"Formative Assessment” Practices: “But Isn’t It Just Good Teaching?"

Photo of Catherine McCulloch

Susan Janssen Creighton is a nationally known expert in professional development and middle grades mathematics instructional design. She is the lead author of the Corwin book, Bringing Math Students into the Formative Assessment Equation: Tools and Strategies for the Middle Grades, and leads innovative mathematics R&D supported by the National Science Foundation and state agencies. To all of her work, she brings insights from her experience as a middle school and high school mathematics teacher. Currently Susan is supporting teachers in developing instructional models that help students become more engaged, independent learners by giving them an active role in monitoring and directing their own mathematics learning. In this post, she shares some lessons learned and insights from this work.

In formative assessment, teachers set learning targets, frequently check their students’ progress and understanding related to those targets, and adjust their instruction to help students reach the targets. For over 10 years, I’ve had the good fortune to work on a series of projects at EDC focused on formative assessment instructional practices. These projects have focused on helping teachers learn to incorporate a collection of teaching practices that play a dual role in improving student learning. First, the practices provide teachers with information about how (not just whether) students are making sense of the material they’re learning. Second, the practices help students become more proactively involved in evaluating and monitoring their own learning. In fact, this latter outcome of these practices–building engaged and successful learners–has arguably become the more important outcome.

The work of Royce Sadler strongly influenced my team’s approach to formative assessment, leading us to develop a diagram to summarize the internal dialogue of an effective learner:

arrow graph 1

The collection of teaching practices that my projects have described as “formative assessment practices” are an outgrowth of this model. Below, I describe the practices’ four “critical aspects.”  

Four Critical Aspects

1.    The use of well-crafted two-part learning targets. These learning targets start with a statement of the important learning that will take place, often with a heavier emphasis on the conceptual understanding to be developed rather than the skills to be mastered. The learning targets also identify no more than two or three criteria for success that describe tangible, observable examples of evidence of students’ learning that both the teacher and student can look for to determine whether the student’s learning is on track.

2.    Eliciting and interpreting evidence of student understanding. This includes deciding what evidence from the lesson will be most relevant to the learning target, and focusing evidence-gathering efforts there. It also involves interpreting the evidence specifically in relation to the learning target.

3.    Providing effective feedback.  Formative feedback clearly points back to the learning target, without trying to address everything that needs attention all at once. It contains both information about how the student has or has not met the success criteria, and a hint, cue, or suggestion for the student that is intended to guide the student in acting on the feedback themselves.

Having the opportunity to act on the hint, cue, or suggestion is an important piece of students’ learning, giving them an opportunity to incorporate the feedback into their understanding. Unfortunately, responding to feedback is something that students often have little or no opportunity to do in the classroom—they more often receive it, and are left to do with it what they will.

We call this aspect “formative feedback” to distinguish it from the many other kinds of feedback that students receive. 

4.    Building student ownership and involvement in their learning. This involves helping students learn how to make use of the learning target, how to help provide evidence and to evaluate their own work using the success criteria, what to do with feedback that they receive, and how to give effective feedback to peers. Students need to learn these skills just as much as they need to learn how to master their subject matter content, so it involves both coming to an understanding of what the student’s role is and how that role contributes to the success of this approach, and then explicitly teaching students these different skills.

But Isn’t This Just Good Teaching?

As I introduce teachers to this list of teaching practices and the arrow diagram during the many professional development experiences I facilitate, they invariably ask the question, “But isn’t this just good teaching?” On the surface, this is a very good question! It’s not apparent to them initially how this collection of teaching practices differs from some of the things they already do, or aspire to do. If we change the wording in the arrow diagram from “I” (the student’s perspective) to “my students” and “they” (the teacher’s perspective), then this line of thinking is quite familiar to many teachers and, perhaps, lies behind the question, “Isn’t this just good teaching?”

Arrow Graph 2

And yes, it is good teaching! What the teacher does is critically important. But the question reveals an important assumption on the part of the inquirer that has helped me shape my response to this question over time. The question suggests a focus on the teacher’s role: the teacher understanding what goals the students are aiming for, the teacher determining where students are currently in relation to the goal, the teacher deciding what students need to do next to move their learning forward, and the teacher taking action to move students towards the learning goal. Certainly, the teacher needs to be involved in all these things! But if that responsibility lies only with the teacher, then students will not learn effectively and will come to rely on the teacher for any and all judgments about their learning. And without an ability to evaluate the quality of his or her own learning, a student cannot become an effective and independent thinker and learner.

As a result, our work has focused on building teachers’ awareness and skills for teaching students how to play a more active role:

  • Teachers can learn to be clearer with students about what the intended learning target is and what it means
  • Teachers can help students learn to use the learning target as a tool to help guide them when they’re trying to filter out what’s most important and that’s peripheral in a lesson (an especially challenging thing for struggling learners to do)
  • Teachers can collect the most relevant evidence of students’ learning in a lesson
  • Teachers can provide effective feedback to students, based on current research on what makes effective feedback
  • Teachers can help students understand what to do with that feedback

Consider the difference when the questions are rewritten from the student’s perspective:

arrow graph 3

Successful and engaged learners first ask themselves, “What goals am I aiming for in my learning?” Then, when they look at their work, they are able to think about, “Where am I currently in relation to those goals?” Next, they consider, “If I have not yet met the goals, what do I need to do next to be able to meet them?” Finally, these students are able to take action to move their learning forward towards the goals. Heidi Andrade talks about “students as key producers and consumers of formative assessment information” (Andrade, p. 2). Building the instructional strategies to teach students how to be the consumers of their own formative assessment information is what our work has focused on.

So isn’t this all just good teaching? Yes, it is. However, students have a role to play, and in so doing they will not only master the material, but also develop the skills they need to be an effective and enthusiastic lifelong learner. If teachers don’t support students in taking on that role, formative assessment practices fall short of the promise of what they can achieve.


Friday, September 8, 2017 - 7:30am