Formative assessment #2: Do your students know what success looks like?


We introduced the power of formative assessment in this post in April, now let’s look at how we can embrace it in practice!  

One of the key strategies for incorporating formative assessment in the classroom is the clarification, sharing and understanding of learning intentions and success criteria (see Dylan William’s five strategies here). 

Sure, we could simply state them at the beginning of a lesson or write them up somewhere for students to read and forget, but in this post, we'll explore some tips and techniques to ensure that students are deeply involved with and understand learning outcomes.


A class without clear success criteria = A game without rules

In his 2013 TEDx talk, John Hattie compared studying in a class without clear success to playing a game without knowing the rules - you only find out about them when you commit a foul! Sure, some eager ones would jump in and have a go, but most would just sit back to see what happens. 

Dylan Wiliam borrows an analogy from Mary Alice White, who compared the life of a student with that of a sailor:

on a ship sailing across an unknown sea to an unknown destination. An adult would be desperate to know where he is going. But a child only knows he is going to school... The chart is neither available nor understandable to him ... Very quickly, the daily life on board the ship becomes all important.... The daily chores, the demands, the inspections become the reality, not the voyage, nor the destinations.
— Mary Alice White, 'The view from the student's desk'

Both Hattie’s and White’s analogies drive home the message that we are often so focused on everyday tasks that we forget to look at the big picture. I know that as a teacher, I often got caught up in the minutiae of just getting though the day. While I did usually remember to write objectives on the board at the beginning of a class along with a few examples, my students could have been more engaged.

So how do you successfully co-construct success criteria with your students so that they're engaged and committed to the learning goals?


1. Help students develop ‘a nose for quality’

Often definitions of good quality work mean very little to students until they actually experience them themselves. William references Pirsig’s classic line from ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

‘Quality doesn’t have to be defined. You understand it without definition. Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions’. 

As the E-team were discussing this at Stile HQ, Dan described a science class he was teaching, where he supplied two sample lab reports. One had obvious shortcomings whilst the other was written as a model answer. Students were then asked them to compare the two. This was early on in the unit, but students were able to pinpoint the merits as well as shortcomings of both reports with ease and accuracy. 

Another variation of this, is to use the work of other students (perhaps from previous years). Wiliam suggests getting students to rank and discuss the work and notes that students are much better at noticing weaknesses in the work of others compared to their own.


2. Don’t tell them up front!

Problems, puzzles and games are also a great way to spark student curiosity and get them thinking about learning outcomes and the usefulness of what they're learning.

Have a look at this example in Stile designed to engage students with descriptive writing:

Through solving a simple problem, students are identifying the merits of the passage and the qualities that they want to bring to their own writing.


3. Co-construct rubrics

The discovery process outlined above can then be a jumping off point to mapping out rubrics with your students, which is much more powerful than simply handing them a series of descriptors.

Wiliam points out that this certainly shouldn’t be a democratic process since the teacher knows a lot more about the subject than the students.  But by letting students have a say, and getting them to discuss learning intentions and success criteria, you make it more likely for students to be able to apply them to their own work. 


The key ingredient is YOU!

Co-constructing and sharing success criteria requires a facilitator who is able to guide the conversation and draw from student experience and knowledge - the magic ingredient is you!  

Tools like Stile can support the discovery process by allowing you to release evidence of learning and activities to students to fuel conversation and develop your students' 'nose of quality'.  Then as their assessment journey continues, they will be able to visualise their progress and self-monitor their success.

    Are you incorporating formative assessment methodology in your classroom?  Let us know about your experience!

You can find my next post in this series (focusing on effective feedback) here.

Guido Gautsch I VP of Happiness @ Stile