as teachers, we can't do the learning for our students or predict what they will actually pick up from our instructions. Formative assessment involves getting the best possible evidence about what students have learned and then using this information to decide what to do next — without the pressure that grades bring to the learning process.

Here's Wiliam's own definition:

           Dylan Wiliam

           Dylan Wiliam

An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in the absence of the feedback.
— Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment, p.43

This detailed graphic by Margaret Heritage illustrates the process very clearly, incorporating learning goals and classroom culture as well as the feedback loop. It reminded me of the continuous cycle of instruction, performance and feedback I alluded to in my piece on Hattie's and Timperley's Power of Feedback last month.

Taken from a great webinar slide deck by margaret Heritage.

Taken from a great webinar slide deck by margaret Heritage.

Heritage's feedback loop is obviously much more detailed, but I think she did a great job incorporating the various elements that need to be taken into consideration when creating and delivering FA.

So what does it look like in the classroom?

Wiliam provides a total of 60 techniques and example scenarios in the opening chapters, and I've selected two that might help you get a better understanding of the wide variety of strategies that could all be considered 'formative assessment':

  1. A middle school science teacher is designing a unit on pulleys and levers. 14 periods are allocated to the unit, but all the content is covered in the first 11. In period 12, the teachers gives students a quiz and collects the papers. Instead of grading them, she reads through them carefully and on the basis of what she discovers about what the class has and has not learned she plans appropriate remedial activity for periods 13 and 14.
  2. A history teacher has been teaching about the issue of bias in historical sources. Three minutes before the end of the lesson, students are given an index card on which they are asked to respond to the question "Why are historians concerned about bias in historical sources?" The students turn in these exit passes as they leave the class at the end of the period. After all the students have left, the teacher reads through the cards and then discards them, having concluded that the answers show a good enough understanding for the teacher to move on to a new chapter.

Both scenarios show how evidence of learning was elicited, interpreted and used to make a decision about what to do next. In the second example, no adjustment was needed — the evidence suggested it was time to move on.

The interesting part is that these processes can take place over the span of years, months, weeks, days or just minutes and can be anything from quite involved to casually improvised.

On a side note: had the teacher in example #1 used Stile, she could have used the analytics of Class insights to quickly gauge student understanding while the history teacher in example #2 would have been able to preserve the evidence of learning!

How effective is it?

Formative assessment is quite possibly the most effective technique teachers can use in the classroom. 

The research evidence available indicates that when formative assessment practices are integrated into the minute-to-minute and day-by-day classroom activities of teachers, substantial increases in student achievement—of the order of a 70 to 80 percent increase in the speed of learning—are possible, even when outcomes are measured with externally mandated tests.
— Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment, pp. 160–161

Wiliam presents numerous studies that clearly demonstrate that no other technique boosts student achievement to the same extent.

Formative Assessment in practice

So how can we incorporate FA into our everyday teaching practice? Wiliam suggests five key strategies for teachers, peers and students:

  1. Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions and success criteria
  2. Providing feedback that moves learning forward
  3. Engineering effective activities that elicit evidence of learning
  4. Activating students as instructional resources for one another
  5. Activating students as owners of their own learning

Unfortunately, going into all of them is beyond the scope of this post, but my aim in later posts is to translate them into Stile activities, ready for classroom use.

I look forward to sharing them with you in the coming weeks.

Guido Gautsch I VP of Happiness @ Stile