Asking Students What They Think: Part of a Formative Assessment Approach to Teaching

By Joni Starr

At this time of COVID 19 and the breakneck speed of shifts to online learning, I want to discuss the use of formative assessment. Michigan uses this definition of formative assessment within its Formative Assessment for Michigan Educators (FAME) program:

“Formative assessment is a planned, ongoing process used by all students and teachers during learning and teaching to elicit and use evidence of student learning to improve student understanding of intended disciplinary learning outcomes and support students to become more self-directed learners.” (CCSSO FAST SCASS, 2017)

Formative assessment is an approach to teaching that gets students involved in their own learning; a methodology that asks students to think about their own learning, while even in the midst of learning.

As teachers rush to create online lessons to meet the standards for grade-level teaching, there is also a rush to make assessments of student learning. It seems that the easiest way to assess learning remotely is with some type of written test: multiple-choice, short essay, fill-in-the-blank and more. Teaching becomes about content delivery, memorization, and recall. Is this what we really want? Wouldn’t it be better to use assessments that keep students engaged in community and learning, while we assess?

A formative assessment approach to teaching creates a strong community of learners. According to Margaret Heritage, an expert on formative assessment, classroom climate is essential to effective formative assessment. In Formative Assessment: An Enabler of Learning she notes that:

Power and responsibility in the classroom are distributed, so teachers and students work together to share the responsibility for learning.

The classroom must be a safe space for students to ask for help, without fearing judgment. Student errors are sources for new learning, knowing that such behaviors are evidence of effective learners.

  1. Mutual trust builds supportive and collaborative classrooms.

Even in online instruction, the ‘classroom community’ still exists. Students are still collectively learning the material and the teacher is still addressing all of the students, so the value and importance of classroom climate directly translates to online learning and the tenets of formative assessment can be at play.

So, how do we write lessons that promote this classroom climate where students are making their own learning instead of just receiving it?

As a local teaching artist with the Kennedy Center Partners in Education program, I was scheduled to begin an arts integration residency on March 17, two days after school closings due to COVID 19. The lesson for a science class focused on the food web and source tracing of food. After discussions with the classroom teacher, we decided to move forward with the lessons, but now in a virtual format.

Throughout the online lesson students documented their own meals and food items for source tracing. Students created their own unique food web. Each used a method most accessible to them: photographs, drawings, labeling, props, and/or a combination of all of the above. There were opportunities for shared work, student discussion, and student peer feedback, as well as student self-assessment.

In this example, students moved forward in their learning while in the process of learning. There was not a teacher-constructed, teacher-delivered, approach to testing. This was a collaborative learning experience that relied on shared responsibility and mutual trust.

Using formative assessment as an approach embedded in instruction reveals what a student knows through demonstration rather than by making a mark on a test page. This approach implicitly produces individual outcomes, unique to each student, and therefore may well be the most equitable form of assessment we engage in.

At this difficult time of uncertainty in education, I remain a strong proponent of the practice of formative assessment, whether in a school building or in remote learning, because at its core, it allows for the student voice to be heard. And isn’t this one of the most important things we can do?

Joni Starr serves as Administrative Coordinator of Arts Integrated Learning for Ingham ISD and as a Teaching Artist for the Wharton Center in Theatre and Dance. 

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