Formative Assessment: I Know What it is, but How Do I Do it?

Many of us know the theory behind formative assessments, but the burning question may be how do we use them in our every day teaching practices? In her article "Hitting the Reset Button: Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction" published in the Phi Delta Kappan (2011) Debra J. Dirksen gives numerous practical applications on how to implement FAs in the classroom. Here's a couple using quick writes:

"We can also use short writing assignments to check for understanding. One example is called "3, 2, 1." Students write three things about concept A, two things about concept B, and one thing that connects concepts A and B. A similar activity is called "Circle, Square, Triangle." After giving a presentation or engaging students in a learning activity, I have students describe three metaphorical ideas by responding to the following questions:

1. What's still going around in your head? In other words, what do you still not quite understand?
2. What's squared away? What do you really understand?
3. And, finally, what three things could you use in your life, work, or studies?

In Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (1993), Angelo and Cross identified a number of techniques for quick assessments to check for understanding as you conclude a lesson. Many of the assessments identified by Angelo and Cross take advantage of quick-write prompts, where students are given three to five minutes to write anything they want about a question or topic. This can be used to gather formative assessment data. The writing can be purely free writing with no parameters, or you can use probes like these: What was the muddiest point in today's lesson? What was the clearest point today and how could you use what you've learned? I've used these activities and other similar ones to provide quick feedback about the lesson. If this feedback is used to refine instruction, and if it allows students to press the reset button and learn material they missed the first time, it can be a good tool to help formulate future instruction."

The applications above also fit nicely in brain-based learning techniques as they use metacognition, the top of higher order thinking skills where students think about their own learning process and how they learn as well as applying the learning to their own real-life situations. This second piece is huge in light of brain-based research on getting information into long-term memory-- in order for this to take place students must be able to relate it to their own lives or prior knowledge. In other words, since the brain acts more like a sieve than a sponge, any information that is deemed unimportant or unrelatable will be strained out. So maybe students are being truthful when they say they don't remember learning something in class. Hmmmmmm.....

These examples also allow the students the much-needed and often overlooked processing time necessary to make sense of something and help it along the pathway to long-term memory and mastery of the material.


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