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Highly Effective Assessment from a Distance, Part 1: Formative Assessment

“For teachers, as well as students, the most effective evaluation comes from someone who sits beside us and helps us grow.”

-Carol Ann Tomlinson, “The Evaluation of my Dreams,” Educational Leadership, 2012



If we are assessing students the same way in 2020 as we did in previous school years, then we are at risk of doing our students a disservice in a distance learning environment. At the same time, if we forego authentic assessments, then we are not fulfilling our responsibility to provide a world-class educational experience for our students. To resolve this conflict, we really need to grapple with the Big Questions: Why do we assess students? How will we assess students given our unique scenario? We don’t have all of the answers, but we’ll go ahead and offer our perspective in hopes it will be useful to teachers everywhere.

The priorities for educators in a distance teaching scenario are the same as in-person: first, forging positive teacher-student relationships and wellness; second, learning; and third, assessment and feedback. As we develop our online assessment practices, we should frequently check to make sure they align with our priorities.


The primary goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning so that teachers can provide ongoing precise feedback to students and tailor their instruction to meet the needs of their students and improve their learning.


There should be far more formative assessments than summative assessments in our assessment regimen.


All assessments collect data that we should use to inform our instruction. We just might find out that our initial attempt at teaching a topic was not effective for some of our students, and that we need to reteach the topic in a different way. At the end of the day, if we are not adjusting our instruction and providing precise feedback after an assessment, then we are only assessing students to rank them by giving them number grades. While that’s typically a by-product of summative assessments, it’s not a primary purpose. It’s also a good time for us to reflect upon how that practice aligns with our highest ideals.


Is now the time to replace grades with narrative feedback that sparks further exploration?


In addition to checking in on academic learning, we have a special responsibility during the upcoming school year to assess students’ social and emotional well-being and their overall distance learning experience. Simple questions can prompt students to share their feedback:

  • How are you doing today?

  • How are your peers doing?

  • What learning activities are working best in your classes?

  • What’s not working so well?

  • What teaching/learning activities would you recommend?

How do we ensure that students, especially those making the difficult transition to high school in a distance learning scenario, feel supported and consistently hopeful of ultimate success in your course?


This is a timeless truth in all teaching environments, but especially so in a distance teaching scenario: We should focus more on robust dialogue, both oral and written, and less on grades. This doesn’t have to mean your online course will be less rigorous than an in-person course, but it does require us to recognize that grades have nothing to do with rigor. True rigor is a measure of the academic challenge posed by the questions presented in a course, not the class average on a test or quiz. Focusing less on grades is NOT a matter of compromising your integrity.


Formative assessment and rapid feedback should be our primary focus, and it may actually be easier in a distance teaching environment. There are so many online tools available to check for understanding. It is important to have both routines and variety to keep it interesting, so start with one or two early in the school year and add new ones as the year progresses.


Make sure the online formative assessment tools you use fit your purpose. The chat feature of your videoconferencing platform and a discussion board can provide a solid foundation. If you need to check the content knowledge of your students, try Kahoot or Quizlet. If you need to see students’ thought process, select a tool that can demonstrate that, such as Animoto or Flipgrid. There are always new formative assessment tools coming out, so utilize the expertise of your colleagues, your students, and an online Professional Learning Community to stay current.


Conversing with students remains the most powerful and meaningful way to check for student wellness and understanding, even in 2020. To the extent that it is possible, utilizing this timeless and proven method during synchronous sessions should be maximized. Use whole-class discussions to get students talking and small group conversations or interviews with 3 - 4 students at a time to accurately assess their learning and provide nuanced feedback with a real human connection.


In advance of the lesson, create a list of targeted questions to ask students to ensure that you are observing evidence that students are meeting the learning objectives of the lesson.


Sequence the questions to bring out deeper learning and evidence. Start with questions that determine students’ knowledge base and reading comprehension of specific details about the specific topics. As the discussion progresses, ask more meaningful questions that deepen student understanding of new concepts and spark students’ desire to learn more. Then prompt students to make an authentic claim. Follow that with questions that require students to provide evidence defending their claim. This is the foundation of academic argument.


Instruction and assessment are both on-going processes, not events that have a definite beginning and ending. It’s important to collect evidence of learning over time. Online portfolios, discussion boards, and journals are two great ways to do this in a remote teaching environment. Video tools like Marco Polo and Flipgrid can be utilized to introduce a human element to the assessment process.


Give Feedback that is Kind, Specific, and Helpful. When checking for understanding, it’s a lost opportunity if we do not communicate feedback. As a teacher, you can provide written and/or verbal to your students. In any case, if your feedback is kind it will overcome one of our natural human responses to feedback that is deeply embedded in our DNA - threat perception. If we begin the feedback process by ensuring it is perceived within a safe domain, the student response to it will be much more productive. By focusing on a specific area to improve upon, and closing with a commitment to offer continued support as the student works to address the specific feedback they received, the student will know that we are an authentic partner in their learning.



As the school year progresses, and after you have modeled and explicitly taught students how to provide effective feedback, you can put students in breakout groups to provide feedback to one another. They will need clear feedback rules (Summary: Be Kind, Be Specific, Be Helpful).


Teachers and students would both benefit from learning how to give and receive feedback well.

  • Begin by asking an entry question that announces feedback is about to occur, and prepares the brain to receive it. The question is designed to elicit what is known as a “micro Yes”. For example, “I have some ideas for how we can improve our understanding of __________________. Would you mind if I share them with you?”

  • Avoid “Blur Words” which can mean different things to different people. They are not specific. Great feedback givers refer to specific data points that they have identified prior to the conversation. For example, instead of saying, “I can’t trust you.” they say, “You said you would email me your work by 11 am and I still don’t have it yet.” Specificity is also vital when giving positive feedback.

  • Effective feedback givers include an impact statement that identifies the impact of the data point you identified. For example, “I wanted to grade the entire classes assignment at the same time so that I could be as consistent as possible, and I wasn’t able to do that because you didn’t turn it in on time.” or “Your elaboration on this point was so specific and accurate that it really demonstrated that you deeply understand the concept. Well done!”

  • Great feedback givers close their feedback with a question such as, “How do you see it?” or “What are your thoughts on this?” The question creates commitment in the feedback receiver because it points the conversation to become a joint problem-solving session. Finally, great feedback givers not only communicate feedback well, they regularly ask for feedback. Research shows that you should not wait to receive unsolicited feedback (push feedback) from your students. Instead you should “pull” feedback from them on an on-going basis.

  • For more details on providing great feedback, we would encourage you to invest a few minutes in watching the following Ted Talk: The Secret to Effective Feedback

Stay tuned for Part 2 on Summative Assessment...


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