Using Formative Assessment to Help Students Take the Lead in Learning

For over 20 years, Susan Janssen Creighton has worked on EDC mathematics instructional design and teacher professional development initiatives. To all of her work, she brings insights from her experience as a middle school and high school mathematics teacher. Currently she 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, Susan shares insights from her work on a National Science Foundation-funded project—Formative Assessment in the Mathematics Classroom: Engaging Teachers and Students (FACETS)—that is advancing middle school math teachers’ efforts to implement formative assessment practices in the classroom. Recently, she and her colleagues published a book based on FACETS, Bringing Math Students into the Formative Assessment Equation: Tools and Strategies for the Middle Grades that is now available from Corwin.

When I talk to teachers and district leaders about “formative assessment,” many associate the term with the idea of assessing students to get a better sense of their understanding, and adjusting instruction accordingly. Most often, they think about this kind of assessment as involving embedded instructional tasks or weekly “formative assessments.” I shared this view of formative assessment until I began my work on formative assessment in depth in 2007. The more I have learned about effective formative assessment in the U.S., as well as in Europe, the more my image of formative assessment has broadened and deepened. I now see that there’s more to formative assessment than eliciting evidence and adjusting instruction. The real “bang-for-your-buck” with formative assessment comes when teachers learn to implement a host of practices that, when taken together, help students become intentional and active learners.

In the FACETS project (Formative Assessment in the Mathematics Classroom: Engaging Teachers and Students), my colleagues Cheryl Tobey, Eric Karnowski, Emily Fagan, Lynn Goldsmith, Sophia Mansori, and I focused on helping middle school mathematics teachers learn about and implement a full set of formative assessment practices in their mathematics instruction. We studied how teachers make these practices their own, with an eye toward understanding challenges and barriers they encounter. And, based on our findings, we created professional development to address these challenges.

We designed FACETS based on our observation that many formative assessment resources for teachers present formative assessment practices independent of any specific content. That did not make sense to us, as all of our prior work in formative assessment had shown us that teachers need specific practices related to their content area to implement formative assessment successfully. Similarly, it is important to situate any professional development about formative assessment in a teacher’s subject matter.

Six Key Aspects of Formative Assessment Practices

Focusing deeply and specifically on mathematics, the FACETS project encompasses six aspects of formative assessment practices. Four “critical aspects” define a comprehensive instructional model for teachers:

  • Articulating and sharing with students the learning intentions for the lesson and the criteria by which students and teachers can gauge students’ success in meeting the learning intentions
  • Eliciting and interpreting evidence of students’ mathematical reasoning and understanding
  • Providing effective feedback to students and helping them learn to respond to feedback and provide feedback to others
  • Developing students’ ability to be “self-regulating” learners—able to effectively monitor, communicate about, and advance their own learning

Two additional “supporting aspects” are foundational to implementing formative assessment effectively:

  • Developing and sustaining a classroom environment that supports students in actively exploring and discussing mathematics together
  • Understanding and using math content learning progressions—the pathways through which understanding of content evolves, from basic to more sophisticated understanding—to interpret student thinking and to plan instruction

Findings from FACETS

We worked with two cohorts of teachers to design a professional development approach that effectively supports teachers’ implementation of formative assessment practices. Each cohort spent two years working with us—attending summer institutes, semi-annual workshops in their districts, and monthly learning group meetings in their schools. Several times each year, we observed participating teachers’ mathematics lessons and reflected on the lessons together. From our work with both cohorts, we learned quite a bit about how teachers come to make sense of formative assessment practices—and the benefits of the process—including (but certainly not limited to!) the following:

  • Teachers’ Perception of Their Role Shifts: At first, teachers saw implementing formative assessment as solely their responsibility—something they “do to students.” By the end of two years, many teachers viewed formative assessment as a collaboration with their students—a way of focusing on learning that they “do with students.”
  • It Takes Time to Become an Effective Practitioner of Formative Assessment: In the first year of work, most teachers experimented with implementing individual formative assessment practices. In the second year, most teachers began to feel that they’d made progress in weaving the practices together into a coherent whole and using them on a more regular basis.
  • Teachers’ Content Knowledge Deepens: Developing facility with formative assessment practices involves deepening one’s own content knowledge, as well as drawing on a wide repertoire of pedagogical practices. Thus, for many teachers, learning to integrate formative assessment effectively into instruction had the additional benefit of providing a mechanism for them to deepen their content knowledge.
  • Instruction Becomes More Focused: Many teachers reported that, as they gained facility with formative assessment practices, their instruction became more focused both for their students and for themselves. They were clearer about their goals, and they could more effectively target places where students needed more work. They found themselves spending less time on instruction that might be unnecessary and more time where it was needed.
  • Teachers Get Excited About This Work: As teachers came to understand the full suite of formative assessment practices, they got excited about the approach and excited about involving students in their own learning in a substantive way.

Now, we have authored a book on this process that is available from Corwin: Bringing Math Students into the Formative Assessment Equation: Tools and Strategies for the Middle Grades. I encourage you to take a look at the book. Feel free to contact me with questions.