Using formative assessment effectively in our classrooms is one of the best ways we can help our students thrive. For our modern learners (or for any learner), formative assessment fits much better with student needs. It also better compliments the teaching and learning outcomes schools have in place.
According to W. James Popham, in his book Transformative Assessment:
"Formative assessment is given credit for gains in student learning, amongst the largest ever reported for educational interventions."
We all know that formative assessment is often contrasted with summative assessment. Formative assessment takes place throughout instruction. It's an observation, a snapshot of where one is at a given moment in time. This snapshot helps us to adjust both our learning as students and our instruction as teachers.
In a nutshell, when we're using formative assessment effectively we're addressing 3 questions:
- Where am I going?
- Where am I now?
- How will I get there from here?
W. James Popham takes formative assessment to the next level by clarifying and expanding its definition. In doing so he's giving us some real points to consider when using formative assessment effectively. Popham starts by citing the formal definition by a group of professionals called FAST SCASS. He expands that definition with the following caveats:
- Planned process—Popham warns, "An educator who refers to "a formative test" has not quite grasped the concept, because there's no such thing. There are tests that can be used as part of the multistep formative assessment process, but each of those tests is only a part of the process."
- Assessment-elicited evidence—The aim of assessment is to garner "evidence of the student's' current level of mastery with respect to certain skills or bodies of knowledge."
- Teachers' instructional adjustments—"It's worth stressing that because the formative assessment process deals with ongoing instruction, any teacher-made modifications in instructional activities must focus on students' mastery of the curricular aims currently being pursued. It's not a matter of looking at test data and deciding to try a new approach next time; it's a matter of doing something different (or differently) now." In other words, adjustment happens in real time in the classroom.
- Students' learning tactic adjustments—Students also take a look at assessment evidence and adjust their learning strategies as needed. Says Popham: "The decisions to adjust or not to adjust, and the decisions about the nature of any adjustments (the what and the how) need to be made on the spot or almost on the spot—when there's still instructional and learning time available."
The most basic thing to remember for using formative assessment effectively is it's "a multistep process" and not a particular tool. It must be planned, it must generate evidence, and it must lead to an instantaneous adjustment of teaching and learning strategies.