Part 3: But What Does Formative Assessment LOOK Like?

In our previous two blogs, we unpacked what formative assessment actually is, what it isn’t, and what’s missing. We haven’t touched much on what it really looks like, however. With a simple “formative assessment tools” search on the internet, you can quickly see that there are hundreds of ways to incorporate it into your instruction. But are these truly formative in nature? Are these assessment strategies giving you the whole picture?

Some common examples of “formative assessment tools” are:

  • Video discussion platforms where students can respond to questions or each other using quick videos
  • Quiz tools: there are many out there that provide teachers with quick data on student comprehension
  • Survey/polling tools allow teachers to gauge student interest, understanding, and questions in a quick and visible fashion
  • Digital discussion platforms give students an interactive way to engage in conversations with their peers

We absolutely believe that there is value in such tools as listed above. However, by themselves, they cannot give teachers the full scope of what formative assessment should be. A comprehensive formative assessment tool should hit each element of the definition from Gregory Cizek that we highlighted in our previous post, What’s Missing in Formative Assessment. According to Cizek, a formative assessment tool should provide information that supports inferences made by both student and teacher on learning; identify strengths and weaknesses; inform instructional planning; improve student understanding and achievement; and help students become more aware and self-regulated learners.

But then, we’re back to the question, “What does that look like?”

In the classroom, teachers are making inferences on their students’ learning every day. They are seeing the interactions their students are having with concepts and ideas, listening to their questions, looking for patterns of strengths and weaknesses, and making decisions based on these observations. The ideal formative assessment tool should be able to emulate those observations and synthesize them in a way that both teachers and students can understand and use to inform instructional needs. All of the types of tools we described above give some type of information that can be used to infer how students are learning, whether it’s incorrect answers on a quiz, well-articulated thoughts in a discussion, or a common question in a survey. 

Perhaps the most common uses of formative assessment are to inform instructional planning and to identify strengths and weaknesses. Many teachers do this on a regular basis with any combination of tools that they use to gather data from their students. It’s rather easy to look at the results of an online quiz; seeing how many questions students are missing, which questions have the lowest percentage of correct answers, and any patterns of standards or question-types that caused the most trouble. On both the class level and the individual level, teachers can begin to see patterns of strengths and weaknesses of their students. Effective educators don’t take this information at face value but reflect on how they can further challenge where students are exceeding and support them where they are struggling. Identifying these areas will in turn cause teachers to reflect on their own instruction as well. 

Those are the easier elements of this ideal model of a formative assessment tool. The most challenging part is the student component. How would a resource or program be able to help students become more self-aware and self-regulated in their learning? We believe that it can be summarized in P.R. Pintrich’s model of self-regulated learners which we talk about in part 2 of this blog series. 

Ideally, students will have room to move through all four phases within a formative assessment. Give them time and space to plan and activate their knowledge through features like brainstorming, graphic organizers, or basic discussions on a topic. Simple pop-up questions or places where students can jot down their thoughts can help them monitor their progress and ideas. Creating options for student choice on different levels within a program will give them a degree of control. Allowing them to leave feedback or reflect on their own performance will complete the final phase. 

Programs, tools, and resources that can meet all of these needs will give educators and students a more complete picture of student learning. It may seem like a huge undertaking or very time-consuming to check off all the boxes, but that is why true formative assessment is not a single product or isolated test. It should be part of a process that is ongoing and informative for both teacher and student. We are looking at all of these components as we build MI Compass to be a well-developed comprehensive formative assessment tool that will support the needs of educators and their students. To make sure we do, we invite you to be a part of our team. We’d love to have you provide insight into your classroom experience so MI Compass can truly tackle the needs of your classroom.

To read the beginning of our Navigating Formative Assessment blog series, visit our Compass blog page!