When I tell people that I love formative assessments, I always get a head tilt, furrowed brow, and an awkward gaze. I've been teaching science for the past 17 years, but over the past five I've incorporated more formative assessments into my curriculum.
This shift has allowed me to continually assess my students' thinking and understanding. I have the tools to check in with them and gauge any possible misconceptions they may have before we begin a unit of study.
How a Formative Assessment Works
How do formative and summative assessments differ? Summative assessments result in a grade and assess the understanding at the end of a unit. Formative assessments, on the other hand, aren't graded. Instead, they're used to guide instruction or inform students about their own learning. Armed with data from numerous strategies, teachers are able to plan, adjust, or review content to help students understand the subject matter. Formative assessments aren't considered complete until they've been used to affect teaching.
3 Techniques to Try in Your Classroom
During a summer workshop, I learned some techniques for using formative assessments and probes in the classroom. Here are just a few that I use quite often.
1. Use Probes to Find Students' Misconceptions
I like to use probes prior to starting a unit. Probes are designed to use questions to uncover common misconceptions students may have around a core science topic. The structure allows students to choose one explanation from a list of given explanations. Then students write why they think their choice is valid. The explanations are crucial because reviewing the responses gives me insight into any preexisting notions students may have.
Further reading: How to use differentiated learning
For example, after reviewing their responses to a probe covering the importance of variation in a population, I learned that even though most students chose the correct answer, their reasons were filled with misconceptions: the difference between climate versus day-to-day weather, the definition of adaptation, or the idea that populations evolve, not individuals. I use this data to fine-tune my curriculum calendar.
2. Reaffirm Learning through Discussion
All teachers obtain information about our students' understanding by simply listening. I plan several check-in days into my schedule for each unit. On these days, I walk around the room with a large whiteboard and jot down responses I hear during small group or "agree/disagree" discussions. Without including any group numbers or students' names, I show the class the whiteboard and ask for their input. "Who agrees with this statement? Why or why not?"
Small group discussions are now shifted into class discussions, and students are able to add new information and correct old information in their notebooks. This style of formative assessment is a powerful tool. Hearing the students verbally grapple with their own misunderstandings and seeing how they come to grips with a new way of thinking is pretty amazing.
3. Explore Concepts Creatively
When students have to draw and write labels to show their understanding of a concept, it becomes clear what they truly know. Once a few labs or experiments have been completed, I have students create a poster/paper model, with words and images, to explain the core concepts they've learned.
I can assess these in a few ways. If it's their first attempt at the poster, I wander around the room and stop at each group to chat. I may say something like, "Are you able to explain what this image represents? I suggest you add some arrows to show the direction of the energy flow," or, "That's great; you created a legend. This image makes your thinking clear."
It's tough for anyone to grasp a concept the first time around, so I have my students keep their models throughout the unit. They modify these representations of their understanding as their knowledge changes. After a few other lessons are completed, and the students have made some iterations to their models, I have them walk around the room and review their classmates' models. If they have a helpful suggestion, they write it on a sticky note and place it on the poster. When the students return to their own posters, they read the comments and make any changes they feel necessary. Once they can correctly explain their understanding, then both teacher and student feel confident, which is a great thing.
Further reading: Standardized testing (by the numbers.)
Those who favor summative assessments may argue that having to shift and alter their curriculum calendar during the year isn't effective. But research from Project 2061, which is dedicated to the improvement of science education, can help! It outlines the most common misconceptions K-12 students have around core science topics so you can read, anticipate, and alter your lesson planning ahead of time. It's a simple shift that becomes a welcome one when you see the increased understanding among your students.