Math Teaching Strategy that Improves Teaching and Learning

Formative assessment is all about improving teaching and learning. Most commonly, the term is used to describe how teachers use data on student performance to improve their teaching. Not only do well designed formative assessments provide teachers with great information on their students’ performance, they also help support the students in their learning process. Well designed formative assessments can directly help students by providing feedback and informing their participation through interaction with the assessments. Before diving into this student centered definition of formative assessment, we start with describing the most common benefit of formative assessment: data that informs instruction.

Classroom Activities to Know What Students Know

Knowing what students know is an essential component of teaching. It is equally important to use this data to inform instruction. This data can come in many forms. Exit tickets and warmups fall into what is called short-cycle formative assessment, as do class discussions. Warm up activities and admit slips help provide data to teachers on what students are thinking so that the teacher can differentiate and provide appropriate scaffolds for students in that day's lesson. By giving a ticket out the door, teachers can quickly gain insight into what students are thinking in regards to that day’s lesson; this data can be used to inform the next day’s instruction. 

Short Cycle vs. Long Cycle

Short cycle formative assessment can also be quick self assessments or check-ins like a thumbs up, thumbs down, thumbs to the side to poll how students are feeling or thinking about a particular subject. Discrete check-in polls, where students hold their responses “close to their hearts”, helps prevent the influence of their peers and also encourages them to speak from the heart. 

Formative assessments can also span the course of an instructional day or longer. Long cycle formative assessments let teachers collect data and modify instruction throughout the course of the assessment. By offloading some of the instructional work onto a worksheet, manipulative, or digital simulation (have you tried PhET Sims for Math?) teachers are freed up to provide more personalized instruction. Collected work still provides data on student thinking and the assessment can show how that thinking changed over the course of the class or unit.

If teachers were doctors, formative assessments to gather data on student thinking would be the diagnosis. What if the process of diagnosis actually could be an active step towards recovery, not just a necessary antecedent? With well designed and implemented formative assessment, this is possible. In learning how our students learn, we can simultaneously provide them with meaningful experiences that move them forward and support their learning process.

As we see it, formative assessments provide data that mediate and inform the student, the teacher, or both in the learning process. This more broad definition is helpful because it helps us use formative assessments to provide students with the opportunity to mediate their own learning experience, making the assessment instructional and informative.

Five Characteristics of Formative Assessment

This combined student and teacher perspective on formative assessment is apparent in Dylan Wiliam and Marnie Thompson’s five characteristics of formative assessment. 

  1. Clarifying and sharing learning intentions and criteria for success;
  2. Engineering effective classroom discussions and other learning tasks that elicit evidence of student understanding;
  3. Providing feedback that moves learners forward;
  4. Activating students as instructional resources for one another; and
  5. Activating students as the owners of their own learning.

These five principles move well beyond the traditional definition of assessment to inform instruction. Strong formative assessments can help make the pathways to success more clear, allowing students to use feedback to become agents of their own learning. Classroom discussions are a great way to do this since teachers gain understandings of student thinking and also can mediate their responses to help make the directions and goals more clear.

The five principles are definitely an ideal. Here at Woot Math, we hope to bridge this perspective on formative assessment with the more traditional, assessment to inform instruction approach, making data on student thinking accessible to teachers while also informing how students learn and participate in the classroom.

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