Feeling my way with formative assessment

Assessment for learning.  It’s not such a novel idea, but it’s one that I have been exploring more fully of late.  For too long, my assessment has been about reward and catch: reward the hard working, diligent souls, and catch the little buggers who aren’t doing their work.  Again, not a novel idea, but also not one that has much to do with real learning.

We all do formative assessment every day, every time we speak to students, every time we lean over a desk and offer encouragement or constructive criticism.  However, we high school teachers tend to put way too much focus on summative assessment, the kind that an be scary and stressful for many students.  And, when they know they will be marked, they are less likely to take risks.

I fell in love with formative assessment with my international baccalaureate classes.  For the most part, they are internally motivated to learn, so I could hand back assignments with feedback only, and they would still do the work.  In fact, they often asked for feedback only, because it took the pressure off.  It also took the pressure off me, because I find it much easier to give feedback without a mark.

So I decided to use more formative assessment with my regular classes, but I was not so sure it would work.   Would these students do assignments that would not contribute their averages?  I was pretty sure most wouldn’t.  But I dove in anyway, and was pleasantly surprised!  My students told me they like it because it takes the pressure off.   When I just give feedback and no mark, they felt freer to take risks.

Did it work for all of them?  Did they all pass in their formative assignments?  No.  But a great many of them did.  I learned a very important lesson:  don’t be afraid of failure.  Kind of ironic that this is a message I give my kids every day, but I wasn’t always following it myself!

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