Insights and strategies to design formative assessment that “counts”
Angela Mastracci is as passionate about formative assessment as she is expert at it. Angela first started pondering its importance when she was a fashion design teacher at Cégep Marie-Victorin. In 2008, she became an education consultant at the same college. Even though she retired from this position in 2017, Angela is still very much active professionally, teaching PERFORMA courses and leading AQPC workshops on the topic. I had a chat with Angela about successfully embedding formative assessment in a course.
What sparked your interest in formative assessment?
Angela: When I was a CEGEP teacher, one day it dawned upon me that something wasn’t “quite right” in my classroom:
- I realized that I was actually working harder than my students.
- I would spend countless hours analyzing their work to give them feedback.
- When I returned my comments to the students, they would sometimes feel perplexed or overwhelmed.
This is when I realized I wasn’t going about assessment the right way. Through commenting so many projects, I was becoming more of an expert on the course matter myself, instead of my students. I felt that I was not playing the right role. Students should learn about the evaluation criteria, understand them and apply them to themselves or others. I needed to train and guide them through this process. This involved changing not only my own mindset, but also that of my students.
Designing efficient formative assessment starts from within. As a teacher, you have to believe in its benefits to engage students and shake the notion that they will only work if they receive a grade.
What do you consider to be the key elements of successful formative assessment?
Angela: The core function of formative assessment is to help students progress in their learning, not to evaluate them by giving them a grade. That is just a means to an end. In his book Embedded Formative Assessment (2011), Dylan William stresses how this actively involves both teachers and students.
- Students, by getting feedback on their learning, understand where they’re going and how they can get better.
- The teacher also receives feedback – whether directly or indirectly – on what’s working in the classroom, and what isn’t. This helps in making adjustments to the lesson plan.
An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction […].
Do you consider formative assessment to be a tool or a process?
Angela: I see it as a process that comprises a great many different tools. These can be informal or formal in nature. Formal formative evaluations include the infamous “tests that don’t count.” I believe informal formative assessment is just as important because it allows the teacher to elicit evidence of their students’ learning in more authentic contexts. “Embedding” assessment means planning it in such a way that it engages students without explicitly placing them in an evaluation context.
This starts long before the actual activity, by questioning yourself on its learning objectives:
- What do I want my students to learn?
- What does good work look like?
- What indicators am I looking for?
- How can my students become self-critical, and recognize mistakes or shortcomings?
Asking these questions helped me to come up with the appropriate tools. You may need to do some experimenting. Depending on your students’ profiles, you may need to use a different tool with different groups or individuals even if they go through the same process. There is no magical formula.
How can we make sure all that meticulous planning turns into successful formative assessment in the classroom?
Angela: In workshops, teachers often ask me, “how do I deal with students that are absent, not engaged, or disruptive?” This will affect the experience planned, so you must have a plan B and be firm about your class management.
- Don’t allow students to opt out. Preparation becomes a student’s entry ticket to class.
- If teamwork is involved, put students that come unprepared or that are absent into one team.
- Give them feedback, but only once they have submitted their work.
This gives students responsibility over the opportunities they seize. As a teacher, you can then concentrate on those students who are there, present and prepared. I always implement a plan B with a smile. It should set a positive example, not be a negative learning experience.
Technology use has been associated with instant gratification while the learning process requires mindfulness. To what extent do you think these 2 concepts are compatible?
Angela: Technology is like any other tool or strategy we use in the classroom:
- It should serve a specific purpose or objective.
- It should never be the focal point of what’s going on (unless that is the purpose of the lesson).
- It shouldn’t hinder learning, but rather make it fun or easier.
- It should engage the student in a deeper, more concentrated way, so learning will be enhanced.
- It should be within the teacher’s comfort zone to use it effectively.
If you come across new technology you’d like to experiment with, you should first consider what objective it can be linked with.
- Why would I use this in a class?
- How is it going to enhance my students’ learning?
All formative assessment has to be centered around students’ learning. It should also generate a positive learning environment. Technology can support this by:
- Taking the edge off competition with game-like elements
- Making tasks more fun or engaging
- Making assessment quicker or more effective
Are you ready for change?
In conclusion, Angela emphasizes the importance of shifting one’s mindset from a traditional teach-evaluate-grade approach to embedding evaluation into the learning process to make formative assessment meaningful and effective for teachers and students alike. Her own experience taught her to be patient, keep changes simple, and experiment within your comfort zone.
In a follow-up article, Angela focuses on 2 essential parts of the formative assessment process: eliciting evidence of students’ learning and providing feedback. She also shares hands-on tips on integrating ICT tools into your assessment strategy.