Classroom Formative Assessment Without the Awkwardness

Believe it or not, this isn’t the goal

By Dylan Wiliam Center staff

Formative assessment might be the most critical thing you can do in a classroom to affect student success. In fact, studies have shown 25% to 50% increases in student learning when teachers use classroom formative assessment strategies. These are among the largest gains ever reported for educational interventions. It’s also why Learning Sciences International is so happy to partner with one of the premier thought leaders on the subject, Dylan Wiliam.

To give you a taste of some of the fruits of this new partnership, let’s talk a bit about one of the formative assessment strategies that is covered in much more detail in Dr. Wiliam’s forthcoming book, co-authored with Siobhán Leahy—Handbook for Embedding Formative Assessment (available spring 2015 from Learning Sciences Publishing).

A key theme in formative assessment questioning techniques is that they eliminate one of the reasons we hate asking questions in the first place: the lack of participation. We’ve all asked questions of our students in class only to be greeted with awkward silence, blank stares, and the hand of the student who has answered the last seven questions in a row. Let’s get rid of that!

Randomize who you call on!

The first step is to randomize who answers your questions. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, you’re going to call on people who haven’t spoken in class all year. Yes, you’re going to frustrate almost every student (the high performers don’t get to show off anymore, and the quiet kids will be dragged out of their solitude). But everyone will get used to it in time, especially if you set the tone early in the school year. It’s the only way to get an accurate cross section of what the class knows at any given time.

Find a randomizing app and project it on the smart board (there are plenty; just run a search). Or—a particularly favorite technique—draw popsicle sticks out of a jar. You can either have students’ names on the sticks or, if you teach multiple classes, numbers that correspond to the class roster. (For some wonderful examples of teachers experimenting with these strategies, watch Dylan Wiliam in the BBC program, “The Classroom Experiment.”)

Don’t let them get away with “I don’t know”

In an effort to move on in our compressed pacing guides, we sometimes let “I don’t know” slip through our classroom discussions. That’s unacceptable and derails anything good you’re trying to do in formative assessment. Every student must learn to engage effectively to fully understand and own their own learning. If you have to throw students a “softball” to get them engaged, do it. If you have to allow them to ask a neighbor for help, do it. If you have to return to the original student after moving to other people, do it. But don’t allow the “I don’t know” precedent to develop.

“One and done” should be rare

In the real world, if you overheard a conversation ending with one question and one answer, you would consider it a failure. But that’s what happens too often in informal assessment. Once we get the answer we were looking for, we move on to the next kid using a different question. Communication skills are an important part of college and career readiness, so we need to work hard to set good examples.

Play basketball

Try something that Dr. Wiliam calls “basketball.” Ask a question of one student, pause, have another student evaluate the first student’s answer, and then have a third student summarize and explain why his or her colleagues answered the way they did.

You can also try “hot seat questioning,” where a student knows that he or she is going to get a string of three, four, or five questions in a row. That might seem like a lot of time with one student, but then you can call on another student (at random!) to summarize what was said or evaluate the original student’s thinking. It also stretches the other students’ listening skills.

Next week: Consider a Teacher Learning Community

Do you have any classroom formative assessment techniques that work well in your class? Share your thoughts with your colleagues in the Comments section.

The new Learning Sciences Dylan Wiliam Center site is now live! In particular, the Resources page has links to free papers, the research on formative assessment, and much more. Visit us today.

We believe that the most important thing a teacher or leader can do is to fuel each student’s passion for learning. When this is achieved, a lifetime of accomplishment becomes possible for that learner. Through partnerships with schools and districts throughout the country, we help educators and leadership transform each classroom into a powerful learning environment that prepares students for lasting success in school, the global workplace, and beyond. Our vision for the future is big and bright, and we love helping schools get there. Learn more about Learning Sciences International.

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