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The day the Earth stood still

It was my second year of teaching. I had moved to a new city, gotten married, and begun working at a small school within a three-month period. I was half of the science department and had three preps and only one planning period. What I lacked in experience I decided I would make up for in determination and positive attitude. It was about this time I found myself teaching an astronomy unit in a physical science class. I knew little about astronomy, but I decided it was just chemistry and physics in space and something I could figure out for at least one unit.

My seventh bell was a bit of a challenge, and the students were less than enthusiastic. The Dean of Discipline, who also doubled as half of the history department, would return phone calls in the afternoon. By the time seventh bell rolled around, he would call kids to the office who were in trouble. Sometimes, half of my class would leave. Any real teaching had to occur during the first half of class.

I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. They would have a three-day debate based on the question: Is the Earth round? I would dangle a carrot for the winners of the debate. It would also buy me a bit of time to plan a unit that I had never taught. It started well. One student brought up the idea that we have pictures of Earth; it appears round and thus the debate is over. I just happened to have a poster of Earth that I pulled out. It was the perfect teachable moment. “Sure it appears round. Is it just like a flat coin? How do we know if it is a sphere?” I would have to refine the debate question, but I was the teacher, so I was allowed to do that. A hand popped up and a single question hit me like a ton of bricks.

“Mr. Husting, how come the people on the bottom of the Earth don’t fall off?” At first I thought the student was joking but then I realized he was completely serious. So was most of the class, which told me they probably all had the same misconception but were afraid to ask. I tried to come up with a quick response, but then the announcements broke and several kids were called to the office.

Formative assessment … it doesn’t have to be a dirty word

I never forgot that experience. It was the spark that piqued my interest into different types of assessment. Formative assessment, I soon found out, is a type of assessment that takes place at the beginning of a unit or topic. The purpose of formative assessment is to try to determine students’ understanding of a topic at the beginning of a unit and then to plan accordingly. There was, and sometimes still is, a mistaken assumption on my part that students start with more skills and knowledge than they actually possess. The Earth question was a great shock to me, but it was an honest picture of many of the students’ knowledge. It forced me to go to a “Plan B” and work on trying to explain why people do not fall off Earth.

It is becoming more and more dangerous to not only talk about assessment to teachers in the trenches but to actually suggest it can be helpful and a good idea. Every year there seems to be more mandated testing for students. The list is getting longer and longer, and teaching time is getting shorter. It seems that once we get the data, people are not sure what to make of it or the data are hotly debated, but this is a topic for another article. A good, well-written formative assessment is quick, provides the teacher with important information about the students’ knowledge, and can be used to help plan the unit. It is also student-centered.

What does it look like?

The first step in creating an effective formative assessment involves developing one or two short, probing questions that are designed to provide a sense of understanding of the students’ present knowledge about the topic. There are several ways to do this, and I have found that it helps not to use the same method each time. One type of formative assessment is to have a picture, a short explanation, and a question with three or four choices. One choice is the correct answer, and the others might be common misconceptions. Students must pick a choice and provide an explanation. This is a two-tiered question, and often the explanation is more insightful than the answer to the multiple-choice question.

I used this style of formative assessment to test students’ understanding of Archimedes’ principle. The scenario: Four kids are sitting on a beach looking at an old ship wreck, and they each provide a short explanation of why ships sink or float. The students are asked to choose which kid’s answer is the best and explain why. The activity did not take long to make, and I was able to ask a similar question at the end of the unit to see if there had been a change in students’ understanding. If you don’t want to make your own assessment, you can get some great resources from the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) or the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Another type of formative assessment is to first introduce a topic with a series of demonstrations and then check students’ knowledge of the subject. At the end of a class loaded with demonstrations centered on a topic, each student is given a Post-it note. There is a piece of paper taped on both sides of the door as students leave. One paper says “Claim” and one says “Question.” Students are told that before they leave, they must write one thing they know OR a question about the topic, and post it on the appropriate sign. I immediately know how much work I have. If there is a huge amount of Post-it notes on the question side, I read those carefully. If every student has the same question, I may address it somehow the next day.

Whiteboards can also be helpful. Instead of using Post-it notes, I place students in groups of three or four with a whiteboard, and each group defines a particular concept. I tell students that nothing can be written on the board until everyone in the group is in agreement. I typically ask them to define a word or concept, provide an example, draw a picture, and/or write a sentence demonstrating understanding. At times, I may have them draw a phenomenon at the particulate level, but that might be a challenge for students.

Why should students care?

It might sound strange to some, but not every assessment has to be graded. There are a few things I can do as an instructor to encourage student involvement. First, I let them know that it’s OK to have the wrong answer. I make it clear to students that the purpose of these activities is for me to help plan engaging activities. It is not to penalize or embarrass them. Second, it is anonymous. I don’t track who responds with a correct or incorrect answer.  I am looking for general understanding from the entire class. This helps them understand that it’s OK to be wrong (a message rarely provided in schools). I have also found that students are less likely to discuss, share ideas, or disagree in front of the entire class, and more likely to do this in small groups. By using clickers, students may respond anonymously. If you don’t have access to clickers, there are some sites that allow a cell phone to act as a clicker (Poll Everywhere is an example of one of these sites). I have discovered that students take the formative assessment questions seriously when I get data, and they know that I actually do something to make their learning more relevant.

A double-edged sword

Over time, you will find that formative assessments can quickly help you in the classroom. The good news is that they can help you identify gaps in students’ understanding of concepts before starting a topic. The bad news is that they can help you identify gaps in students’ understanding of concepts before starting a topic. If you do a formative assessment on Monday, you might find that there is no way students are ready to do the activity you have planned for Wednesday. Or, it may mean the activity you have planned for Wednesday should be moved to Tuesday because students already know more material than you anticipated. In other words, formative assessments can sometimes provide information that indicates Plan B is the better course, and that can be challenging.

Goodness is more important than perfection

Sure, it can be difficult, but students are worth it. That is probably why you went into teaching in the first place. Just remember, there is no such thing as the perfect lesson. The more I look for “tools” for my teaching “toolbox,” the better I am able to respond and switch gears when I need to. I am still learning, but I think students respect teachers who try more than the ones who recycle lessons without reflecting or thinking through what they’re doing.

By no means am I an expert or the perfect practitioner of formative assessment. I am fortunate to have had some wonderful in-service opportunities, colleagues, experiences, and resources from which I have been able to form my ideas (Sycamore Community Schools, NSTA, the American Modeling Teachers Association, Target Inquiry at Miami University, to name a few). It is never easy, but it is rewarding to use a tool that just might help one student who otherwise may not have “gotten” it. My guess is that this is the reason you are reading this article and the reason you just might try some type of formative assessment. This one student is probably the reason most of us started teaching in the first place. It is a journey well worth taking.

Photo credit: Depositphotos.com/racorn (Top), Depositphotos.com/SimpleFoto (Bottom)