We know effective learning cannot take place without formative assessment practices to match. Formative feedback loops, in addition to scaffolding activities and the adoption of powerful questioning strategies, is an important, if not essential aspect of an inquiry-based education.
Feedback that signals progress in memorizing facts and formulas is different from feedback that signals the state of the students’ understanding (Chi et al., 1994). Students also need feedback about the degree to which they know when, where, and how to use the knowledge they are learning (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000).
Assessment should be a regular part of teachers’ planning. Assessment allows teachers to develop a feedback loop that informs them of their next steps on a regular basis. It also needs to be ongoing. As teachers observe and coach students as they engage with a task or activity, teachers are assessing what students are learning, and what teachers need to teach them next. As a teacher sits with a student discussing the rough draft of a paper, he provides the kind of specific feedback that permits the student to learn from her first efforts. The student can then return to her original piece to improve it. Or, as a teacher listens to students’ discussions and debates, she will hear what students understand, know and can do; what remains confused or uncertain; and what promising leads the students have offered for the teacher’s next teaching step.
Not everything needs to be assessed formally. Sometimes people worry about giving students complex, open-ended tasks: what if somebody falls between the cracks? How does a teacher know that everyone is making progress?
One way to address concerns like these is to do fast status checks for understanding. Bring students together frequently throughout a task to answer these questions:
- Where is your learning in relation to the learning goal?
- What have you figured out so far?
- What difficulties or frustrations are you encountering?
- What strategies have you tried already to address these problems?
- What other kinds of strategies might work?
The answers students give to these questions make good prompts for reflective journals. Have students take pictures when they feel they that they are working through something they want to capture or write about later. Save or scan them as images that can be inserted into the reflective journal.
You can also record the class’s collective answers to these questions on chart paper, a class blog, or collaborative online document to create a map of how the class’ learning is developing. It builds a body of common knowledge, and keeps everyone connected to the topic, even though they may be working on it in quite different ways. Answers to these questions make wonderful summaries of the “big aha’s” that teachers might want to post on their class website or blog. They are great notes for use later as study guides. Parents like to see how understanding is developing on a regular basis, not just at report card time. When students go home with clearly articulated understandings of what they have learned and what they need to know next, they can answer that perennial dinnertime question: “So, what did you learn in school today?”
This emphasis on knowledge creation and elaborated communication will require new approaches to assessment. Rather than focusing on students’ ability to recall content or follow basic procedures, these new emphasis will require assessment that involves asking students to solve real-world problems and participate in tasks and activities reflective of work engaged in by professionals in particular disciplines. Formative feedback loops that provide ongoing descriptive feedback will help students enhance works in progress. This renewed focus on formative assessment will help teachers modify their teaching to help students produce sophisticated and high-quality summative performances of understanding.
Assessment must be ongoing
On a day-to-day basis, students should know where they stand and where they are heading. It’s not enough to assess students at the end of a task. Students and teachers must have ways to determine what understandings are emerging, where the gaps in understanding are and what to do next.
Completing a task is only part of learning. Students need to articulate what they are coming to understand and the problems they’re having along the way. If teachers leave assessment to the very end of a task, there is almost nothing students can do to correct errors and misunderstandings. But if students get feedback while there is time for them to improve their learning, they can make real progress.
Research clearly indicates that if students do not receive on-going feedback during the learning process, they do not make learning gains. Students who start a task with strong understandings remain strong; those who are struggling when they start are still struggling at the end.