April 20, 2017

By Dr. Chris Balow

Imagine that, as an educator, you had zero insight into the skills or knowledge of your students. Now imagine that, as a student, you were unsure of your own capabilities. Clearly, it would be difficult to provide effective instruction in a classroom where neither the teacher nor the students had any idea of the students’ current skill level or needs.

With the correct tools and resources, however, both teachers and learners can gain deep insight into what the learners know and can do. As a result, teachers can implement interventions and processes to improve instruction.

In this blog, I’ll take a detailed look at formative evaluations, including common myths and facts, along with the five critical steps to effectively implement the process in the classroom.

What is formative evaluation?

Simply stated, formative evaluation—which is also referred to as formative assessment—is a process that helps to improve student learning. The process includes tasks selected by educators with the intention of providing greater insight into what students know and can do. With the information obtained through formative evaluation, teachers can enhance their understanding of how they should proceed with instruction.

Let’s consider an analogy. Imagine being on a sports team that’s competing in the Olympics. You know your team is physically capable of performing at the highest level, but your coach decides to cancel all practices and scrimmages. Instead, the coach thinks the official tournament is what matters and wants your team to save its energy for that day.

You’re probably thinking this is problematic. How will your team know where they stand in relation to the competition? How does your team know if they’re prepared?

Formative evaluation is much like the practices or scrimmages leading up to big games. It helps students measure their performance and realize what they still need to practice.

This type of assessment for learning—rather than simply assessing learning as it relates to meeting state or district standards—serves as an instructional guide during the learning process. As students gain better insight into their learning, they can take ownership of their performance and feel a greater sense of success mapped to their efforts.

Using formative evaluation the right way can also yield rich diagnostic information and establish a clear learning progression for students, regardless of their current mastery.

In this regard, formative evaluation becomes indistinguishable from teaching and learning as these processes become integrated.

students working on tablet

Myths and facts around formative evaluation

Formative evaluations can make a big difference in the classroom. Evidence shows that high-quality formative evaluations have a powerful impact on student learning, with an effect size on standardized tests of between 0.4 and 0.7. This effect size, in other words, ranges from “moderate” to “strong”—a home run in the world of treatment effects.

However, there are still some common myths surrounding formative evaluation that could be helpful to explain in order to understand exactly what formative evaluation looks like.

Myths about formative evaluation

Here are three of the most common myths about formative evaluation:

  1. Formative evaluation is not about recalling facts. Understanding and applying skills and knowledge go much deeper than simple recall. With formative evaluation, educators are not simply looking at how well students perform on a test. Instead, educators are looking at whether students understand the underlying concepts and can apply their learning in new contexts.
  2. Formative evaluation is not just administering a lot of quizzes. Instead, giving a lot of quizzes just means you’re giving a lot of shorter-term summative assessments. That is, unless you’re using these quizzes as data to inform your teaching and your students about their learning.
  3. Formative evaluation is not determined by the size of the assessment, but by how the assessment is being used.

Facts about formative evaluation

Here are three important facts about formative evaluation to keep in mind:

  1. Formative evaluations must be given frequently throughout the learning process to gain sufficient data for decision making.
  2. Formative evaluations must be directly related to skills or knowledge. They should be about what students need to know and be able to do. Formative evaluations must directly relate to specific skills and learning targets students are working on and the content they’re learning.
  3. Formative evaluations are specific in the type of feedback provided. In fact, grades are not important in formative evaluation—how students understand the learning target or demonstrate mastery of the skills is far more important. What is critical is that students must have a clear understanding of how they’re doing and where they need to go, based on interaction with and feedback from the teacher.

Different assessments that can be used for formative evaluation

There are many types of assessments commonly used in schools that can have a formative application—meaning, the action that is taken after the assessment to help improve student learning:

  1. Universal screener
  2. Lesson quiz
  3. Entrance ticket
  4. Exit ticket
  5. Chapter exam
  6. Progress monitoring tools
  7. Interim assessment
  8. State assessment

In the following sections, I’ll explain how to best use assessment data in a formative manner.

Maximize formative evaluation

Discover tools from Renaissance to simplify and streamline the formative assessment process.

5 critical steps of formative evaluation

The idea of formative evaluation and the evidence that shows its positive effect should be intriguing to educators. In fact, the impact of formative evaluation is larger than most other educational interventions, as I mentioned earlier.

But how can educators apply the process of formative evaluation in the classroom? Follow these critical steps to help guide the formative evaluation process:

#1: Indicate how students are moving toward proficiency of a standard

The skills and knowledge associated with the standard need to be clear and attainable. While all students need to be moving toward the same target, certain students can be working on a certain set of skills while others are working on more advanced skills.

Students should also know where they are on the learning continuum—i.e., they know the target. With formative evaluations, students must know where they are in relation to what needs to be accomplished, which should be directly related to the standard.

If you have a learning progression, and the students know what that looks like, then formative evaluations will let them know what comes next. This will give them the context they need to understand why they’re working on specific tasks. For example, they’ll be able to see that if they don’t know skill A, then they won’t be able to do skill B.

#2: Identify the current level of understanding in relation to expectations

Effective formative evaluations should provide a clear understanding of the skills that students are weak in, and if there are misunderstandings. Research tells us that if students misunderstand a concept, they will need approximately 150% more time and effort to unlearn and then relearn it.

For this reason, formative evaluations should not just look at what we taught yesterday or today, but assess concepts and knowledge that students should have developed that are essential to understand current teaching. It may even be necessary to review or re-teach concepts that should have been mastered at previous grade levels.

In general, formative evaluations should provide a clear picture of what gaps exist between what students currently know and what they need to learn in order to reach the next level.

#3: Provide specific and appropriate feedback

This is arguably the most important element of formative evaluations. The feedback should give the student a sense of what has been achieved—and also highlight areas that need improvement.

Just telling students where they are, what they have accomplished, and so forth doesn’t mean that they have internalized those statements. Students need you to discuss this feedback with them to understand that they know all of these things. After discussing feedback, students should be able to make statements such as:

  • “Right now, I know how to…”
  • “Next, I need to work on…”
  • “I have to be able to…before I can move on to…”

Further research shows that prompt oral feedback is most effective as an element of formative evaluation and that general statements, like “good job”, are not effective as formative evaluation. It should also be noted that feedback needs to be given promptly, because formative evaluations are not effective if students receive feedback on assessment days or weeks later.

#4: Engage students in the process

The use of formative evaluations provides a great opportunity for students to become actively involved in their learning. Formative evaluations allow students to know more about their learning than almost any other technique that educators use. The constant flow of data is essential if students are to see themselves as a partner in their learning.

An important part of formative evaluation is that students acquire the vocabulary necessary to communicate with other students about their learning. If students know where they are and where they are going, then they have some of the skills necessary to help other students in that process. The great thing is that with this comes a sense of shared responsibility, making everyone a part of learning.

According to the US Department of Education, students should track and monitor their learning to improve achievement. They can only do this if they:

  • Know what that learning target is
  • Know where they are now
  • Know where they need to go

This is all a part of formative evaluation.

#5: Provide time, support, and instruction so students can adjust, implement, and process their learning

The third element that supports improved achievement is to follow direct instruction with time for students to practice and apply what they have learned, with support from the teacher.

Once an assessment is given, students should have time to practice. The natural inclination is to move forward because of everything that needs to be covered each school year. But if formative evaluations are going to be successful, we need to go slow before going fast.

We should also use the formative evaluation data to clarify misconceptions, as noted above. If we know almost immediately that students don’t fully understand a specific concept, then the material needs to be clarified at that moment. The longer a misunderstanding stays in a child’s mind, the longer it will take to adjust their thinking.

Before moving on, perform instructional reflection. Use your discussions with students to review what has been taught. Engage students in that conversation and make sure the discussion revolves around the target originally established by the standard.

father helping daughter with assignment

Using formative evaluation in the classroom

There are formal resources and assessments to help gather data and analyze student learning. However, there are also simple ways to implement formative evaluation processes in the classroom to help both educators and learners assess knowledge and understanding.

Try implementing these processes into your classroom:

  1. One-minute check-in: Check in with every student for one minute a day to assess how they are feeling about their tasks.
  2. One-minute paper: Give students one minute to write a rapid-fire paper on a given topic to demonstrate their depth of knowledge as quickly as possible.
  3. Ask three things: Ask students to quickly list three things they want to know about a topic, or three things they are currently struggling to understand about the topic.
  4. 3-2-1 reflection: Have students write down three big ideas from what they’ve learned, two reflective comments, and one question they still have.
  5. 3x summarization: Have students summarize a topic in three ways: in 10–15 words, then in 30–50 words, and finally in 75–100 words. As the word count increases, students should add more depth and detail to their summarization to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the topic.
  6. 5 W’s and 1 H: Have students write down who, what, when, where, why, and how to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic.
  7. Anonymous feedback box: Have a box in your classroom where students can place anonymous comments about what they’re struggling with. This allows students to share their concerns without fear, and it helps educators to “crowdsource” information about where students might be struggling.
  8. Brainstorming: Place students in groups, and have each group write down key questions and brainstorm ways to answer that question.
  9. Five whys: Have students ask “why” five times to see if they can get to the root of their understanding of a topic.
  10. Flashcards: Use flashcards to have students answer questions midway through a unit to check their understanding.
  11. Flip charts: Have students get into groups and write everything they know cumulatively about a topic onto a flip chart and present it to the class.
  12. KWL charts: Ask students to write down what they know (K), what they want to know (W), and what they learned in a lesson (L) on a chart. This will help you to structure follow-up lessons based on students’ feedback.

Utilize formative evaluation tools with Renaissance

Without formative evaluations, educators are unable to evaluate and assess the quality of the learning that is taking place in their classrooms. How could they know how a student is evolving as a learner or what they can do to help a student be successful?

Using formative evaluations the right way can yield a lot of rich diagnostic information, and establish a clear learning progression for your students, regardless of their current mastery.

Renaissance offers several formative evaluation tools that can be used to help both educators and students understand student performance.

Whether you’re looking for …

  • A short-cycle assessment
  • Diagnostic assessment
  • Progress monitoring tools
  • Universal screeners

… or something else, Renaissance has the resources to help. Connect with an expert today to learn more about Renaissance assessments for pre-K–grade 12 learners.

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