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Formative Assessment in the Classroom: Setting the Stage for LearningHere at, we’re dedicated to helping educators, students, and parents understand that there are many forms of educational assessments available and they’re not all the same. Formative assessment is one of those assessment types that is minute-to-minute in the classroom and not designed for grading. It’s about understanding where students are in their learning so teachers can make adjustments to ensure that all students are absorbing the lesson.

When student learning becomes the focus in the classroom, the environment totally changes. And change from the teacher allows students to become increasingly more responsible for their own learning and for supporting their peers in their learning as well. Using formative assessment in the classroom seems to be a key in activating student thinking, student reflection and student learning.

In the National Research Council’s How People Learn report, there were three key findings. First, we have to engage students where they are so they can learn new concepts and information. Second, we have to help students get better at inquiry. This means they have to know and understand the facts and then be able to organize, retrieve and apply the learning. And lastly, there is a need to take a metacognitive approach so that the students understand the learning targets and can monitor their own progress. The use of formative assessment practices and strategies supports these three findings. Let’s break it down a little bit.

1. Engaging students where they are

There are several formative assessment practices and strategies that one can use to help find out where students are in their learning and provide them the opportunity to engage from the very beginning of the lesson. Teachers might use entrance tickets, pre-assessment, KWL (What I Know, What I Want to Know, What I’ve Learned), an anticipatory guide, card sorts and other such strategies. Giving students the ability to figure out what they know, what they need to know, and what they want to know helps set a different tone for learning in the classroom – helping students become more self-directed in their learning. And none of these questions can be answered until we, as teachers, are really clear on the learning targets and making sure our students are, too.

2. Organizing, retrieving, and applying the learning

Learning is more than just accumulating facts, procedures and processes. Providing schemas for students helps them organize what they’ve learned. These schemas are what help students integrate the learning into new situations and give them the opportunity to build on what they’ve learned.

There are a wide variety of formative assessment strategies that allow teachers (and the students themselves) to see the evidence of student learning. It may be as simple as a student “data binder” where the student accumulates artifacts of his learning, can monitor his progress over time, and can set goals for himself. Or it might be a learning journal or portfolio (science, math, writing, etc.) where she keeps up with vocabulary lists, writing outlines, edited work, science experiments, and other learning that has occurred that might be used as a reference or guide when she gets stuck. Formative assessment strategies such as having students design questions, participate in a Socratic seminar, dinner dialogue (teacher sends home a question parents might pose at dinner to allow everyone to share points of view or tell a story), sequencing, and synectics all foster in students the ability to think about what they’ve learned, organize it in different ways, and apply it to take the learning to another (and hopefully deeper) level.

3. Building metacognition

Royce Sadler said students need to have three things to be successful in classroom:

1.  Have a picture quality similar to that of the teacher – where are they going and what does it look like (clear learning targets and success criteria)
2.  Ability to determine where they are in relation to that target – where they are now (self assessment)
3.  Ability to plot a course to help them get where they need to be – to reach their goals, their targets

This list of 3 might be another definition of metacognition. What happens in a classroom that fosters these three criteria for success? According to Pellegrino et al, “Metacognitive skills can be taught. For example, people can learn mental devices that help them stay on task, monitor their own progress, reflect on their strengths and weakness, and self-correct errors.” That list really sounds a lot like what we talk about is necessary for our students to really learn. And it piggybacks nicely with Carol Dweck’s work on a growth mindset.

Formative assessment practices give us plenty of opportunity to foster both a growth mindset and metacognition in our students… and both set the stage for learning. Providing clear learning targets and success criteria help students know where they are going and give them a picture of quality. Teaching students to self-assess and monitor their progress give them the ability to make decisions about what they know, don’t know…and what they will do about it. When we as teachers set the stage for learning, we give students tools, resources and processes to help them plot their learning course. And we change both the culture in our classroom as well as what learning looks like.

Kathy Dyer is a Sr. Professional Development Content Specialist for Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), designing and developing learning opportunities for partners and internal staff. In a career that includes more than 20 years in the education field, she has also served as a district achievement coordinator, principal, and classroom teacher. Follow her on Twitter at @kdyer13.