How can teachers capitalize on evidence about student learning that is generated in their classrooms every day? How can this information best be collected and used to increase student learning? 

Effective feedback is a great way for teachers to use collected data in order to improve student learning. Unfortunately, feedback opportunities are scarce in most classrooms (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). Teachers can create more opportunities for generating evidence about what their students have, and have not learned, and provide effective feedback to students.

The research we have undertaken with our various colleagues has shown important increases in student learning when teachers:

  • Clearly define the purposes of each lesson that they teach.
  • Use lessons to collect evidence on how students learn.
  • Use collected evidence and promptly re-direct students as needed.

Results from almost any assessment can be of great benefit to students, provided they are used to make instructional adjustments. And the shorter the amount of time between assessment and adjustment the more powerful its effect on learning.

Formative assessment: five key strategies

Formative assessment is any assessment that is used to guide future learning. Years ago, Lee Cronbach pointed out that an assessment was simply a procedure for making inferences. When those inferences involve what the student can do right now, or what they may be able to do in the future, then the assessment is functioning summatively. However, when the inferences made on the basis of the assessment results relate to instructional decisions, then the assessment is functioning formatively. More specifically, according to Black and Wiliam (2009), an assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions that would have been taken in the absence of that evidence. What this means is that results from almost any assessment can be used formatively, provided that they are used to improve instruction. The important point is that the sooner an instructional adjustment is made, the more effective it is in improving learning.

Five key strategies

With our colleagues at the Educational Testing Service (ETS), we have identified five key strategies for assessing student learning:

  1. For each important new concept or assignment, teachers should make the learning expectations clear and share with students the criteria for successfully meeting those expectations. This need not always be done at the beginning of each session, but students should get regular reminders of where they are headed, together with summaries of progress toward these goals.
  2. Use evidence from classroom discussions, student answers and learning tasks to revise lessons and activities. Teachers can use various techniques that engage all students in discussion and use revealed evidence of student thinking and understanding as they plan future instruction.
  3. Provide feedback that clearly and explicitly identifies what needs to be improved in order to move learners forward and promote students' understanding of concepts. To best meet students' immediate learning needs, teachers should use this evidence to adapt instruction in real time
  4. Encourage students to serve as instructional and learning resources for one another on a daily basis
  5. Encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning

Formative feedback is essential to the assessment process as it allows teachers to collect the evidence they need to immediately address their students' learning needs.

Student outcomes

These key strategies of assessment for learning can be expected to produce the following student outcomes:

  • Students will become more engaged with lesson content and activities.
  • Students will support each other and take responsibility for their own learning within well-established criteria for quality.
  • Students will act on feedback in order to improve their assignments.
  • Students' learning will improve, as evidenced by test scores and other indicators.
How to ensure feedback is formative

Don't think that feedback itself is enough to make an assessment formative. Although providing feedback is a necessary first step, an assessment only becomes formative when the information fed back to the learner is used by the learner to improve future performance. Therefore only feedback that is potentially useful to the learner is formative. For example, if a teacher says, "That's very creative," the student does not know why her product is creative, or how to make future products creative. An exception to this occurs when the teacher has already provided the criteria for what a "creative" response looks like.

To ensure that feedback is formative:
  • Don't leave it open-ended or ambiguous. Give clear indications of the criteria that have been used to assess the quality of the product a student submits.

  • Don't wander from the point. Base all feedback on criteria specified for the assignment.

  • Don't delay. Provide feedback as soon as possible after the student submits the assignment.

FAQs
Do these techniques require a specific kind of testing?

According to Black and Wiliam (2004a), the effectiveness of formative assessment on student learning comes from the feedback provided by the teacher, not from the kind of assessment used. The teacher must have evidence of learning that can be used to provide students with "minute by minute" feedback. This finding means that many different kinds of teacher-made and standardized assessments can provide the evidence needed to guide teacher feedback. Evidence of student learning that comes from informal sources such as whole-class or small-group discussions, as well as class polls (a quick show of hands), can also be useful, provided they are not just self-reports about the levels of confidence students have in their responses.

How do teachers learn to use these techniques?

Groups of teachers working together (called teacher learning communities) can share ideas and support one another as they implement the five key strategies in their own classrooms. Extensive research by Leahy and others has concluded that these types of groups are most effective when they are composed of teachers from a variety of subject-matters and grade levels working together to support one another (view these strategies on the Educational Leadership website).

When does the strategy work?

Formative assessment has been shown to work with a wide variety of learners. Much of our earlier work was undertaken in mathematics, science and English classrooms, but our research in other subject matter areas has also confirmed those findings. Overall, their research is specifically applicable to the following types of students:

  • All grade levels (kindergarten, elementary, high school and college-aged students).
  • All ethnic groups (white, black, Hispanic and Asian-American).
  • All settings (urban, suburban and rural ).
  • Males and females.
  • All competence levels (special education through gifted).

Perhaps even more interestingly, the model of the five strategies of formative assessment, supported through the use of learning communities, has also been found to be effective with instrumental music tutors, librarians, adult numeracy and literacy practitioners, youth workers, and community advocates.

Teacher and student differences

After establishing teacher learning communities in countries all around the world, we have found that formative assessment strategies are most effective when tailored by individual teachers to meet the unique needs of their students and contexts. For example, teachers who use the "find and fix" technique (pairs of students working together to identify and correct errors on an assessment) discover that younger students can only use this technique with short assessments (two or three problems); whereas older students can use the technique with much longer assessments.

Gaps in the literature
Science and mathematics

There appears to be some promise of cutting back on the drop-out rate from difficult mathematics and science courses when faculty (particularly at the postsecondary level) engage in professional development aimed at increasing their pedagogical skills, especially when they focus on the five key strategies (Wiliam et al., 2004). However, larger-scale trials are needed to confirm these preliminary findings.

The research evidence

Black and Wiliam's (1998a) reviewed over 600 research studies on the effects of feedback and other aspects of formative assessment and cited 250 studies in their "best-evidence" synthesis of the effects of formative assessment on learning. They found that effective use of formative classroom assessment yielded high levels of student achievement (effect sizes ranged from between 0.4 to 0.7 of a standard deviation). Nyquist (2003) found effect sizes for formative feedback ranging from 0.3 to 0.5 of a standard deviation, and other researchers have found effect sizes in the same range.

While there have been recent critiques of the research basis for the claims around formative assessment (see, e.g., Bennett, 2011; Kingston & Nash, 2011) much of the criticism stems from an inadequate understanding of the limits of effect sizes in synthesizing educational research. For example, the meta-analysis by Kingston and Nash concluded that formative assessment might improve educational achievement by around 0.2 to 0.3 standard deviations, which following Cohen (1988) they classed as "small." However, since most of the studies synthesized by Kingston and Nash were conducted on middle and high school students, such effect sizes are equivalent to a 50 to 100 percent increase in the rate of learning (Bloom et al., 2008). While researchers will always say, "More research is needed" it does seem as if the extent of the available evidence suggests that attention to classroom formative assessment practices can have substantial positive impacts on student achievement.