There are experts on formative assessment in every school district in the country but they are not often recognized as such. Who are they? They are the athletic coaches in the building.
How does a quarterback learn to improve his effectiveness in passing? How does a runner chip time off of her mile? How does a basketball player improve his free throw percentage? How does the swimmer become more efficient in the water?
In each case, the athlete has a teacher/coach who watches and provides feedback, records their performance, and involves the player/athlete in the analysis of that recording, and then begins the process of using that information to work on continuous improvement for the next competition.
We sometimes marvel at the difference between a student’s persistence level on the playing field versus what is demonstrated in the classroom. The same can be said for every student if you substitute sports with whatever they are interested in—a job, playing music, other activities. But what can we learn from the observation that students display varying levels of commitment, depending on the task?
In part, we can connect the so-called soft skill of persistence with the use of formative assessment in the classroom. Students can learn persistence if they are taught that learning is a process. Involve them as partners in that process and their motivation improves.
James Popham, in his 2008 book titled Transformative Assessment, offers the following straightforward definition of formative assessment: “Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they are currently doing.”
If sports analogies strike you as stale, try this: How does the expert cook make the perfect soup? Let’s break it down:
- Find a recipe that looks good and plan to use it (the end product in mind)
- Follow the instructions, with permission to change them if it makes sense to do so (learning progression)
- Periodically taste the soup to check its progress—make adjustments as needed (formative assessment and learning progression adjustment)
- Enjoy dinner–the final product, considering what might work best the next time (summative assessment and reflection)
Teachers struggling to implement formative assessment in meaningful ways can use Popham’s list of critical attributes to simplify the process:
- With the end-learning goal in mind, plan a process that facilitates that learning.
- Decide how you will assess whether students are learning the skills and content along the way.
- Make adjustments in the instructions, in the content, or in the support you provide to students during the learning progression.
- Involve students by having them make their own adjustments in their learning process, giving them ownership in the progression.
Persistence is one of the Habits of Mind that relate to college and career success. People with a growth mindset believe that they can improve their knowledge and skills through effort. People without that mindset often give up. In the quest to change classroom and school culture to one that fosters confidence and success in all students, teachers can use the formative assessment process as a key strategy in helping students who otherwise believe that their skill set and knowledge are fixed.
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