Formative Assessment

Formative assessment, and assessment in general, is a hot button word in the education word right now.  That is a fancy way of talking about the ways we as teachers make sure that our students actually know the concepts that we are teaching them in the classroom.  What I have also found as I review my practices in the classroom is that formative assessment is always happening if you know where to look (or listen) and that it does not have to be a daunting task that we dread doing with our students.

Before I begin my discussion of formative assessment, let me start by saying what it is not.  Formative assessment is not a child regurgitating exactly what you taught them, it is not a test of any sort, it is not right and wrong.  My position is that formative assessment should be varied over the course of the school year, engages the students in different ways, and should be happening at all times of the day.

None of us like the tedium of doing the same task over and over.  If we as adults do not like having to do menial tasks on repeat, why should we expect our students to do the same things over and over while remaining engaged?  I try and assess my students as many different ways as I can during the course of the year so that my students are never bored by allowing myself to become stagnant.  We all fall victim of falling into routine during the course of the school year and to some degree that is not a bad thing.  We all need to have routine in our classroom or there would be chaos, but what if you tried out one new way of assessing your students every week?  I think you would be shocked at how much more interesting your class could become simply by applying one new technique per week.  Think about all the teacher training hours that have been spent looking at different techniques for assessing understanding.  I know if I opened up my filing cabinet (or Evernote), there would be mountains of things that I highlighted at the time that sounded so great to use in my classroom.  Rarely, if ever, do I go back and review these documents and take advantage of them.  The current push in my district is to utilize iPads and web 2.0 technologies in the classroom which means I am bombarded by different things constantly that I can leverage in the classroom.  Between training hours and technology at my hands I can easily find the space in my lesson plans to try out one of these per week.  My current technology is using Kahoot in the classroom for a quick assessment of knowledge.  In reality it is not that much different than other quizzing services…until you factor in the competitive aspect of the program.  My kids have loved competing with each other to make the leaderboard, even the kids that could care less about their grades.

I am a visual learner.  If I see something on the screen I can remember it really well without ever seeing it again.  In fact, when someone asks me a question about a seminar I have attended, I can usually picture the particular slide in my head.  Imagine you are a student who is a kinesthetic learner sitting in my classroom.  If I, as a teacher, do not go out of my way to vary my teaching, the kinesthetic learners in my room could be in for a long year.  The point is that we usually teach in the way that we enjoy to be taught.  Some people really enjoy having lengthy discussions with their classes, some people enjoy building projects, others enjoy multiple technologies working together, and some like to lecture and be listened to.  All of these are not necessarily good or bad, but too much of anything leads to students who could care less about what is going on in the classroom.  I have found this year in my classroom that simply giving students the choice of two different methods of proving their knowledge of a topic will increase engagement.  On almost every assignment I have given at least two choices and do my best to vary the assignments to hit different learning styles as well as student passions sitting in my classroom.  I have found less student grumbling about school work and more creative submissions.  There are some flaws to my research and you may not get perfect results, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to look at a variety of things rather than grading the same submissions over and over?  One of my personal favorites is allowing the students to create something that proves their knowledge of a concept.  This really helps the kinesthetic learners in my classroom.  This school year I have had one student build a replica of an early shotgun using cardboard and another student has build a realistic replica of the Alamo using Minecraft.

When it comes to assessment, our job as teachers is never ending.  We should always be paying attention to conversations, products, working habits, reading ability, as well as dozens of other things in the classroom.  All of this helps build a picture of the students in our classroom and their ability to comprehend the material they are being taught.  The students do not even have to be aware that it is happening at the time that you are collecting information.  Even basic conversations I have with my students is a way for me to gauge understanding.  While my kids are working I will walk around and discuss elements that they are working on or have already completed.  This allows me to alway keep in mind where they are at and what they need clarification on.  This gives me a big advantage as a teacher.  When you rely on quizzes at the end of a section or unit you are at the mercy of your kids understanding it the first time you tell it to them.  The majority of the time this might confirm your student’s level of understanding, but what if it does not?  Then you are “behind” because your students need to re-cover the material so that you can press on.  Either that, or you are leaving huge gaps in knowledge for your students to catch up by themselves.  If you are constantly assessing your students, it is very easy for me to recover the missed material the following day so that the gap is not as large and the students are not completely clueless when you are covering new material that builds upon old material.  My favorite way to accomplish this is to listen at all times.  Some of my kids think that I could be a wizard because I hear everything.  When I look like I am not paying attention I am listening.  I have been known to hear minute details while having a conversation with someone else in my classroom.  This gives my students the pressure of knowing that I might come and talk with them about anything that is happening in their conversation at any time.  You might be surprised at all the things you can hear if you just tried.

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