5 Formative Assessment Tips for the New School Year

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Formative assessment is a process where students and teachers help students navigate the formative learning cycle: Where am I going? Where am I now? Where to next? In formative assessment, students are involved in generating and using evidence about their own learning. Teachers set up the conditions that make this kind of learning possible. In this blog, I suggest five things that will help you use formative assessment productively in the new school year.

 

1. As this school year closes, reflect on the learning climate in your classroom.

What does it “feel like” for a student in your classroom? Are your students primarily concerned with learning – or are there at least some aspects of your classroom that encourage students to be concerned with looking like they’re learning? If you ask students to be right—to give a correct answer, for example—more often than you ask them to think, they may conclude that learning means getting right answers rather than pushing their thinking.

If an honest appraisal of the learning climate in your classroom leaves you thinking your classroom is more evaluative in tone than you would wish it to be, here are some simple tips that will help change the tone more toward learning:

  • Ask more open questions (as opposed to closed questions with one right answer). Respond to student answers not with approval or disapproval, but by asking another student to agree, disagree, or add a thought.
  • Use learning-focused language. For example, ask students “What are you trying to learn?” not “What are you doing?” or “What do you think?” not “What’s the [particular fact]?”
  • Use tasks (both instructional tasks and assessment tasks) that require students to think and apply knowledge, not just recall, repeat, or reproduce it.

Changing the learning climate in your classroom, even a little bit, will open up more possibilities for using formative assessment effectively next year.

2. Plan the first few days of next year with a formative learning focus.

The first few days of a school year set the tone for the year. You give students tools and routines for learning that will help everyone in the classroom live and learn together. Plan your first few days to feature things that teachers who use formative assessment effectively do:

  • Help students understand what a learning goal is, what it means to have a learning goal, and why that’s important.
  • Help students understand the importance of asking questions. Teach them about different types of questions and how to ask them.
  • Teach students that they are responsible for their own learning, and explain how your instructional methods will help them with that throughout the year.

Teachers who are not effective at formative assessment do not do these things at the beginning of a new school year. Rather, they focus on procedures (e.g., how to turn in homework), grading policies, attendance and tardy policies, and other classroom processes that focus more on behavior than learning. Of course you need to explain these routines, but the emphasis should be on orienting the students to learning.

3. Adopt a learning target theory of action.

A learning target theory of action says that the best learning takes place when a teacher and students, together, use the right learning target for each lesson (Moss & Brookhart, 2012). Every lesson you teach next school year should have its own learning target, positioning the lesson in a trajectory that will ultimately help students achieve larger learning goals. The target should include three things: (1) a statement, in student-friendly language and written from the point of view of a student who is just learning; (2) a performance (something students will do, make, say, or write) that will help students learn and also give evidence of the quality of their learning; and (3) success criteria that describe what to look for in their work to help them (and you) figure out where they are and what next step they need to take.

If you, like many teachers, repeat lessons from one year to the next, you should see this tip as a re-orientation of your lessons, not a call for you to add to them. It is no use to tack a “learning target” statement on to a lesson that does not otherwise make clear to students what it is they are supposed to be learning and what that looks like. For any lessons where, upon inspection, you think the main energy comes from student compliance (students doing what you ask them to) rather than participation in a formative learning cycle, rethink the architecture of the lesson. Focus first on what students are going to try to learn and how you will communicate that (including success criteria). Focus next on what the students will be doing that will allow them to enact the learning target during the lesson and use the success criteria. The result should be lessons that are not longer, but better.

4. Focus on success criteria.

The learning energy in formative assessment comes mostly from success criteria. These are the elements that allow you to give effective feedback and develop assessment-capable students who can actively participate in the formative learning cycle. No learning target is complete without some way for students to know how their learning is going. Make sure you have success criteria (or will develop them with students) for every lesson. For example, it isn’t enough to say “We are learning to write persuasive paragraphs.” Students need to know “I’ll know I can write a persuasive paragraph when I can take a position, support it with facts and/or appeals to emotion or authority, and convincingly explain to my reader why these elements mean they should support my position.”

5. Restructure feedback opportunities.

As you reflect on the school year that is ending, ask yourself where most of your feedback was located. If you give a lot of feedback on final, graded work, restructure the trajectory of your lessons for next year to include more practice work and feedback followed by opportunities (right in the lesson plans, in class) for students to use the feedback to revise their work and move closer to their learning targets, as indicated by the success criteria. Again, this will most often mean re-orienting the lessons you teach rather than complete new lesson plans. As you can see, this tip includes another tip within it, giving effective feedback. Base your feedback on the success criteria from tip #4, knowing that students will be basing their self-assessment on those same criteria, and that the pursuit of the kind of work described by those criteria leads to the learning both you and the students are aiming for.

A new school year is, in some ways, a new beginning. Using the best of your work from last year, and the formative assessment tips in this blog, you and your students will have a great year. You’ll know you have accomplished that goal at the end of next year if you can say, “My students knew what they were learning, and I helped them do it!”


Susan M. Brookhart, Ph.D. is an education consultant and author based in Helena, Montana. She is also Professor Emerita in the School of Education at Duquesne University. Her interests include the role of both formative and summative classroom assessment in student motivation and achievement, the connection between classroom assessment and large-scale assessment, and grading. She has written or co-authored 17 books and over 70 articles on assessment, including ASCD’s Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom and Learning Targets: Helping Students Aim for Understanding in Today’s Lesson.