Assessment to Drive Student Learning
Assessment is a powerful teaching tool providing you with data to determine what students have learned and which concepts need further instructional support. A strategic assessment plan can help you make sure that all students in your class meet their learning goals. In this post, we’re going to look primarily at formative assessments that help teachers adjust instruction to better meet the needs of each student.
What is the Difference Between Summative and Formative Assessment?
Summative assessment, or assessment OF learning, examines student learning and achievement through formal testing at the end of a module or at the end of the year. The primary purpose of summative assessment is to help you determine if students are performing at grade-level standards. Although summative assessment can be used to help make some instructional decisions, formative assessment really helps teachers make strategic instructional moves that drive student learning.
Formative assessment, or assessment FOR learning, provides you with ways to measure student understanding throughout the teaching and learning process. An ongoing and continuous process, formative assessment provides actionable data that allows you to adjust instruction to meet student needs. As noted above, formative assessment can include testing, but also builds on data gleaned from observations, math discussions, collaborative learning, whole-class instruction, practice problems, student journals, small-group instruction, strategic questioning, exit tickets, etc.
Why Should You Use Formative Assessment?
The number one reason you should use formative assessment is that it helps you adjust and improve your instruction to better meet student needs. Research shows that students who participated in formative assessments performed better academically than those who did not.
In a recent study, teachers reported that due to curriculum demands and pacing guidelines that they don’t have time for formative assessment. However, teachers who use daily formative assessments are more likely to stay on track with curriculum standards.
Furthermore, formative assessment supports the recursive feedback loop —instruction, assessment, analysis, and goal setting. A tight feedback loop provides students with the input they need when they need it. Providing students with timely data gleaned from your assessments has been shown not only to improve comprehension, but also to empower students’ ownership of their learning.
What Are the Key Steps for Effective Formative Assessment?
- Believe that all kids can learn math. As teachers, we must defeat the myth that some kids can do math and some kids can’t. All children can learn math given the right instruction and support. If students aren’t learning, we must change the way we teach. It’s up to us to figure out how best to adjust our instruction to meet the learning needs of every student in our class. In my opinion this is what makes teaching math fun.
- Use many types of assessment. Just as students have different learning styles, they may also be more likely to show what they know via different types of assessment. We all know that some students freeze up when asked to share their thoughts in front of the class and others may not be at their best when working through a problem on paper. It’s important to allow students to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways—responding in writing, discussing solutions with a peer, working in a small group, using manipulatives, etc.—as it helps you better assess true knowledge rather than students’ comfort level with a particular assessment method. Furthermore, using the right assessment tools for each student helps build student confidence and motivation.
- Know what you want to learn from each assessment. Different assessments will provide you with different insights into student learning. If you want to see how students are working through a specific problem, you might question groups and individuals. If you want to know if all students are on track during a whole-class lesson, you might ask for a simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down. If you want to create small groups based on instructional need (or strengths), you might use a combination of data from observation, practice problems, and student journals. If midway through a module, you want to see if students are on track to master key standards, you might give an informal quiz. If you want to know what students learned during a particular lesson, you might use an exit ticket.
- Make learning outcomes explicit. To get the most out of any instructional activity, students need to understand the learning objectives of a lesson and the criteria for meeting those objectives. This helps them participate in the assessment process and take ownership of their learning. John Hattie’s seminal Visible Learning research shows that metacognition strategies, which have an effect size of .60, have the potential to considerably accelerate student learning.
- Ask questions. Purposeful questioning is an essential in-the-moment assessment tool that helps teachers make immediate instructional adjustments to improve student learning. As I’ve said before in this blog, we all need to take more time to ask questions. In addition to helping us gauge what students know and don’t know, the right questions provide us with a better understanding of students’ approaches, thinking, and reasoning and show how best to move forward with student-centered instruction. Additionally, questions often uncover student misconceptions and gaps in student learning, allowing you to focus on areas where student knowledge is unclear, only partially formed, or simple incorrect. [See the blog post on purposeful questioning for more information.]
- Use peer-assessment. Students are both learners and peers and should be involved in monitoring their own and classmates’ progress. You’ve most likely seen the aha moment a student has when a classmate explains a concept that a student has been struggling to grasp. You can see the idea click and the learning cement. Kids love learning from other kids, and research shows that collaboration between children can improve retention. Providing them with opportunities to teach and assess each other (with light guidance from you) empowers them as math learners.
- Encourage mistakes. We’ve all heard the adage, “We learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.” In math, this is particularly true. Math is all about problem solving. We test different strategies, consider multiple approaches, and examine and discard multiple theories until we find the most effective solution(s). Mistakes are just part of the mathematical process and should be viewed not as failure but as an opportunity to learn. Furthermore, mistakes provide teachers with lots of actionable data to guide ongoing, personalized instruction.
- Identify strengths. Formative assessment is all about supporting learning, but all too often we concentrate exclusively on what students don’t know rather than what they do know. Good assessment shouldn’t be a judgement. We want to know what students know as much as we want to identify where they have more to learn. Using assessment to help students identify their math strengths helps them internalize that they can learn and are good at math. This in turn demonstrates that feedback doesn’t mean failure, but rather is an opportunity to learn.
- Provide timely feedback. I can’t overstate the importance of regular feedback; it’s an essential component of learning. John Hattie’s research shows that feedback, with an effect size of .62, has the potential to considerably accelerate student learning. Try to give the feedback at the time they are showing what they’ve learned, so that they connect your input to the skill they are working on. Be specific, so that students know exactly how they can move forward. Now that’s not to say that you need to assess every student daily, but rather that you take time to provide students with quick, in-the-moment assessments. This can be as simple as a question that guides a student to an alternate strategy, a note in a student journal, or modeling a new approach.
- Give students second chances to demonstrate success. There’s nothing more frustrating than not being given the opportunity to show that you’ve learned from instructional feedback. As you build your assessment plan, include specific times and ways that students can show that they’ve made progress.
- Evaluate your practice. If your assessment data shows that most of your students aren’t learning a particular skill or concept, consider changing your instructional approach. Every student and every class bring a variety of skills, competencies, and attitudes to learning math. That means that what worked last year may not work this year or what resonated in September causes confusion in February. If your goal is to create the optimal learning environment for your students, you may need to modify or try a new approach.
Opportunities for assessment occur every day in every lesson and activity. Make your plan, adjust as necessary, and see your students flourish.
Andersson, C.; Palm, T. (2017) Characteristics of improved formative assessment practice. Education Inquiry, 8(2), 104–122.
Martin, Christ L.; Mraz, Maryann; Polly, Drew. (2021) Examining elementary school teachers’ perceptions of and use of formative assessments in mathematics. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, January 2022, Volume 14, Issue 3, 417–425.
Condeman, G., Hedin, L. (2012) Classroom assessments that inform instruction. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 48,
Collaborative Learning. Center for Teaching Innovation. Cornell University.