Why Formative Assessment?

Whenever I use the phrase, “formative assessment,” I brace for eye rolls. Some find it “jargon,” and even John Hattie, whose work and research I admire, quarrels with the phrase. But I’m going to continue to use it because the phrase helps us value process and the teacher-student communication necessary to reach our mission as educators.

But it does more than this, I think. First, however, let me tell you what I think formative assessment means. Formative assessment is the timely, rich, and deliberate feedback a teacher and/or peer group can offer to a learner on a regular basis. I also find that the practice of formative assessment is just as potent for a teacher, for when formative assessment — the daily practice of observation, critique, feedback, etc. — is part of school culture, everyone understands where she or he is in their thinking. When this understanding is in place, we can all make better decisions on what and how to teach.

We know from brain-science that learning builds on prior knowledge and understanding (cf. Susan Ambrose, et. al., How Learning Works, Jossey-Bass, 2010). In order to know what students know, we need to assess them so that we can meet their needs and create an environment for them to do their best, most rigorous work.

But let’s talk about rigor. What does this look like? I imagine that, to many of us, rigor calls to mind students poring over tomes, sitting for difficult exams, dedicating hours to homework. Some of these images are accurate, and I won’t take the time here to deconstruct some of the issues I find with that narrative. Rather, I want to think about what people might see as a lack of rigor: kids working in groups, engaged in collaborative projects, getting messy with ideas, question, sticky notes, and Sharpie pens. Too often, this picture seems like “fun.” Well, such a scenario is fun — and why should that be incompatible with rigor and deep learning?

It isn’t.

In his excellent book, Why Don’t Students Like School? (Jossey-Bass,2010), Daniel T. Willingham tells us that people don’t remember what they try to remember; they remember what they think about. We cannot underestimate the importance of this statement. If true — and I believe it is — then a classroom must be a place to exercise thinking and not just a place to remember fixed facts and ideas.

Classrooms, in other words, cannot only be spaces where a unit can carry on for three weeks only to culminate with a test. Students may do well enough on that test, but how do we really know what they understand? How do we really know our impact? Have they checked out for two-and-a-half weeks only to cram for the test? We need to have a regular mechanism that can give us as much feedback as we hope to give them. Sure, keep the test, but make sure student thinking is visible during that time. In other words, exercise formative assessment. How do we do this? Well, we can certainly draw on some time-tested measures. Quizzing can, in fact, be effective not only to check for compliance (boo! if that’s the only reason — hate that word) but also because the act of retrieval, as Peter C. Brown, et. al. discuss so masterfully in Make It Stick (Belknap, 2014), helps students store ideas in long-term memory.

Another way to help advance student learning at the same time that teachers get rich feedback for their teaching is to use the superb work that has been hatched at Harvard Project Zero — in particular, Making Thinking Visible (Ritchhart, et. al., Jossey-Bass, 2011). More than just activities or exercises, the thinking routines presented in this book are intended to become a habit, a regular way of working and thinking — the stuff of “disposition building.” This is an important tool for teaching and learning  because Visible Thinking practice can shift the narrative such that we can answer — or, at least, that I can answer — what, in fact, a classroom should be.

A final note. Teachers — good, well-intentioned, conscientious — spend an enormous amount of time putting red marks on quizzes, papers, and other assessments on a daily basis. I know that this feels right — that it looks like the kind of (rigorous) feedback necessary for students to improve. My question is whether this is the best mechanism to help students with achievement in their study. I worry it’s not. Would the finite resources of teacher time and energy be better spent on creating the most engaging, thinking-rich lessons that promote thinking that is visible? Yes. If students are thinking in class and teachers can see this, they’ll know where students need help, where they need to slow down, go faster, etc. Too much time and energy is spent on the red pen and not enough of formative assessment that would free teachers up from deadening grading. This would be a big departure for many of us in schools: teachers, parents, and students. But, I argue, this would be a new kind of comfort that could awaken new ways to think, to learn, and to extend that learning.


About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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