Formative Assessments to Build Student Engagement

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By Andrew Miller

Miller Formative Assessment 300x300One of the tenets of the ASCD Whole Child approach is that all children are engaged. This is a perennial issue that is always on the minds of educators everywhere. We try all kinds of strategies to engage our students. We use brain-based strategies to get students up and moving. We build PBL units to create real-world work. We build relationships with students to show we care. All of these work together to create engagement in our classrooms, and we know there is no silver bullet to keeping all students engaged. However, one area we may overlook is how formative assessments can help us keep our students engaged.

I know that some may be initially apprehensive when I use the words assessment and engagement in the same sentence. But let’s be clear: I don’t mean major exams or tests that students have to take. Those are usually summative assessments, whether course based, grade based, or even school exit exams. I also don’t mean graded assignments. I’m talking about formative assessments—that is, nongraded assessments for the purpose of informing instruction and monitoring students’ progress toward mastery. Formative assessments are check-ins throughout a unit of instruction to see how students are progressing, not an evaluation or “end” of learning. When we accept these characteristics about formative assessments, we can then see how they can help keep our students engaged.

Imagine you are giving a lesson on an important concept or skill in your classroom. You start with a model or think-aloud to demonstrate expert reasoning and thinking to students. From there, you decide to move into a collaborative learning activity where students work in teams to learn from their peers and try tasks out with some support. You work the room and provide excellent prompts and cues to support student thinking. Then, to end the lesson, you provide a short formative assessment to see what students learned. From it, you find that many students didn’t quite grasp the concept or had major gaps in their understanding. You also find that many students did in fact learn the concept and are ready to do an independent task or activity. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to return to whole group instruction and not differentiate. We’ve all made this mistake. Sometimes we do it out of fear: “Will my some of my students really be able to work on their own while I provide further instruction to other students?” We should be optimistic and say, “Yes!” Imagine that you do return to whole group instruction. What will inevitably occur? Some students will be engaged, but many will not. Why not? Because they don’t need this instruction. They are ready to move on! If we instead return the next day and differentiate based on our formative assessments, we are giving students the instruction and tasks they need. This is “just-in-time” instruction created from effective use of formative assessment. When students get the instruction they need, they will be engaged. Educators should use formative assessments to move past their fears and give students the instruction they need.

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Andrew Miller is the author of the ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? He is on the national faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning. Miller is also an ASCD Faculty member, providing expertise in a variety of professional development needs, and a regular blogger for Edutopia. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.