Formative Assessment

As a teacher I used formative assessment on a daily basis before I knew it was called formative assessment.  I recorded some of the formative data I collected and reported it to parents on report cards.  I also included student behaviors in report card marks such as completed/incomplete work, attendance and participation.  Sometimes the feedback I provided my students was irrelevant and provided little, if any opportunity for growth.  I could beat myself up about it or I could learn from my experiences and apply new understandings to help improve student learning while also improving my teaching practice.

Often times the education system is criticized for not being relevant to the real world.  During my daughter’s basketball practice I started to see how formative assessment is related.  Players have an opportunity to practice specific skills while coaches provide feedback for improvement.   Eventually individual skills are combined to prepare for application in a game situation.  My daughter played her first game on Saturday.  I saw this as a summative experience because the players demonstrated the skills learned during practice.  The coaches could still provide feedback and make notes about what to work on at the next practice.

Then I started to think about swim club.   Again, my children attended practice to learn skills and set goals.  Coaches provided timely and specific feedback on various skills.  At the first swim meet the goal was for my child to make it to the end of the pool without touching the bottom.  After a race, the coach would know what to work on at the next practice to improve upon personal goals.  Eventually the goal was working towards standard times set for swimmers.  There were some meets which my husband was unable to attend but he still wanted to know how our children were doing.  When I let him know that our child beat a personal best or were three tenths of a second from an ‘A’ time or made an efficient flip turn, he was able to understand how she was swimming.  When I shared my opinion and told him that she looked so cute on the starting block with bug-eye goggles, huge smile and proud waves to the crowd, I didn’t really share how she was doing.  I can’t imagine how anyone could disagree with my opinion but it was irrelevant to how she swam her races.  Just as my husband wanted specific information according to the goal, parents of the students in our classes need information on how their children perform according to the outcome.  This shared information is summative.  My husband and I didn’t require daily practice updates – formative assessment – but if our children were not improving from one swim meet to the next, the coach might have had a discussion with us for an improvement plan that we could be aware of and support. However, the implementation and use of formative assessment was critical to the process.

Sports and school aren’t the only places where formative assessment is practiced.  A driver’s license is earned after a test but not before practice and feedback from driving instructors and parents (sometimes positive, sometimes not!).  After completing a written test, all drivers are subject to a road test.  Not all drivers pass the first road test.  The road test results are not averaged.  When a driver passes the road test, they earn a license regardless of how many road tests were required.

As teachers we also receive feedback from our students, colleagues and parents.  Some feedback is requested, some is positive and some is negative.  When I think about the positive feedback I received from parents, rarely was it specific.  “Thank you for being a good teacher.”  What does that really mean?  What do parents think I am good at?  When I received negative feedback from parents and colleagues it really stung and I tended to dwell on it but after much reflection I was able to learn from that feedback because often times the negative feedback was more specific.  Although our students may not have the finesse or skills to critically share specific feedback, non-verbal communication can also provide feedback from our students as to how we are meeting student needs.

Just as it is difficult to hear negative feedback, it is difficult to share feedback sometimes.  It may be difficult to find something a student has done well on an assignment just as it may be difficult to suggest something for improvement.  I know that I need to practice providing feedback to students and right now it feels and sounds somewhat robotic but with practice, I know that I will improve on providing specific, timely feedback to students.

Although formative assessment is not always formally recorded in real life, in real life we practice, we perform, and we learn from our mistakes.  Mistakes can be realized internally and mistakes can be shared through feedback.  Teaching is a practice and I know that I require practice to help students achieve their learning goals.  I also know that what I do and understand today will change but that today I am doing the best I can with what I know and understand.

October 28, 2013Permalink