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A Different Approach to Formative Assessment Makes Practice Time Count

Center for Teaching Quality

Want to spend class time wisely? Formative assessments can help. The trick: taking the time to analyze the data and put it to use. You can do this in any subject area, but we'll start with an example from teaching math.

Let's say my class is working on quadratic equations and we're just beginning to learn how to find x-intercepts (remember it's where a line crosses the x-axis).

In the past, I might have taught the lesson, worked sample problems on the board in class, and then assigned 3-5 problems for students to work on that evening.

Formative assessments change that model.

Before the lesson, I set aside some time to anticipate the most common problems or sticking points, based on what I know about students. Most times you can anticipate the 4 or 5 ways that students will miss a problem, so you can build problem sets that help them work through the process with a partner to get "unstuck."

The key to effective practice time is having students focus on the parts that they don't understand or can't reliably do every time. Teachers have been partnering students for a long time…what's different about this method is that you anticipate the areas of difficulty and customize the practice.

The formative assessment kicks off the lesson, helping me to gauge where students are in their learning. Students use personal dry-erase whiteboards to show me how they are solving the problems so that I can easily see how they are doing or where they are stuck. Looking at student work is the most powerful way to get a handle on what they are thinking.

In pairs or triads, students help each other work on the customized problem sets, and then I move around the room, assisting clusters of students. I know when I approach a group what their focus is and I already have formulated questions in my own mind to ask them…making sure they know the process and understand the concept. It's where the prep comes in very handy.

If I were lucky enough to teach in a place where a colleague was teaching the same lessons or had the same prep periods, I would jump at the chance to collaborate. We could help each other prepare, discussing what we anticipated as common misunderstandings and difficulties.

We could also jot down how things went and whether we were on target about the categories of remediation—then compare data. Over time, we could create a very effective set of questions, additional practice, and grouping techniques to use the next time we taught that lesson. (Of course, I can do the same in my own classroom, but I think collaborative results could be even stronger).

Formative assessment in other areas

Imagine a social studies classroom in which the lesson objective is for students to understand the causes of a particular event.

Areas of difficulty—and appropriate support activities— are different here, of course. Maybe some students need an activity to help them re-reading a textbook passage in order to find information. Other groups may need time to use a graphic organizer to process information. And students with a good understanding of the causes might move onto a higher-level question. It's an easy way to differentiate practice time without creating huge projects and/or products.

Formative assessments in science classrooms can look slightly different because so many of the proficiencies in science are shown through lab experiments. It's really a student performance, not a test. Sometimes they missed collecting data, sometimes they mis-measured, and sometimes they just didn't finish.

This is running labs in phases and conducting formative assessments at the right point in the lab—can be useful. If students quickly share their data, the teacher can support them in getting to the next phase more easily. Some students will be finished and ready to move onto the next phase. You don't wait until the whole lab is done and ready for evaluation to realize that students didn't understand how to do the first step. It's also a great time to introduce a bit of student choice about some additional experimentation for students who are able to move quickly through the lab, analysis and write-up.

Key takeaways

Changing the way you use formative assessments can help maximize learning for all students. It guides me in differentiating what each student does and ensuring that the class, as a whole, is ready to move onto the next step.

When I anticipate students' challenges, I can better formulate sets of questions and tasks that help individual students learn more deeply in the same amount of time. Sorting students into trios and pairs helps me do a better job giving feedback. I'm able to meet students where they are in their learning. Best of all, I know that every second of practice time counts.

Center for Teaching Quality is writing a series of blogs in partnership with Teaching Channel. CTQ is transforming the teaching profession through the bold ideas and expert practices of teacher leaders.

Marsha Ratzel is a National Board-certified teacher in the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, where she teaches middle school math and science. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory and Powerful Learning Practice, she writes often about her teaching practice at Reflections of a Techie.

4 Comments
Marsha: Thanks for your post. I am working on my Masters Degree from Antioch University and I find your suggestions to be an important part of Problem Based Learning. I teach physics to 9th and 10th graders, and I regularly use the methods you suggest. I am lucky enough to work with gifted, open-minded colleague - and we regularly discuss lessons, and work to pinpoint areas of struggle in each of our classes. One of my colleagues and I regularly meet, either before or immediately after a class, to briefly discuss the areas where the students struggled. Sometimes a one-minute conversation between classes can provide the right mindset for the teacher heading into a lesson. I find it isn’t always possible to anticipate challenges, but I enjoy the challenge of having to think on my feet when working with bright, capable students. Sometimes I have to ask for a moment of reflection before I answer a question or offer a new challenge. Often times, simply walking away and circling back to the group offers me enough of a window to come up with something of value scaffold the growth of the student. One of the things I like best about this style of teaching is that it offers opportunities for me to give substantive and timely feedback to students. Working in small groups also allows for students to self-assess their knowledge or understanding, as well as allows for students to provide helpful feedback to each other. I am always thrilled when I come upon students who are collaborating effectively – eavesdropping on student collaboration is a very effective way of discerning where students are in their learning. Thanks again!
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I have been looking at the released items for the new assessments that go with Common Core. I am so new to this but there seemed to be a shift from "pre" assessment to formative assessment. I suspect that what you are talking about represents this shift. I have to keep studying. Thanks.
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Dear Brendan, I really appreciate your comment...thank you for posting it. I loved your comment "....the challenge of having to think on my feet when working with bright, capable students". That really is the jewel of teaching, isn't it. And I think the advice you offer about feeling like you have the time to relfect and consider a quality answer is good in 2 ways. First it helps make sure you give a good answer. But secondly, I think it's a wonderful modeling of thoughtful discussion that your students can watch and adopt. If I could, what kinds of question have you found work best with this approach in your physics class? I really like the fact that you're teaching to the younger HS students....so I'm wondering what kinds of topics they are able to tackle given their math background. Thanks for anything you can share.
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Dear Marilee, Thanks for your question. I think it brings up a good point that is very worthy of clarification. I actually the inclusion of both preassessments and formative started well before Common Core(CCSS). Maybe it's just that CCSS has helped teacher emphasize a balanced assessment plan that includes all kinds of measurement. In my teaching practice, pre-assessments are something I might use before I've even started instruction. Often I use this to help me group students (either in single ability or heterogeneous groups) as it gives me invaluable information for planning the pacing of the unit. Formative assessment, to me and I know it can vary for individual teachers, is more about measuring how students are learning a particular target or objective. It's a way for students to know what they've mastered and what they still need to learn before the end of the unit. It's also a way for me to judge the progress of a single student and for the whole class. It may signal a place where I need to do more instruction....or that we've got the idea and I need to move on. I think this distinction is a valuable one to have straight in your mind. But I'd imagine different people implement the assessment plan. Does this match up with your understanding?
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