formative assessment

Benefits of Recording Formative Assessment

It’s our Open House night. Parents pour through hoping for insight on how their child’s school experience is going. However, this isn’t a night to talk about students. It’s a night to talk about curriculum, general class structure, and possibly specifics about projects or assignments currently underway or coming up.

My fallback is my web site because everything is there. Parents respond positively to the web site as it is very informative and it’s not only a way for students to know what is going on but parents as well.

However, the big surprise came when a few parents added,

“Oh, and I love how you monitor their progress”

“…she looks at Power School and sees improvement and it makes her feels so good about herself”

“I like how you can see how they are learning.”

And I’m surprised and pleased that they’re following Power School that closely and that they recognize my attempt to monitor and follow progress.

There is definitely a train of thought that supports not recording or reporting on formative assessments. However, my policy is to record and report on as many formative assessments as possible.

But not checking this box in Power School, the number will not be included in the students' grade.

But not checking this box in Power School, the number will not be included in the students' grade.

For example, with my Entry Tickets I can actually quantitatively determine how much a student knows at a given time. This number then gets recorded in Power School as a non-counted Test/Quiz score (it is removed from impacting their final grade). Thus, students (and parents) can see different “progress reports” throughout the unit. The content of these entry tickets will ultimately be the content of the unit test so the progression should directly be reflected in their test score at the end.

At a glance I can determine who is progressing and I can target struggling learners, especially during group and individual work. Currently, my 8th graders are working on a lab that contains negative and positive controls and for some reason they are really having a difficult time wrapping their heads around this concept.  However, many are grasping it and I can see it. There are a handful who remain very unsure and today during the lab I spent time with all lab teams but was able to linger longer with those students who I know, based on their entry tickets,  are really struggling more than the others. My goal was to help them visualize the concept with their experiment.

Tomorrow’s Entry Tick will, indeed, tell me if the visualization helped!

The practice of reporting on formative assessment has yielded some surprising results:

  • In the time it takes students to prepare for our first activity, I know who needs help and I know exactly what I need to focus on that day (and isn't that the entire purpose of formative assessment?).
  • Students become more focused on learning specifics.
  • Students ask more questions.
  • Students arrive more prepared to class, knowing I’m going to probe their knowledge.
  • Student know they will get more chances to learn the topic, and have hope if they still 'don't get it'.
  • Students seem happier and more motivated to tackle difficult topics.
  • Being questioned in a quiz format de-stresses the entire experience of “being tested”. It’s just part of learning now.
  • No time is wasted at the beginning of class because students are engaged as they walk through the door, already reading through their entry tickets.
  • Oh, and parents are happier.

My entry ticket assessments and the recording of them is spreading to all of my classes!  

More formative Assessment

Entry Tickets

It’s good to have a routine.  But then it’s also good to sometimes change up those everyday activities.  This week began a new routine in the classroom.

Students were greeted at the doorway.  They almost ran into each other as they realized they were expected to line up and wait for further instructions.  Their routine of simply entering the classroom first thing in the morning was interrupted.  They paused and smiled with curiosity, wondering what was up my sleeve.  After our regular greetings, each student received a small piece of paper with three questions on it.  They followed the instructions to take a seat, remove their lab work from their backpacks and answer the questions.  Furrowed brows, scribbling pencils, and the flipping of lab pages followed.  Immediately students were immersed in the work at hand, reflecting on and processing what was accomplished in the previous class and preparing for the current lesson.

They passed their papers forward and we discussed what the rest of the lab entailed.  As they gathered goggles, dawned aprons, and assembled supplies, I took a quick look at the entry tickets, immediately assessing what the students did and did not understand about the lab.  As I circled between the lab pairs during the lab I was able to target the misconceptions.

Furthermore, at the end of the class we jointly created a set of tables to clarify the definitions for and identification of the positive and negative controls in the lab (relating to the entry point questions).

The entry tickets directed me in how the lesson needed to progress and took the students down a path of greater understanding. The technique will become a regular addition and will also spread to my other classes.  Adding a new technique into a lesson also engages the students and generates a new kind of energy within the classroom.  Encouraging more formative assessment and the courage to try new techniques in the classroom!

Instead of Retakes, More Formative Assessment

Why where there three versions of the same exam?  Two options to retake the test? What happened last year? This situation coupled to reflection on my unit plan and consideration of my current students, led to the logical conclusion that a change needed to be made.

The first version of the quiz was easily converted into a series of thought provoking questions that were transferred into a power point. The students have completed their first task and seem somewhat confident in their knowledge. At least they are proud of their work.  So, out come the whiteboards and dry-erase markers. This is a first for these students and they are curious. The “rules” cause a few furtive glances and it’s clear some students are worried they’ll be put on the spot or their ignorance will be displayed for all to see. However, once the first couple of questions are behind us, the smiles and laughter begin. They realize my message was real: this is to determine what I still need to focus on to help them master the content they must know. They see it’s part of the learning process. The ensuing discussion on several of the questions clearly helps students take a step closer to understanding.

You can see their smiles.  Assessment can be fun!   You can also see how different their answers were which, in this case, indicated inconsistencies in understanding.

The questions are projected on the screen in front so student can read and process the information. They are given time to record their answer and then all student hold up the boards at the same time. During this session of formative assessment, the questions are multiple choice, however, they do allow for higher level thinking. More often than not, more than one answer is acceptable and when students explain their choice(s), I can detect their level of understanding. Selection of one 'correct' choice often indicates beginning understanding while selection of more than one can indicate deeper understanding.  At least, that's the way I attempt to design the questions. Formative assessment at this level, with well thought out questions can yield a wealth of information about student understanding and where the lesson/unit needs to go next.

At the end of the session it’s clear to me why last year additional versions of the quiz were offered. The work we’ve done thus far simply isn’t enough for understanding to be achieved. Additional re-enforcement activities (with planned formative assessment) are being built in with the design for greater learning to take place.

I’m so glad I reconsidered the direction of this unit. I can’t over emphasize the power of formative assessment. Seriously, we should be building it in multiple times to every lesson. 

Formative Assessment Turns into Review

“Can we do the white board thing again?” asks one.

“Seriously?”  Typically they’re so reticent about committing their answers to the whiteboard and I’m surprised they’re actually requesting the activity.

“Yes, it’s really helpful” bursts out the entire class in unison.

My favorite formative assessment has just been requested as a form of review by my IB students. For my purposes, during the course of a unit such an activity determines how well students understand concepts.  A series of well-prepared questions that are informative regardless the answer given are posted on the Smart Board and students commit to answers on individual “white boards” (clipboards with a sheet of paper covered with left-over laminating material).  They record their answer, without letting their peers see (and boy are they protective of their answers) and then they hold up the boards high so I can see all the answers and know at a glance where the entire class stands.  If I formulate the questions properly, misconceptions are exposed, understandings are revealed, and weaknesses are identified. I immediately attend to the gaps or I plan the next lesson according to the needs.

What was revealed before was confirmed once again, that this process also helps the students. It gives them confidence in what they know and it helps them to realize what they need to further work on. 

The trouble is coming up with good questions on the spot.  But they are begging me.  So, I pull out the textbook and look at assessment statements. The questions start coming and the students start writing. “Can you ask some more on Topic 5.4 because there are things I’m still unsure of?”  “Sure!”  Within an hour we’ve covered the entire chapter.  “Was that helpful?” I query.  “Yes. Definitely” comes back the response.  Echoes of  “Thank you so much” filter towards me as they all depart the classroom.

It’s so interesting how we as teachers assess in order to know where to take the class next.  However, it seems the assessment can also aid the students in deciding the direction of the class: move ahead or review some more.  It is exciting to see the students take these assessments as opportunities for self-reflection.  I continue my advocacy of formative assessment but I am changing my tune on its purpose.  It clearly serves both teachers and students.  Any other good formative assessment techniques or experiences out there?

Another round of the Carbon Cycle or can we move on?

My 8th grade students have supposedly learned the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and the nitrogen cycle.  They’ve completed a lab “How does combustion affect carbon dioxide levels in air” and today they submitted a lab “How do plants affect the nitrate and ammonia levels in a bin of water containing two fish”.   I’m ready to have them undertake a global warming lab that will hopefully help them make the link between increasing CO2 levels, greenhouse gases, and global warming.  However, I wasn’t sure if they have really grasped the concept of the cycles.  In a PowerPoint I put together some formative assessment questions, all multiple-choice and all designed to expose misconceptions.  They answered on their whiteboards.  WOW was that ever interesting and incredibly informative!  3/5 of the students clearly had NO deep understanding. 1/5 was 100% ready to move on and the other 1/5 was 99% ready to move on.   So, it very easily told me that I needed to do an additional, very hands-on activity that I had tucked away “in my back pocket”.  I saw several “light bulbs go on” and at the end of class everyone (including those that had been ready to move on) commented, “That was very helpful”.  One more round of formative assessment on Monday and I'm quite sure we’ll be able to start the lab that day as well.

Improve teaching with formative assessment for IB Students

Last week I gave my IB students a series of activities to complete in order to gain understanding of concepts in our genetic engineering topic.  They viewed videos, performed interactive tutorials, pasted tables and diagrams that they had to assemble, and completed some sequencing tasks.  With each activity they had to demonstrate knowledge in a written form.  Today I had to make the decision to continue with the topic of cloning or to review some of the topics from last week.

I put together a set of questions in a PowerPoint document (one question per slide) that would help me identify what percent of the students had mastered each concept.  As Dylan Wiliam counseled us in that workshop I went to a week and a half ago, I built each multiple choice question by identifying and including incorrect answers that would result from misconceptions.  I made sure there was more than one correct answer such that if a student picked both correct answers, it would be a demonstration of understanding.  There was no way to just guess a correct answer.  Any non-multiple choice questions were answerable with less than three words.  

Today at 14:00:

The students enter the classroom and I give them 10-minutes to review their notes from the previous activities challenging them to quiz each other on the concepts in an effort to confirm and seek understanding. 


The “whiteboards” (a clipboard with a piece of white paper overlaid with leftover laminate from the lamination machine) and markers come out of the box.  Interests peak as the students eagerly await receiving their marker, whiteboard, and “eraser” (a ¼ of a paper towel).  A bit of nervousness emanates from the students as they process that they will be individually responsible for writing down something pertaining to the content.  They recognize that this clearly is not a pair or group activity.


A barrage of questions comes my way: “Are we being tested?” “Oh no, this is going to be hard” “What types of questions are you going to ask?”

“Should I start with an easy one?” I query.  An emphatic host of “yes” responses reply so I quickly insert a multiple question that I am 99.99% confident everyone will correctly answer. 


We begin.  Thankfully everyone is on board with question #1 so I can proceed. 

The responses are instantly so informative, yielding not only misconceptions but deep thought processes and a clear indication that some students had sought for deeper understanding while completing the activities I had assigned them. Following the exposure of each misconception, I engage in discussion and additional formative assessment questions to ensure that I can move forward. 


We are on question #4.  I make the decision to put the cloning topic on hold until tomorrow. 

The students are engaged.  They are intense.  They are thoughtful as they choose their responses.  I can imagine the neurons firing in their brains as some of them recognize more than one correct answer but struggle with actually writing down TWO answers. 


We make it through the questions before class is over and I recall the whiteboards and markers.  The students place the supplies in the box and comment on how productive they feel.


One students states, “That was really good” and I respond, “Yes, it really helps me see what level the students have achieved in their understanding” to which she replies, “And it helps me see where I am at”. 

Another unexpected outcome of formative assessments has revealed itself.


I excitedly share the success with my colleague that attended the workshop with me.  She describes the achievements she has experienced with the “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, “E” cards with her classes.  We revel in the power of formative assessment and brainstorm additional ways of maintaining the practice in our classrooms.


I feel elated.  I’m grateful to be a teacher.  I rejoice at the prospect of improving myself as an educator.   I’m pleased that I have a whole list of improvements to make in my classroom after I’ve mastered the techniques of formative assessment that I’m currently working on.  I find it strangely comforting to know that there is a plethora of untapped ideas that I can try in my classroom that will assist me in developing into an exceptional teacher. 






Short teacher statements yield student discourses

In the workshop last weekend, Dylan Wiliam would have us discuss at our table, then vote with our fingers, then he would draw out responses from the audience with statements, “You chose option A”.  I didn’t even notice what he was doing until he spelled it out for us.  He claimed that if you just make a statement, people will spill out what they are thinking. I wasn’t totally convinced even though I had evidence from that day suggesting that his claim was valid.

However, when I tried it in the classroom I was stunned.  I gave a series of multiple-choice questions and the students chose “A”, “B”, “C”, or “D” (or a combination of the letters) then I would simply state a student’s choice(s) and low and behold, they just offered their entire train of though in selecting that answer.  It was incredible and it gave me an instant view into how their minds were working.

At our faculty meeting this past Monday my colleague and I presented a teaser on what we learned at the Dylan Wiliam conference.  During the presentation we had teachers do some finger voting.  I then looked at individuals and stated how they voted.  The adult faculty responded the exact same way as the students did!  Each person immediately plunged into the reasoning behind their voting!  It was so enlightening. 

Given the immediately results of attempting this technique in the classroom, I do believe I will be able to make it a consistent part of my teaching.  Indeed, statements and restatements yield revealing discourses by our students.

Formative assessment in Science

A couple of days ago I wrote that I was at a conference over the weekend titled “Formative Assessment” by Dylan Wiliam.  In the context of that workshop Dylan shared with us over 65 techniques for completing formative assessment in the classroom.  He then challenged us to select one to three techniques that we would implement in the classroom over the next year.  I took the challenge and integrated formative assessment into my classroom this week.  It did extend the lesson time by 30 minutes but it was worth it. Here is a summary of the experience:

I used:

-       Whiteboards for students to individually commit to answers and for me to complete formative assessment on where the class was to determine where to take the lesson.

-Questioning for diagnostic assessment AND to promote discussion

-       Finger voting for students to individually commit to answers in order for me to determine understanding.

-       Hot seat questioning to help a student correct misconceptions

-       Restatements of how a student voted.  Just like in the videos, my students responded to these restatements with an explanation of their train of thought in arriving to their conclusion.  I did not have to ask a single question.  I just had to wait for their response.  Amazingly, they continued to talk until they felt they had completely explained their thinking.   I uncovered so much information but most importantly how their brains were processing information that day.  It was electrifying.

My students:

-       At first were unsure about this new process, asking, “Is this a test?” and furtively looking their peers’ whiteboards

-       Then the fear departed and an excitement to participate and understand entered in.

-       No longer were students concerned with what others were writing.  They were focused on their engagement with the concepts.

-       They inadvertently exposed misconceptions

-       They equally were able to inadvertently clear up misconceptions

-       My students LEARNED!

-       My students developed understanding!

-       My students progressed!

-       And, as a total bonus, they enjoyed the process exclaiming, “That was fun”

Now I am confidant they all know what diffusion and osmosis are and can clearly describe the difference. Furthermore, they are truly ready for an osmosis lab during their next class.  And, I am determined to continue implementing these techniques into all my lessons until they are second nature.