Monitoring for Learning

By Scott Sterling

Formative assessment can be very hit-or-miss. It can be as simple as a show of hands or as complicated as a written assessment. However, the goal is always the same: finding out whether students are “getting it.”

Like most things in education, there is a process for effectively monitoring a class’s understanding. Every step is common sense, but you’d be surprised with how rarely they all appear together in a strategy.

Setting a goal

How do you know what you’re monitoring for if you don’t know where students are supposed to be? That’s why the first step in any formative assessment plan is setting the right goal for learning.

You would think that operating under a set of standards would be enough—that your state has already provided you with a set of goals—but do the standards directly translate into learning? That’s why you need to unpack them and translate the standards into actionable skills for the students to master.

When you identify those skills, come up with the scale from which you will judge success. That scale will be your best friend as you monitor for understanding.

Plan your monitoring ahead of time

Many teachers’ formative assessment strategies rely on the teacher to come up with assessments almost on the fly. If they see some kids nodding off, they realize that it’s time to ask a question. That’s ineffective and lacks purpose.

Instead have specific monitoring strategies outlined in your lesson plans. They should be assigned to targets within each lesson, based on precise timing.

In this step, the strategy needs to be specified because it will dictate the course of action afterward. Don’t just put a star at the point of the lesson where you think you’ll want to monitor. Describe the strategy you will use in detail. That’s the only way to keep yourself honest.

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Obtrusive and unobtrusive monitoring

In your planning, make sure to vary the strategies you use. You want a mix of assessment strategies that are both obtrusive and unobtrusive.

An obtrusive strategy is your classic formative assessment, like stopping the learning to ask a question or taking a quick quiz. Unobtrusive can be as simple as watching students work together or observing a student practicing the new skill.

Both have their place, but using one more than the other can make your overall monitoring less effective.

Change course

Too often, teachers conduct formative assessment during a lesson only so they can say they did it. What happens after the assessment is the same no matter the outcome. They might take a bit of time to clarify something, but then move right back to the plan. After all, time is the most valuable commodity in education these days.

Formative assessment is useless if it doesn’t actually affect the business in the classroom. In these specific devices for assessment within your lesson plans, they also need to describe what happens if all students have shown mastery, some students have shown mastery, or none of them have. Think of it as a “choose your own adventure” story, but it’s the students doing the choosing.

In this instance, it might be helpful to organize your plans in the form of a flowchart. That way, simple “If-Then” statements, rather than intuition or guesses, guide the lesson. All of this helps you get students to their goals as efficiently as possible.

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