ResearchED: session 1

Nik Booth on formative assessment. 

What is formative assessment?

It’s using judgment about quality of student work that is used to shape student competencies: moving learning forward, but not only the teacher’s job (Sadler). Nik talks us through some other definitions, since there is no single agreed one. The key thing is that is has to be used to improve teaching/learning. It doesn’t involve giving out marks, levels or grades (though marks can be formative for the teacher, who can then plan based on who scored what). It doesn’t compare students. It just focuses on what should happen next in the learning process. It is responsive teaching, and responsive learning. 

Why hasn’t it worked in schools? Probably because people don’t completely understand what should happen. Confusion between formative and summative. 

Nik shares a 1988 study which showed that comments had an impact of 30% improvement in achievement where grades alone had none. This same study showed that comments and grades also had no impact, because students ignore the comments and instead focus on ranking themselves against other students. They are more interested in the consequences of the grade, says Kohn (1994), rather than making improvements. 

How can we make formative assessment better in our schools? 

Learning intentions are important and can be powerful, but they can be tricky to write. Shirley Clarke (2005) says it probably shouldn’t include context of task, as this makes it less transferable. So, “To write a letter” rather than “To write a letter to the local council”. But also – it should be the learning, not the activity.  The above then becomes, “To be able to write persuasively” for example. 

Success criteria. Product and process, says Clarke, but process is the more important. Students need to know how to move forward and this should be explicitly clear. 

Hinge questioning helps provide quality feedback to shape the next stage in the learning. Using multiple choice questions where the other choices tackle common misconceptions (the 3 truths and a lie quizzes I wrote for the old GCSE often did this) – just one in the middle of the lesson, with a response from every student, eg using flashcards, is enough. Nik talks us through some examples from other subjects. 

Feedback – common on task, process, self-regulation and self. Whatever feedback you give must cause thinking. Peer, self – can be powerful because students become insiders in the learning process. Problem: it is often done at the end of the lesson, making it less useful. It should happen within the lesson if we want to grow self-regulated learners. 

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