Editor's Note: Karen Irving is an assistant professor of mathematics, science, and technology in the School of Teaching and Learning at the Ohio State University and co-director of the West Central Excel Center for Excellence in Science and Mathematics. She received the 2004 National Technology Leadership Initiative Science Fellowship Award for her work in educational technology in science teaching and learning.
A fundamental tenet in the school accountability debate assumes that high-stakes testing will improve student learning. But the purposes of assessment depend on who is doing the assessing and how he or she intends to use the data. Groups outside the classroom such as politicians, principals, or parents often use assessment to compare student scores on one-time tests. These data can be used in auditing schools; monitoring achievement; comparing groups by age, ethnicity, and gender; appraising teachers; evaluating curricula; and exerting pressure for improvement. Besides one-time summative assessments, teachers regularly conduct assessments within their classrooms and analyze them to make decisions that guide their instructional practices. This article describes the information that teachers gather during instruction, the use of that information to guide decisions, and the role of classroom technology in formative assessment.
Research Supports Formative
Traditionally, assessment practices have been divided into summative and formative categories. Summative assessments occur after instruction has been completed and shape evaluation of student learning. End-of-course exams, such as the ACT, SAT, and, semester, unit, and chapter tests, exemplify summative assessments. Summative assessments typically correspond to the enacted curriculum to a greater extent as one moves from national to statewide to local to teacher-made assessment instruments. If local curricula differ from those of national or statewide tests, If local curricula differ from those of national or statewide tests, the poor alignment decreases the reliability of the test results as a measure of what students are learning.
Short-comings in summative assessments have led educators to formative assessment. Cowie and Bell (1999) define formative assessment as “the process teachers and students use to recognize and respond to students’ learning and enhance it before it is complete.” Black further defines formulative assessment as “teacher use of assessment information to modify and improve their teaching effectiveness” (Black 1995; Black and Wiliam 1998). Formative assessment provides immediate, contextualized feedback.
An analysis of more than 40 research studies showed that high-quality formative assessment can lead to significant learning gains. (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, and Wiliam 2003). Common characteristics in these studies included enhanced feedback between students and teachers, active student involvement in learning, teacher use of feedback to modify and adjust to student needs, and strategies to increase student motivation and engagement in the assessment process (Black and Wiliam 1998).
Teachers Gather Data
Formative assessment aligns well with modern theories of learning that suggest each student has to construct an individual understanding, incorporating new information into prior knowledge. Formative assessment also affects other factors that influence achievement, such as student motivation and engagement, student learning styles, teacher-questioning techniques, teaching methods, and the tasks selected for learning (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 1999; Mintzes, Wandersee, and Novak 1998).
Formative assessment can inform teachers about their students’ preparation to learn. Evaluation of diagnostic pre-tests may reveal knowledge deficits and strengths and serve to guide teachers’ instructional strategies. Extra resources may be identified to help students who are ill prepared. Teachers may need to revise their instructional approaches or include instruction on topics that students should have mastered previously. Sometimes teachers discover that students have already mastered key elements, so they can move ahead faster. (Swearingen 2002).
Effective teaching incorporates children’s alternative conceptions of science (Driver 1989; Posner, Strike, Hewson, and Gertzog 1982). The role of student discourse to mediate understanding plays ann important part in both formative assessment and teaching for conceptual change.
Teacher feedback provides students with necessary information to help them understand science. Student feedback provides teachers with formative assessment data useful for adjusting teaching strategies, maximizing efficient use of instructional time, and promoting cognition.
Formative assessment may also help teachers gain insights into student self-motivation, indicated by class participation, homework assignments, and classroom attendance.
In formative assessment, the student plays a key role, as data are gathered by both teacher and students through their interactions. Students learn the content, how to learn, and how well they are learning. Teachers learn what students know, what students believe, and how students learn. Encouraging students to engage in reflective feedback and metacognitive strategies draws them into the learning process and promotes greater gains in achievement (Black and Wiliam 1998). Without students’ voluntary and full disclosure, teachers cannot design and implement appropriate instruction. (Bell and Cowie 2001).
Assessments create tensions in the student-teacher relationship. Providing a safe environment for students to reveal their knowledge deficits presents a great challenge (Guskey, 2003).
Students may benefit from formative assessment by developing self-regulated learning (SRL) behaviors in the classroom. In SRL, students analyze tasks, set goals, and plan behaviors. During the performance phase, they monitor and control their behaviors, emotions, and motivation. The last phase in SRL involves self-reflection based on feedback. Formative assessment data can help students develop better self-regulation by exposing the learning process (Pape and Wang 2003; Zimmerman 2000).
Teachers Gain Insights
Tasks that require students to discuss, write, synthesize, and question provide opportunities for teachers to learn about student thinking. Teacher-centered activities such as lecturing do not enable teachers to learn about student thinking or students to explore their understanding. Effective formative assessment occurs when teachers select rich learning tasks that provide useful data about student thinking and engage students in the lesson (Black et al. 2003).
Experienced teachers “read” their class, judging the success of their instruction by evaluating oral responses and body language. However, when publicly questioned, students may fear looking foolish in front of their peers and thus conceal that they do not understand (Bell and Cowie 2001). Because students learn to adjust their body language to escape attention and to conform to the teacher’s wishes, informal sizing-up activities that depend on a teacher’s impressions may provide invalid and unreliable data. Formative assessment strategies that engage all students and allow them to respond anonymously provide more reliable information.
Formative assessment requires teachers to devise appropriate tasks to explore student thinking, to develop strong diagnostic questioning skills, and to gather, assess and then use information to modify their teaching strategies. Teachers must: notice, recognize, and respond to student learning; solicit information from all students in the classroom; distill student answers to identify naïve ideas about science; and provide a safe environment for revealing misunderstandings. Formative assessment can be planned or unplanned, based on written or oral student work, and rely on nonverbal as well as verbal information. Teachers gather data through observing, listening, reading, and questioning. Then they make decisions based on the data collected and their professional judgment.
Modern electronic technologies enable teachers to gather real-time data that confirms or challenges their informal impressions. Data is instantly collected, aggregated, and displayed. Teachers employ an anonymous feedback loop that better informs them and their students about thinking, learning, and teaching strategies. Instead of relying on their “feel” of the classroom or the responses of a few aggressive students who dominate, teachers can gather data from all students (Fies and Marshall 2006; Hall, Waitz, Brodeur, Soderhom, and Nasr 2002).
The literature on classroom response systems reports on the use of voting machines, wireless keypad response systems, electronic response systems, and classroom response systems (Fies and Marshall 2006). A comparison of different commercially available systems highlights the similarities among them (Burnstein and Lederman 2003). In a typical connected classroom, students use transmitters to respond to a teacher computer. Proprietary software aggregates and interprets data, and displays them so teachers and students can view class responses. The teacher may collect and display results with student names displayed or hidden. Some connected classroom systems facilitate interactive lectures in large halls, while others accommodate classroom groups of around 30 students (Burnstein and Lederman 2003).
Technology Offers Applications
Different systems offer strategies for both didactic and constructivist classrooms. Typical uses include gathering student responses to multiple-choice or true/false questions. Some systems allow open-ended, text-based responses that can generate discussion. Teachers can gather immediate feedback about student recall of important facts, answers to numerical exercises, and information regarding homework problems. Simple polling activities can help teachers track attendance or select problems for class review.
Connected classroom technology facilitates: rapid feedback loops, public displays of knowledge that include naïve understandings; engagement of a wider audience; student discussion either before or after submission of a response; student reasoning and defense of responses; instructor data gathering to guide discussion, instructional strategy, and future student questioning.
Some connected classroom systems allow students to contribute data lists, individual data points, or equations for data aggregation and display. Classroom response system technologies combined with probeware-measuring devices that measure temperature, pressure, or motion allow the teacher to design whole-class inquiry activities using data collected and then to aggregate the class data for display and analysis. The real-time connection between data gathering and display facilitates student understanding of the relationship between these activities.
Participatory simulations and role-playing activities provide rich contexts for formative assessment data gathering (Wilensky and Stroup 2000, 2002). These virtual worlds allow participants to explore the evolution over time of dynamic systems. In this systems approach to science, students become active theorizers, engage in hypothesis testing and generation, and participate in the dialogue between theory and evidence (Wilensky and Reisman 2006).
In summary, connected classroom technology helps teachers collect data from all their students, identify their strengths and weaknesses, select fruitful topics to reveal their naïve understandings, assess and improve the effectiveness of instruction, craft rich educational tasks, provide data for decision making, and foster open, full disclosure between students and teachers.
When used effectively, connected classroom environments enrich student thinking and learning and provide data sources for instructors to modify their teaching strategies. Formative assessment supports teacher efforts to engage students in learning through effective and appropriate instruction.
For a complete list of references, visit http://science.nsta.org/enewsletter/references3.pdf. For more information on the NSTA Press® book Teaching Science in the 21st Century, which inspired this series, visit http://store.nsta.org/showitem.asp?product=195x. For related sessions at NSTA’s National Conference in St. Louis, such as Seeing More Through the Lens of Formative Assessment (March 28; 7:30 a.m.–4 p.m.) or Formative Assessment in Science (April 1; 8–9 a.m.), visit www.nsta.org/conferencedetail&Meeting_Code=2007STL.