Everything Formative.

Back in the heyday of my addiction to point collection I would look over my columns of neatly entered numbers with pride and deep satisfaction. More columns proved I knew EXACTLY how the students were doing and like a heart monitor on a dying patient, the data could tell me the exact line between life and death…beep, beep, beep…

The final number my computer spit out WAS mathematically based (numbers had been entered, weighted and averaged correctly) but the number failed to accurately represent the student who was walking out the door of the course. In fact I had no clue about who that student was; the final mark was a blur of data that I had extracted primarily to hold students accountable and/or to present an airtight case if I was held accountable.

Over many years I had been exposed to AFL (assessment for learning) and as result I could provide solid definitions for formative and summative assessment. However, I was unable to translate these words into practice.

Maybe it is the same for you?

Things have changed. Now I have very few numbers in my day book and even when I do, these numbers are always in flux; they are a fleeting snapshot of the student right now and not a concrete prediction of where the student will be at the end of the course.

What do I mean? To explain I thought I would use a specific example to show what it looks like in practice. While this example is for Biology 12, it is the marking schema I am trying to highlight and not the biology. This example is from the first unit of the year, cell biology, and is based on the standard below, which is one of two standards (read more here and here about where standards come from) for this unit:

A2. I can explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products from a cell in the human body.

The various assessments for this standard are outlined in the table below. Note these are the formal assessment opportunities and do not include the many informal opportunities for feedback. As well students can apply for a re-do of any unit assessment.

Task Type Student prompt summarized Feedback provided Formative or Summative
Quiz Outline the overall production of a protein, starting with the RER. Students use 4 point scale to self-assess. Written & verbal feedback provided by teacher.

 Formative. Students     self track. Teacher records number from self- assessment.

Assignment-Done in class with help from teacher & peers. Explain how the following 5 cells organelles of a pancreas cell would work together to make and export insulin. A diagram may be used to support your writing. Organelles: RER, vesicle, Golgi complex, membrane, nucleus. Students self assess using    4 point scale.  Written and verbal feedback provided. Teacher uses 4 point scale.

Formative. Students self track. Teacher records number.

Test Explain the production and processing of a protein that is exported from a eukaryotic cell. Begin with rRNA and end with the release of the protein from the plasma membrane. Tests returned to
students to keep. Written and verbal feedback given. Opportunities for re-assessment.
Teacher uses 4 point scale.
Formative or Summative.
Midterm Explain how the function of RER, Golgi complex and cell membrane are relate. Tests returned to students
to keep. Written and verbal feedback given. Opportunities for re-assessment. Teacher uses
4 point scale.
Formative or Summative
Final Exam Explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products from
a cell in the human body.
Students can pick up final exam the week after finals. Written feedback given.
Teacher uses 4 point scale.

Everything formative allows for:

  • Ability to cycle back through the course several times, we review (as a class and in groups) at each test, the midterm and again at the final. Each time we review we do a different type of activity.
  • Multiple entry points are provided for students into a topic and there are always opportunities to catch up. Entry points for each standard vary (i.e.: a lab, a group activity, an interactive white boarding activity, a review game, a writing activity), but come at various times. I call it ‘cycling back’ when talking with students.
  • Few surprises for students when students challenge the midterm or final.
  • Reduction of student and teacher anxiety.
  • Students to take high stakes assessments when they are ready.
  • The target to stay the same over course of the semester.
  • Building lasting schema by exposing students to the same key ideas more than once and in various ways.
  • Activities to be designed for learning not point extraction.
  • Conversation shift to one about learning and not about points.
  • Students to be able to explain their mark and we are not reliant on “well that is what the computer told me so it must be right!”
  • Feedback related to how student can improve instead of “remember you did not hand that in so…”
  • The assessment process to be human. I found the years of point focus dehumanizing.

Would love to here how you are using formative assessment in your classroom!


3 thoughts on “Everything Formative.

  1. You have made some great points about making everything formative. One statement that caught my interest was ‘Few surprises for students when students challenge the midterm or final.’.

    If developed properly, surprises on tests often test the higher order skills of a student. If I am testing their analysis of data, I do not provide them with data which we have covered in class and they know what should be telling them.

    If I want to see their synthesis of information, I may ask a design questions, not of something in which we have discussed about an optimum design, but a new ‘surprise’ situation.

    So I tend to enjoy ‘surprises’ on tests situations. They can really show how a student things and help you understand their higher order thinking skills.

    • Hi Scott, thanks for the comment. I think you are referring to a different type of surprise. I meant students are not surprised by how they can do on the high stake test. We have evidence and feedback around the standard before they challenge the test. I am looking for trends rather than a one hit wonder.
      If I had a standard ‘analysis of data’ students would have practiced this skill several times before the midterm or final and received lots of opportunity to work on this skill. Students would not be surprised by their ability to demonstrate the particular skill, as they would have had lots of guided practice before. I have no issue with an application question or synthesis one, but again we would have practiced this prior to the assessment, not the exact question but the skill based on a standard that the students were well aware of.

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