In my blog series on the foundations of formative assessment, I’ve blogged on key components and the need for gap analysis, as well as the need for communication of assessment results. In this final post in the series, I’ll share some keys to effective communication.
The first key to effective communication lies in how teachers view the students’ role in the classroom. Teachers need to view students as partners in the learning process. Teachers can help students reach a “point of academic independence…by engaging students as partners in monitoring their own learning while it is unfolding” (Stiggins, 2014, p. 61). This mindset is essential as “there is a give-and-take between teachers and students that facilitates learning” (Frey and Fisher, 2011, p.4). For that “give-and-take” to occur and be effective, teachers must create a “learning-focused classroom culture” (Brookhart, 2013, p.105). A classroom culture that is focused on learning and not evaluation is key to allowing the communication that is essential in formative assessment to happen. “In a class where everything students produce…results in a score that contributes to the final grade, all assessments become summative assessments of learning, with associated motivational effects” (Chappuis et al., 2012, 297). If students believe that they are being continually evaluated, they are less willing to take risks, try new ideas, and listen to constructive criticism.
A second key to effective communication is to collect and maintain accurate information. The formative assessment process has many activities, “these activities require access to organized assessment information, some of which it makes sense for the teacher to track and some of which it makes sense for the student to track” (Chappuis et al., 2012, p.297). Furthermore, the information which is collected needs to be organized by learning targets and not by assignment. “With a system in place to differentiate formative from summative data, categories for types of evidence become less useful while categories that indicate the learning represented become more useful” (Chappuis et al., 2012, p. 312). Communication with students and parents about learning requires information about that learning and without a solid record keeping system that is focused on learning targets, that communication breaks down.
Furthermore, communicating with students about their progress and having student track their own progress increases motivation. “Knowing you have made progress toward a goal reinforces the value of effort. Incremental success leads to incremental growth in students’ confidence in their capabilities as learners, which promotes greater effort, which in turn leads to higher achievement (Chappuis, 2015, p. 269).
Students also need to be given opportunities to communicate about their learning. Communicating about learning includes providing students with forums to “self-assess and peer assess, holding student-led conferences to allow students to share what they know and their own progress, and providing still other opportunities for students to communicate about their own learning” (Chappuis, Commodore, & Stiggins, 2017, p. 68). When teachers become partners with students in increasing achievement, students also become partners with teachers in communicating about that achievement.
Another key to effective communication, is deciding “what of the assessment information…will be used formatively, and what will be used summatively” (Chappuis et al., 2012, p. 301). Students need to know which activities are assessments for learning which will be used by student and teacher to make decisions that move learning forward. Students also need to know which assessments will be used to certify learning and count toward the final grade. Knowing that an assignment is to be used formatively helps students know that they are in a classroom that is focused on learning.
Another key to effective communication is knowing that “grades do not function as effective feedback” (Chappuis et al., 2012, p. 30). Grades or points on an assignment do not communicate what a student did right or what they can do on the next assignment to improve. However, grades are a form of communication. Grades communicate with parents, “(e)mployers, other schools, athletic coaches and school advisors, scholarship committees, automobile insurers – the list goes on” (Chappuis et al., 2012, p. 332). Grades are the shorthand representation of a student’s learning; “the purpose of grades must be to communicate. Accurate, fair, and defensible academic grades communicate about student learning period” (Chappuis et al., 2012, p. 338). (Italics in original). Therefore, grades, to serve as an accurate method of communication, need to be based solely on the academic achievement of the student.
To effectively communicate it important to take the linguistic needs of students and parents into account. As teachers, we serve families from a variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds and often, the students are the only members of the family to speak or read English. In order to communicate with these families, the information that we send home needs to be translated into the student’s home language. (C)urriculum documents translated to everyday language and in a user-friendly format can be posted on the refrigerator at home, and help parents not only know what their children are learning but also support them in that effort” (Chappuis, Commodore, & Stiggins, 2017, p. 70). For families with different linguistic backgrounds, that “user-friendly format” must be in the home language. The communication home includes, but is not limited to, class syllabi and expectations, learning targets, learning progressions, tracking forms and portfolio documents that accompany examples of student work and growth.
The Purpose of and Need for Descriptive Feedback to Support Learning
The purpose of descriptive feedback, alongside clear learning targets, is to help students answer “the following questions while they are learning: Where am I going…Where am I now…How can I close the gap between the two?” (Royce Sadler, as cited in Stiggins, 2014, 61). Effective, descriptive feedback helps students answer these questions by giving them “a clear picture of how their performance looks, how others see it, what specific characteristics or qualities stand out, get in the way, or make the performance work well” (Stiggins, 2014, p. 65). Students need descriptive feedback to know where they are now in relation to the learning target. Effective, descriptive feedback also helps students know what they can do the next time to get better. This helps them close the gap.
Descriptive feedback is an important part supporting learning because, if a student does not know where they are in relation to the learning target, they do not know what they can do to improve. However, when students are provided with descriptive feedback, in a formative assessment classroom, they have a clearer idea of what they can do to increase their learning. “Whenever students interpret their performance to be below what they want in their record of achievements, they can be given the opportunity to study more, learn more, and retake that assessment” (Chappuis et al., 2012, p. 353).
Descriptive feedback can also help foster learning by providing the tools necessary for student self-reflection. When students are in a formative assessment environment and are used to regular, effective and descriptive feedback, they come to an understanding of themselves as learners. Teachers can further provide students with opportunities for self-assessment and providing their own feedback by giving them opportunities for self-reflection. Teachers “can nurture learning beyond the bounds of our targets if we allow students to think about themselves as learners and provide opportunities for them to dig a little deeper into what the learning means to them” (Chappuis et al., 2012, p. 372). Fostering and encouraging this kind of self-reflection helps students become more critical thinkers.
The Need for Feedback in the Formative Assessment Environment in Relationship to Student Growth
Formative assessment practices, when used correctly can help motivate students to greater efforts which lead to greater achievement. However, assessments and feedback, can also cause a student to react negatively which stops the learning. “(W)hen classroom assessment for learning features are missing or are done poorly, the result will be that learning stops” (Stiggins, 2014, p. 68). Feedback needs to be timely and occur during the learning in order to increase student growth. “The intent is to involve them in continuous self-monitoring so that they become aware of and come to feel in control of their own growth; it is to bring them to a place where they can say to themselves, ‘I’m not there yet, but I know where there is, and I am getting closer. I can do this!’ Fear and anxiety are replaced with confidence and persistence” (Chappuis, Commodore, & Stiggins, 2017, p.54). Feedback in a formative assessment environment lets students know where they are in relation to the learning target. This feedback aids students in the self-monitoring process which allows students to see their growth which, in turn, increases motivation and growth.
Students also need feedback from sources other than the teacher. Teachers need to use feedback and other methods to guide students to a place where they can accurately self-assess and assess their peers. “Teachers must make sure their students reach a level of understanding that enables them to evaluate their own work and come up with remedies and solutions as needed. Both in the classroom and beyond” (Stiggins, 2014, p.61). Feedback is an essential part of the practice of formative assessment which helps students become lifelong learners, capable of identifying areas of growth, resources and solutions on their own.
Students can also receive feedback from parents or other significant adults when they share portfolios or other forms of students tracking their learning and growth. “One immense benefit of students talking with their parents about their learning progress is that these conversations contribute to parents developing higher learning expectations for their children…parents’ hopes and expectations for children’s levels of achievement were the strongest contributing factor to high achievement across all home variables” (Chappuis, 2015, p. 292). When parents, or other significant adults see that students are achieving, their expectations increase and students receive feedback from this. This helps create a cycle of increased growth.
Plan for Providing Clear Communication and Feedback to Students and Parents
- Deconstruct learning targets and rewrite them in student-friendly language as necessary.
- Revise my system of grading to ensure that the grades that I assign students can “stand alone as an accurate representation of student achievement” (Chappuis et al., 2012, p. 332).
- Have my syllabus, learning progressions, student-growth tracking forms, portfolio documents and other communications with parents translated into Spanish and Tagalog by the district’s translation services.
- At the beginning of the school year, or when new students enter my class, check to see if any of those resources need to be translated into a different language. If so, send them to be translated.
- Communicate the difference between formative assessments and summative assessments and how formative assessments are designed to increase learning and summative assessments are designed to certify learning. Communicate these ideas in student-friendly language both orally and in writing on the class syllabus.
- Explain orally and in writing how grades for the course are determined.
- Communicate learning targets and learning progressions to students and parents in written form.
- Provide ongoing, descriptive feedback orally, in written form, or both as needed.
- Plan opportunities for students to self-assess and peer-assess.
- Create record keeping system to track both formative and summative information.
- Decide which information that is tracked by the teacher and which information is tracked by the student.
- Have students create growth portfolios
- Designate a physical place in the classroom for students to keep growth tracking forms and portfolios.
- Use self-reflection prompts with student-growth tracking forms and portfolios to encourage metacognitive thinking.
- Build in opportunities for students to share their learning progress with their parents or other significant adults.
References for this blog series:
Assessment Literacy Making Sense of k-12 Assessment for Learning. (2017). Student
Empowerment for Moving Learning Forward. Retrieved from
Brookhart, S. (2013). How to Create and Use Rubrics. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Chappuis, J. (2015). Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning, 2nd edition. Boston, MA: Pearson
Chappuis, S., Commodore, C., Stiggins, R., (2017). Balanced Assessment Systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin
Chappuis, J., Stiggins, R., Chappuis, S., Arter, J. (2012). Classroom Assessment for Student Learning, 2nd edition. Boston, MA: Pearson
Frey, N., Fisher D. (2011). The Formative Assessment Action Plan. Alexandria, VA: ACSD
Stiggins, R. (2007). Assessment Through the Student’s Eyes. Educational Leadership, Vol.64(8), p.22-26
Stiggins, R. (2014). Revolutionize Assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin
Witte, R. H. (2010). Assessment Literacy in Today’s Classroom. Retrieved from https://www.education.com/reference/article/assessment-literacy-todays-classroom/.