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Developing Formative Assessment Expertise to Move Learning ForwardTeachers who use formative assessment as part of their everyday classroom toolbox…

  • quickly identify important evidence of student learning and separate it from distracting information,
  • readily perceive meaningful patterns among their students’ responses to questions and tasks,
  • implement a broad range of formative assessment strategies automatically and flexibly as part of their regular routine and
  • gather and use evidence from the current instructional context to make advantageous decisions about the next steps of instruction, minute-to-minute and day-by-day.

Because formative assessment strategies and techniques produce so much information about student learning, formative assessment experts must be adept at recognizing which information is critical evidence for moving teaching and learning forward and which information is not.

Formative assessment experts must be well versed in the common misconceptions inherent to their subject matter, as well as typical errors of student thinking, so that they can quickly recognize those cognitive patterns in their students’ responses to questions and tasks. Likewise, they must have a firm grasp of appropriate learning interventions.

The use of formative assessment strategies and the activation of specific thought patterns—like comparing evidence of student learning to the goals of a lesson—must be automatic for formative assessment experts, so they can quickly process the evidence they elicit to determine what their students get and don’t yet understand.

These root proficiencies are at the heart of formative assessment expertise, but it is the ability to put them all together that truly makes the formative assessment expert. Accomplished formative assessment teachers work fluently and automatically within the current instructional context to address students’ immediate learning needs in real time—rapidly processing evidence of student thinking and learning, automatically considering the learning targets, then making advantageous decisions about the next steps of instruction to move learning forward, sometimes with a plan B or even C in mind.

In this view, the teacher functions as an educational diagnostician who—using formative assessment techniques instead of a stethoscope—listens carefully to student thinking; processes it against what he or she knows about the subject at hand, how students learn, and the goals of a lesson. Thus informed, the teacher prescribes appropriate learning interventions.

The end goal of developing formative assessment expertise is an accomplished assessment for learning classroom—a subtly teacher-engineered learning environment that encourages students to behave as active directors of their own learning. While the teacher consistently uses formative assessment strategies and techniques to methodically gather evidence of student learning, both teacher and students use that evidence to keep student learning moving forward. For example, in light of what the evidence reveals, the teacher may reshape or extend a lesson or engage students in working together to achieve the intended learning.

When teachers see themselves as learners, are open to new ways of teaching and are willing to modify their current teaching practice through repeated cycles of systematic practice and reflection, they can gradually arrive at this accomplished level of formative assessment practice.

While it stands to reason that it takes time and targeted attention on formative assessment to build the necessary expert capacity to create and manage an accomplished formative assessment classroom, we believe it is this expertise that ultimately equips teachers to navigate the complexity of both their classrooms and students’ minds.

It’s important to keep in mind that expertise grows gradually—is incrementally constructed over time—as a result of practice and the ongoing opportunity to reflect on that practice in a systematic way. Practice alone is not enough; thoughtful practice makes the difference.