Monday, May 14, 2012

Formative assessment in action

University teachers tend not to be explicit about the formative assessment techniques they use. In fact, there are many who don't use the term at all when describing their practice.
Formative assessment is any learning activity that will assist the teacher to identify deficiencies in student learning to date, design future learning tasks to address these deficiencies, and provide students with feedback that will assist them to improve their performance in summative assessment activities. Formative assessment may be marked, but that mark will not count towards a final grade. It's one of the most useful strategies employed by effective teachers in any part of the sector. It helps teachers to monitor their own effectiveness, and to monitor the progress of their students.
So, if you've ever reached the end of a teaching session - a lecture, a tutorial, a seminar, a class, or some other form of lesson - and wondered whether your students have actually grasped the points you intended them to learn, you need to introduce some formative assessment. Here are a few techniques that will give you feedback on your teaching and on how well students have learnt the lesson you were teaching. You might discover that some quite unexpected things are happening in your class - both inspirational and horrifying. It's always best to know.
  1. The Minute Paper: Towards the end of the session, ask students to spend five minutes answering two questions:
    • What was the most important thing you learnt during this class?
    • What important question remains unanswered?
  2. The Muddiest Point: Towards the end of the session, or at the end of a section, ask students to spend five minutes answering the question "What was the muddiest point in ___ ?".
  3. RSQC2: Students write brief statements that recall, summarize, question, connect, and comment on key points from a session.
  4. Pro & Con Grid: Students list the pros/cons, costs/benefits, or advantages/disadvantages of an issue or question in a two-column format.
Collect the papers on occasion, and respond to them at the beginning of your next session with the students, in whatever way seems appropriate. At other times, simply invite students to make brief comments themselves at the beginning of the next class before moving on.

Variations on these techniques can be found in a range of different texts.

Directed Paraphrasing

This is a technique I encountered in an old booklet called Class Assessment Techniques: a handbook for faculty, by K. Patricia Cross and Tom Angelo, and have adapted slightly for this posting.

The activity is designed to test "the degree to which students have understood and internalized a given lecture or reading by [evaluating] their ability to summarize and restate the lesson in their own words". That sounds a bit bland, but think further on this later comment by the authors: "much of a student's eventual success depends on his or her ability to first internalize rather specialized and often complex information and then effectively communicate it". Are you the kind of person who understands something better once you have taught it to someone else? Me too.

This is a very authentic learning activity which mirrors the kinds of skills that students will need once they enter the workplace.

So here's what you do.
  1. Select a point in your course - perhaps after a major reading assignment, lecture, or seminar.
  2. Decide on an appropriate audience for the students, and how much speaking time they will need. Choose a non-expert audience. For example, if they are psychology students, they might be asked to describe a counselling technique to a group of teachers; if they are accountants, they might be asked to describe a change in the tax law to a client; and if they are medical students, they might be asked to describe a surgical technique to the parents of a child about to undergo an operation.
  3. Provide the audience with feedback sheets. Each feedback sheet should include the following:
    • an overall rating presented as a set of boxes to tick:
      • confusing
      • mininally understandable
      • adequately outlined
      • excellent explanation
    • space for members of the audience to record comments about the best aspects of the presentation
    • space for members of the audience to record comments about the worst aspects of the presentation
  4. If you have time, for each presentation, put the speaker in a group with his or her audience, and give them time to talk about the best and worst aspects of the presentation. You might need to provide guidance on the best way to provide useful feedback without destroying confidence. Alternatively, you as teacher can collect these evaluation sheets, go through and summarize them, add your own comments, and return them to the speaker.
Make sure that students do present the material in the role they have been allocated (and that they don't merely read out a pre-prepared script from a cheatsheet or a PowerPoint slide). Encourage them to use metaphor and examples, to draw on the board or on a piece of paper, and to check understanding with their audience to ensure that the main points are getting across.

Further reading:

Cross, K. Patricia & Angelo, Thomas A. (1988). Classroom Assessment Techniques: a handbook for faculty. Michigan: National Center for Research to Improve Postsecondary Teaching and Learning.

I found a copy on the web at, courtesy of my University's libary database subscriptions, but more recent and much more beautiful editions can be purchased from all the usual places.