May 2017 | Nuts & Bolts
Using Formative Assessment to Guide Instruction
By Jennifer Smith
I used to rely solely on paper maps and directions printed from the Internet when traveling to new destinations. After getting lost more than a few times because of detours and road closures, I decided to step into the digital age and start using GPS, which recalculates one’s route almost instantaneously.
Like traveling, science instruction has a clear beginning and a predetermined destination. In terms of science instruction, formative assessment serves as the GPS for a unit of study. An important aspect of formative assessment is that it is ongoing, and regularly recalculates the route of instruction. It is used to determine students’ levels of understanding and help teachers identify how to best close the gaps between what students already know and what they need to learn.1
It is difficult to get where you need to go, if you do not know where you are beginning. Formative assessment, like GPS, is valuable for determining a starting point. Formative assessment, in the form of discussions, can be used at the beginning of a unit to determine students’ levels of understanding as well as their misconceptions about a topic. Generating quality student-led discussions takes time and persistence and requires that students feel comfortable enough to share their ideas. I begin each new unit with a whole class discussion, which I have found to be instrumental in the development of a unit of study.
On discussion day, my students enter the room to find their desks in a large circle. I have found that rearranging the room helps the students better interact with one another during the discussion. Before we begin discussing, I provide the students with models and books to look through, as well as a discussion guide (Appendix A) to complete, as a way to help them focus their thinking. The discussion guides require students to write down both what they know about a topic and how they know it. This is helpful to me, as I have found that it is easier to undo a misconception if I understand how it originated.
The students are able to examine models and books as they are passed around the circle, helping trigger ideas and thoughts. They are also encouraged to discuss their ideas with a partner on either side of them. Some students struggle with identifying information that they know about a topic. In order to ensure that all students feel comfortable during the discussion process, students also have the option of writing down questions about aspects of the topic they want to better understand.Once students have had an opportunity to write down their thoughts and questions, I collect the models and join the circle. During the discussion, I am primarily an observer, and sometimes a facilitator. I start with a blank sheet of paper and write down what the students say. I ensure equity of voice by limiting students to a minimum and maximum number of responses. Sometimes I ask the students to explain their thoughts or answer each other’s questions. I ask questions too, but do not give answers. If students provide incorrect answers, I guide the discussion in a manner that helps lead the students to the correct answer, without simply correcting them. This practice takes patience, but is an effective way to foster and encourage grit and logical thinking. At the end of the discussion, the students complete their discussion guides by writing a summary of the discussion and any lingering questions. I collect the discussion guides and review them to help me develop the best route for the unit.
Formative assessment during the unit
Three years ago I flipped my classroom and formative assessment became a necessity. My students would view videos and take notes at home, and I needed to find a way to ensure that they were understanding the content.
One method I’ve used to incorporate formative assessment is using flipped notes reviews. On the surface, the notes reviews seem simple, but they have provided me with deep insights into my students’ levels of understanding, and have completely altered the course of my units on more than one occasion.
In my classroom, a notes review consists of five questions (Appendix B). Four of the questions deal with general recall, such as “What is an element?” and a student should be able to find the answers by looking carefully through their notes. These questions are a check for the students, because I tell them that if they cannot find the answer to a question in their notes, they need to view the video again and make corrections to their notes.
The fifth question of the notes review incorporates the application of a concept. In order to successfully answer the question, the students must be able to synthesize the information from the notes and then apply it to a situation or context. For instance, I may ask students to explain how chemistry is a part of their daily lives.
The notes review is a formative assessment that I collect and grade. I read and assess all of the student responses and then review the information in class the next day. Sometimes I redesign a lesson plan or change the order of subsequent lessons based on gaps in student understanding or persistent misconceptions.
Journals are another formative assessment tool that I use on a regular basis. On the first day of school, the students use their journals to write a science autobiography. On that day, I also explain that I will read their journals, and that they may be asked to read their journals aloud in class from time to time.
In terms of journal prompts, sometimes I pose a question and require the students to respond in Claim, Evidence, Reason (CER) format. For this type of prompt, students make a claim that answers the prompt question. They support the claim with evidence, either qualitative or quantitative data, and then provide a scientific reason that ties the claim and evidence together. Other times I may provide a more creative prompt, such as asking the students to state whether they are most like a proton, neutron, or electron — and explain why.
As the students draft their responses, I circulate through the room to read what they have written. Sometimes I address minor misconceptions of individual students during this process, while other times I stretch students’ thinking by asking them to provide examples or additional elaboration. Occasionally, I ask students to describe any content they do not understand, or to describe their comfort levels with course content. For instance, I may ask them to describe the content they understand the best and could teach to someone else, and also to list any questions they have about the unit.
Journals are not formally assessed and are always a work in progress. After the students have responded to a prompt, volunteers are asked to share their responses with the class. This is where reading the students’ responses as they write comes in handy, as I am able to more readily identify students who may or may not be willing to share information with the class. As students share their journals, I encourage the rest of the class to add thoughts and comments to their own journals. Many times, the journal is a springboard into a group activity in which students are asked to develop consensus about a topic and then share out with the whole class. A great aspect of having the students write in journals is that they can also be used as a study tool for summative assessments.
At the end of each school year, my students bring me all of their blank notecards. After a couple of years, I had stacks of thousands of lined notecards. One day I decided to sit and stare at the massive stack until I figured out what to do with them. After staring for a long time, I developed one of my favorite types of formative assessments: notecard review. This type of formative assessment requires participation by all students, and provides them with the opportunity to get up and move around, a vital aspect of a middle school classroom. Notecard reviews provide me with a creative way to group students and assess their levels of knowledge.
I have various sets of notecards; some include chemistry terms and definitions, while others have information about the periodic table. For a notecard review, each student receives a notecard. Using the periodic table as an example, some students receive cards with the name of an element, others receive only the chemical symbol, and others receive the atomic mass or the atomic number. The students must then physically get up and find the other members of their group: students’ whose symbol, name, atomic number, and atomic mass are all for the same element.
Credit: Jennifer Smith
Once the group has formed, there is a task for them to complete. In the case of the periodic table example, the students create a periodic square for their element, and once it has been assessed for accuracy, they place it on a bulletin board. As I monitor the activity, I am able to see which students are struggling and which already understand what they are doing. A nice aspect about the notecard review is that it is possible to “stack the deck” to challenge students in specific areas to better pinpoint levels of understanding without frustrating or overwhelming the student. Having a product, such as items on a bulletin board, also helps the students remember the activity and provides them with affirmation if they are on the right track.
Just as I turned from my paper maps to a more digital sense of direction, I have also incorporated technology into the formative assessments that I conduct in the classroom. My standby is Socrative. Socrative enables me to create a quiz with a variety of question-and-answer types for my students to complete. The students are able to use Chromebooks to quickly login to the program and complete the self-paced assessment. I like having the option of randomizing the order of the questions and answers.
I also appreciate that the program provides students with immediate feedback. Although Socrative can provide students with feedback, I always go over the answers with the class as a whole. There is a feature in which the names can be removed from the answer section, so we are able to review answers with anonymity. We spend time discussing why answers are correct or incorrect. It is in this justification of answers that students’ levels of learning are best revealed. Socrative saves student scores and they can be exported to other programs as well.
Another digital program that I use with my students from time to time as a formative assessment is Kahoot. Students can access Kahoot through computers or smart phones. It has a game-type feel, and teachers can create their own quiz questions or use pre-made quizzes. The basic idea of the program is that students are given time to read a question and then they have a set amount of time in which to respond.
Students who answer most quickly receive the highest number of points. Points are collected after each question and leading scorers’ names show up on the screen after each question. Most of my students enjoy playing Kahoot, but I use it sparingly and cautiously because of my concern that students who may not read or process information as quickly as others may be frustrated by the process.
Another concern I have when using the program is the fact that student names are projected after each question. In order to reduce the angst this may cause some students, I have them login using their middle name instead of their first name. This adds a bit of novelty to the activity. I generally use Kahoot as a method for determining misconceptions, because students have only a short period of time in which to respond. Once the students have responded, we are able to discuss the thinking behind both the correct and incorrect answers to the question.
Last year I began using EDpuzzle as a means for delivering all of my flipped notes. This online program allows me to set up multiple class sections and import assignments to Google Classroom. I upload all of my videos to EDpuzzle and then embed questions for the students to answer as they watch the video. Sometimes the questions are similar to those found on the notes reviews, and other times they relate to vocabulary terms that are not included on the notes reviews. The program includes a feature in which students are required to both answer all of the embedded questions and view the entire video. It also tracks the number of times each portion of the video has been viewed. As I review my students’ progress in both answering the embedded questions and viewing the videos, I am able to easily identify sections of the notes that may have been troublesome for the students. This allows me to modify the pace and content of the unit to ensure that students are understanding important concepts.
Formative assessment plays a key role in assisting teachers as they guide students from their cognitive starting point down the road toward the academic objectives for a unit. Formative assessment can take a variety of forms, which can be both fun and informative. Whether they are high-tech or take the shape of notecards, formative assessments should impact the lessons that follow them. Formative assessments should be structured in such a way as to reveal student understanding and the thinking behind it. A skillful teacher can utilize the information from a formative assessment and craft subsequent lessons to keep students on the path of learning.