Every Learner Everywhere

Using Formative Assessment in Supporting Student Directed Learning

Formative assessment can be a powerful way to make teaching and learning more student centered and more student directed, according to the presenters of a recent webinar on formative assessment in digital learning contexts.

Jennifer Todd and Tonya Buchan, both instructional designers at Colorado State University’s Institute for Learning and Teaching, presented Formative Assessment as an Instructional Strategy: Using the Teaching Effectiveness Framework to Support Digital Learners in January 2022 as part of the Every Learner Everywhere “Strategies for Success” webinar series. They examined formative assessment as a mindset, a scaffold, and an instructional strategy.

Todd and Buchan recommended the Teaching Effectiveness Framework, which is grounded in diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice. It includes seven components that work in tandem to foster effective teaching practices, with inclusive pedagogy at the center. A key element in that framework is formative assessment, an instructional technique focused on student understanding and engagement.

“Yes, it’s a strategy and yes, it’s something we do in our classrooms, but really it’s a mindset,” said Todd. “And what I mean by that is, instead of thinking about ‘What am I going to teach today?’ it’s switching that to ‘What will students learn today and how will I know that they’ve learned it?’”

As a result, formative assessment is an important part of creating equitable digital learning for minoritized, poverty-affected, and first-generation students. By centering students’ needs, it creates opportunities for them to learn in different ways, to draw on individual strengths, and to account for their own timelines.

Todd and Buchan outlined student engagement strategies such as a background knowledge probe, polling, and a recording sheet. They encouraged participants to re-examine their previous understanding of formative assessment and explore four steps for incorporating this mindset and practice.

Step 1: Target content

Formative assessment is part of scaffolding to help students learn challenging topics and begins by identifying content they are struggling with.

“When you’re thinking about formative assessment, really focus on topics or skills where students tend to get stuck or have misconceptions. We find that when we’re working with faculty, that’s typically what they’re asking us about,” said Buchan.

“We think this is important because we want to make sure that the things you’re emphasizing in class and in these formative assessments align with your learning outcomes.”

Related reading — 5 Practical Strategies for Using Digital Tools to Increase Online Student Engagement

Step 2: Check understanding

Formative assessment can be a tool for developing an effective way to gauge students’ level of understanding of your target content. “This is really an opportunity to think about some of these different classroom assessment techniques,” said Buchan. “You want to look at the active learning strategy by instructional modality and find a classroom assessment technique that really fits with your outcome.”

The presenters acknowledged that time is a challenge for many instructors, and it can be difficult to implement new and time-consuming strategies when there is a lot of material to cover. “One thing to note is that you don’t need to do this with every topic,” Buchan explained. “Just focus on incorporating formative assessment in places where students are challenged.”

Step 3: Form a goal

The ultimate aim of using formative assessment as an instructional strategy is to translate the results into a new teaching strategy.

“You really want to think about what it is that you want to know from this,” Buchan said. “How are you going to use that information to guide your students so that they can best use that to determine another step if they want to really study something? . . . . Maybe they’d want to form a study group; sometimes just giving students that little prompt of ‘you know if you have trouble with this, you might want to review this or get together with a group.’”

Step 4: Consider logistics

For formative assessments to successfully change the way students tackle difficult material, feedback is necessary. However, many educators have large class sizes and a large amount of material to cover during a term. With that in mind, the logistics of giving constructive feedback is a challenge.

An important question that arose in the discussion after Todd and Buchan’s presentation was whether or not formative assessments should always be graded. “Absolutely not,” said Todd. “If you’re having students do formative assessments, you can’t grade everything. It’s just not physically humanly possible. Feedback to students is so important to their learning and there are a couple of dozen ways you can give students feedback.”

Related reading — Ungrading and Equity: Does It Support Minoritized Students?

Placing the responsibility back on the students for learning the material is a mindset shift that occurs with formative assessment, Todd explained. “If students were doing some type of formative assessment, I might have an example of what the final ought to look like but I don’t share with them until everyone’s finished. Then the students can try something out and then compare where they should be.”

Ultimately, the goal of formative assessment is to make both learning and teaching more student directed. “You have to know what kind of language to use and what you’re asking students to do,” Todd said. “That’s going back to a mindset thing. [Formative assessment] is a way to tweak everything about your teaching. It’s a way to share with the students that they can do this, that it’s in their control.”

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