The Characteristics of High-Quality Formative Assessments

As we explore different theories of learning, two points seem salient: that students’ understanding of intelligence affects their self-perception, their determination, their motivation, and their achievement (Dweck, 2002); and that a students’ ability to self-regulate learning, to be metacognitive, ensures more successful learning and achievement (Ormrod, 2012, p.352-3).  As instructors plan curriculum and assessments, they ought to consider how to use these points as guides to ensure student learning and success.

Word cloud created from the text of the blog post.Formative assessment, understood as both a tool for instructors to gauge student learning and a teaching method, works iteratively with student understanding of intelligence and learner-regulation.  That is, formative assessment is based on the idea that learners should learn to take control of their learning, and that intelligence is a malleable quality.  In turn, formative assessment improves self-reflection in students and reinforces the idea that intelligence can be increased as opposed to it being a fixed entity, reflecting Carol S. Dweck’s important work on growth mind set, discussed in a recent the Innovative Instructor post.

An understanding of just what formative assessment entails highlights the recursive relationships of formative assessment, self-reflection, and a malleable view of intelligence.  Lorrie Shephard describes formative assessment as a process through which an instructor and a student come to better understand both the learning goals and the student’s work towards those goals in order to “alter the course of instruction and thus support the development of greater competence” (2005, p. 67).  This definition identifies formative assessment as a process of feedback that improves student learning.

Using formative feedback as a teaching method means that a classroom becomes the locus of ongoing dialogue that helps students measure and improve as they work to meet goals, expectations, and objectives.  The instructor takes in information about student progress and understanding, which creates the opportunity for a feedback loop that the instructor can use to shape teaching.  It is the moment when student progress shapes instruction that formative feedback becomes formative assessment.

When practiced effectively, this iterative relationship between instruction, feedback, student adjustment, and instructional adjustment maps onto self-reflection and a view of malleable intelligence.  As instructors provide formative feedback to students, they give students the tools to assess their own progress toward learning goals. Over time, students learn self-reflecting strategies (Shepard, 2005, p. 69; Wiggins, 2004, pp. 2-3, 6), allowing for moments such as Black and Wiliam noted when “one class, subsequently taught by a teacher not emphasizing assessment for learning, surprised that teacher by complaining, ‘Look, we’ve told you we don’t understand this. Why are you going on to the next topic?” (2004, p. 36).  As students reveal their learning progress, either directly (as in the example above) or indirectly through tasks that foster formative feedback, instructors have the opportunity to adapt their instruction. As teaching becomes more closely aligned with student progress, students are given increasingly refined opportunities for comprehension or alignment with expectations. As students chart their own progress, they implicitly buy in to the idea that they can improve their performance by making changes in their approach (Black & Wiliam, 2004, p. 30; Shepard, 2000, p. 43; Wiggins, 2004, p. 5). They come to understand, either overtly or tacitly, that their achievement is based on effort, not an unchanging quantity of intelligence (Shepard, 2005, 68; Lipnevich & Smith, 2009b, 364). When formative assessment works, students become self-regulating learners who practice self-reflection and learn a malleable view of intelligence—and are more motivated and more likely to achieve (Dweck, 2002).

Given the value of formative assessment, how can instructors use the characteristics of exemplary formative assessment as they plan their courses?  As opposed to inserting a few well-crafted formative assessments into the curriculum, instructors should understand that the adoption of formative assessment is the implementation of a course-long instructional approach.  Specifically, instructors can use formative feedback in every class through effective questioning strategies that elicit information about student understanding and help students monitor and adjust their learning (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 25-7).  Instructors can assess students’ prior knowledge and use “knowledge-activation routines” such as the K-W-L strategy, to “develop students’ metacognitive abilities while providing relevant knowledge connections for specific units of study”(Shepard, 2005, p. 68). Comments on work, marking of papers (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 27-31; Lipnevich, 2009a; Lipnevich, 2009b), peer-assessment, self-critique exercises (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp 31-3), one-on-one tutorials, small group remediation, instructor and student modeling, analysis of exemplars (Wiggins, 2004), and revision exercises can be used throughout.

Although methods may be similar across disciplines, the precise use of formative feedback will naturally vary between disciplines (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 36-37; Shepard, 2000, 36). Nonetheless, Black & Wiliam and Shephard (2005) stress that adopting formative assessment as an instructional approach requires a cultural change within a learning community. Because students activate and practice self-reflective strategies in an effective formative feedback loop, they ought to be given a chance to develop and hone these skills in every classroom.  Since formative assessment relies on students understanding clearly what the expected outcomes of their learning and work are, they need exemplars. If instructors within a department, discipline or, ideally, school can agree upon the characteristics of exemplary work and learning, student self-regulation is more natural and more likely to be accurate.

References

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (2004). The Formative Purpose: Assessment Must First Promote Learning. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education103 (2), 20-50.

Dweck, C. (2002). Messages That Motivate: How Praise Molds Students’ Beliefs, Motivation, and Performance (in Surprising Ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving Academic Acheivement: Impacts of Psychological Factors on Education (pp. 37-60). San Diego: Academic Press.

Lipnevich, A. & Smith, J. (2009a). “I Really Need Feedback to Learn:” Students’ Perspectives on the Effectiveness of the Differential Feedback MessagesEducational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability , 21 (4), 347-67.

Lipnevich, A. &. (2009b). Effects of Differential Feedback on Students’ Examination Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied , 15 (4), 319-33.

Ormrod, J. (2012). Human Learning (6th Edition ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Shepard, L. (2000). The Role of Classroom Assessment in Teaching and Learning. CSE Technical Report, University of California, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, Los Angeles.

Shepard, L. (2005). Linking Formative Assessment to Scaffolding. Educational Leadership, 63, 66-70.

Shute, V. (2008). Focus on Formative Feedback. Review of Educational Research , 78, 153-89.

Wiggins, G. (2004). Assessment as Feedback. New Horizons for Learning Online Journal, 1-8.

Sarah Wilson is the co-director of the Upper School at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She has a B.A. (English) from Kenyon College, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has taught middle and high school English for 13 years.


Image Source: Formative Assessment Wordle created by Macie Hall

3 thoughts on “The Characteristics of High-Quality Formative Assessments

  1. I could not agree more. I use rubrics for most graded work, and students are required to self-evaluate their work against the rubric before turning it in. It’s critical to ensure students understand the purpose of this self-grade: they may assume that the grader will use it as a basis for the assignment grade. I clarify several times over the semester that the reasons I ask them to self-grade are:
    1) so that they learn to evaluate their own work against clear, objective criteria. When they go to work, their boss is unlikely to give them a grade. Before providing work to a boss or client, the employee must take the time to review it for accuracy, logic, appropriate breadth and depth, and clarity.
    2) to ensure that our understanding of the terms in the rubric are the same as theirs, and that our assessment of their work is similar to theirs. When students assign the highest characteristics noted in the rubric to their work and we do not, or vice versa, we can have a discussion that will help them become more accurate in their self-assessment.

    Thank you for this article, and the others posted to this site. They are always helpful in sharing new ideas, confirming the value of existing practices, and opening my eyes to things I should change.

  2. Pingback: Quizzing and other “Low-Stakes” Formative Assessment Strategies | more... learning4u

  3. Pingback: Learning from Student Evaluations | The Innovative Instructor

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