An assessment is only worth doing if it is carefully planned with a clearly defined purpose – are you trying to monitor progress, forecast grades or elicit the learning needs of your students? Assessment has often been synonymous with summative tests in my thinking. As a science teacher I have always given students a test at the end of a topic without giving due consideration to the purpose and content of the test. It was just something which I did because it was department policy and we needed some data on which to base report grades. Assessment encompasses so much more than summative tests and just as I tested my students without careful planning, the formative assessment within my lessons was often unplanned, incidental, focused on recently learned content, and done without sufficient forethought regarding how I would make use of what it revealed.
Recently I have been giving much greater thought to assessment and have come to realise what a powerful tool it can be in supporting students’ learning. Purposeful assessment dovetails beautifully with the Principles of Instruction (Rosenshine, 2012) which have come to the forefront in education in recent years. Here I outline, based on my own practice, how apposite assessment, in line with Rosenshine can support and enhance the Principles in answering the question, “where should we go next?” on the journey of instruction and learning in the classroom.
Formative Assessment and the Principles of Instruction
Tom Sherrington has elaborated extensively on the Principles of Instruction (Sherrington, 2019). I have been developing my teaching practice to apply these principles more fully but have focused mainly on how they relate to imparting knowledge and developing student understanding. Things such as sequencing the curriculum to allow for regular review, breaking knowledge down into small chunks, modelling and scaffolding. I have made use of weekly review, asking questions and checking for student understanding, but have done so without fully grasping the power of formative assessment as part of successful instruction. Sherrington groups Rosenshine’s Principles into four categories which I have found helpful when considering practical ways to build more purposeful formative assessment into my teaching.
- Reviewing Material
One of the first changes I made in my teaching practice as a result of reading about the Principles of Instruction was to introduce low stakes retrieval quizzes at the start of most lessons. I gave students a list of all the questions and answers they might be tested on and randomly selected 6-8 questions from the material we had covered at the start of each lesson. This has been beneficial in supporting students recall of key knowledge, but I have gradually moved to selecting the questions more carefully to check up on and activate the prior learning related to the current lesson or to replace some of the questions with related ones which force students to apply their understanding in a slightly different context. The Retrieval Roulette is a really helpful tool for this style of review and you can read more about how to make the most of retrieval practice through the CogSciSci symposium on the subject.
One trap which I have fallen into is to think that if students can successfully complete a task in the lesson in which it was introduced then they have learned to do it (sometimes referred to as ‘performance’ rather than ‘learning’ (Bjork and Bjork, 2011)). Regular review by quick tests of knowledge (facts, skills, procedures etc.) learned in previous lessons (a day, week or month ago) not only gives more valuable feedback on what students have securely learned, but also helps to strengthen the long term memory through the testing effect (Dunlosky, 2013).
The importance of questioning in checking student understanding is evident and Sherrington sums this up as ‘ask more questions to more students in more depth’, as well as elaborating on some helpful strategies (Sherrington, 2018). My default practice has been verbal questioning, I do a lot of this. But even the most skillful use of verbal questioning can never check the understanding of every student in the class. This doesn’t always matter, but some questions are vital in terms of formative assessment to decide whether to move on, recap or do more practice. These questions test students’ understanding of threshold concepts (which are crucial foundations for building the next layer of knowledge). These are often called ‘hinge questions’ and with these I think it is important to get a response from all students. Multiple choice questions designed to pick up on common misconceptions or common pitfalls enable the understanding of a whole class to be checked rapidly, these can include process questions where appropriate.
- Sequencing concepts and modelling
Sherrington places “introducing new concepts in small steps” into this category, along with modelling and scaffolding (Sherrington, 2018). Small steps are as important in assessment as they are in delivering new material and this is where I have made some of my biggest errors. I have tended to check up on understanding within a given lesson, assume that students will still remember and be able to do the same thing the next lesson (without checking again), and then wonder why they were unable to answer a question drawing on several areas of the topic in a summative test. Just as information needs to be presented in small steps, it is important to check understanding of these small steps – with time for forgetting in between (Weinstein and Sumeracki, 2019) – especially when each small step builds on the one before to construct the increasingly expert schema.
I have started to begin more of my lessons with a task which checks up on key understanding from previous learning that is required for the current lesson. This task is completed from memory, which itself helps to secure long term learning, and may still include some level of scaffolding or modelling if students are still towards the novice stage of their understanding. This could be a longer answer exam question remodelled as a series of smaller questions to support students in working through to the end, while still testing their ability to complete each step successfully. Not only does this check their understanding but gives me an important insight into which stage of their learning is insecure.
- Stages of practice
“Students need extensive, successful, independent practice in order for skills and knowledge to become automatic” (Sherrington, 2018) and our role as teachers is to give them the resources and opportunities to conduct this practice, to check up on their success and to guide them until they are successful enough to be able to practice independently. This aspect of assessment involves knowing your students, engaging with them individually as they practice and being ready to appropriately support and stretch (drawing on the benefits of desirable difficulties to promote learning (Bjork and Bjork, 2011)) them to ensure that all are engaged in learning until the class as a whole is ready to move on. SLOP booklets and ramped worksheets are excellent for this in science.
The Place of Summative Assessment
My mistake has been to invest more time than I now think can be justified in summative assessment, checking whether students are able to answer questions which require the full schema to be in place when I haven’t really checked up on the steps along the way. I often assessed students using past exam questions when they had only completed a few weeks or months of a course and was surprised when they were unsuccessful. Such summative assessments have value in determining understanding after a large sample of the domain has been studied and to give an indication of how students are likely to perform in public exams, but they have little value as a tool to diagnose learning needs and promote learning when students are still very much at the novice stage. In my heavy use of summative assessment, I have sacrificed time and effort which would have been better spent on the formative assessment strategies I have discussed. These not only enable me to know exactly where the gaps and inaccuracies in my students’ schemata are, so that I know what needs additional explanation and practice, but also support the securing of long term learning through the Principles of Instruction which have been shown to be effective.
Too often I have used poorly planned assessments with the results having little or no impact on my next steps in teaching or my students’ learning – this is a waste of everybody’s time. For any assessment to be beneficial it needs to be designed with a specific and clearly defined purpose in mind and good use made of the information in yields.
Rosenshine (2012) – https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf (accessed 8/2/2020)
Sherrington (2019) – Rosenshine’s Principles in Action. Published by John Catt.
Retrieval Roulettes – https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/retrieval-roulettes/
CogSciSci Retrieval Symposium – https://cogscisci.wordpress.com/2020/01/23/retrieval-practice-in-the-classroom-a-cogscisci-symposium/
Bjork E L and Bjork R A (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (p. 56–64).
Dunlosky (2013) – https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/dunlosky.pdf (accessed 8/2/2020)
Sherrington (2018) – https://teacherhead.com/2018/06/10/exploring-barak-rosenshines-seminal-principles-of-instruction-why-it-is-the-must-read-for-all-teachers/ (accessed 8/2/2020)
Weinstein Y and Sumeracki M with Caviglioli O (2019) Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide. Abingdon, Oxon; Routledge.