Formative assessment, along with effective feedback, is one of the most impactful parts of teaching and when done well, it can foster significant improvement.
What is formative assessment?
Formative assessment is any learning activity which reveals information to teachers and learners which can be used to improve learning. This is distinct from summative assessment, the intent of which is to provide terminal grading. Formative assessment allows teachers to understand where a learner is currently 'at', so that the teacher can a) adapt future instruction to better meet learning needs b) consider differentiating their support, and c) enable effective feedback to and between learners.
As well as providing teachers with a continuous understanding of what stages their learners are at, formative assessment is also effective in allowing pupils to develop their metacognitive skills, building independence for self-learning. (Adapted from Black and Wiliam 1998).
What is Feedback?
Once you’ve assessed what the learner is doing well and what they need to do in order to improve, the purpose of feedback is to give that information back to the learner. Feedback can come from many places: from the teacher, from other learners and most powerfully, from self-regulating learners themselves.
When students receive effective feedback, it helps them to understand where they are in terms of the objective or outcome, where they should be, and how to close the gap between the two. Effective feedback, therefore, has a focus on learning.
Shirley Clarke (2001) outlines, however, that a large proportion of the feedback that teachers provide is concerned with issues such as presentation, surface features and student effort. As a consequence, the required focus on learning is neglected.
Giving effective feedback
For feedback to be effective and improve learning, it must assist students in determining which learning goals are realistic and doable. It should also provide students with the required information on how to achieve their goals, and how to close the gap between where they are now and where they need to be. It is, therefore, essential that teachers actively seek to provide students with feedback that provides the information they want, and need, to work out where to go next.
Feedback of this nature helps to facilitate a shift in learner motivation from an extrinsic, performance-oriented system where rewards are given (based on fixed ability and a comparison to others), to an intrinsic learning-orientated system, based on effort and students' belief in their own ability to learn. By comparing efforts against their past achievements, students become more motivated (and are more likely) to take on new challenges.
Effective feedback also empowers students and improves their self-esteem. This is because it enables learners to be assessed on their own attainment of the learning objective and as they are given the support necessary to improve. Students are also encouraged to take greater responsibility for their own learning as they have a better understanding of what they need to do. Indeed, this is why feedback is a vital aspect of assessment for learning.
How to give effective feedback to help learners "reduce the gap"
- Provide specific and actionable information which allows the learner to adapt and improve (hence the close relationship with formative assessment).
- Provide replicable frameworks to enable learners to become agents of their own progress. Self-regulation is developed as the learner can clearly see what they have already achieved and what they will need to do to get the desired outcome.
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