5 Practical Techniques for Embedding Formative Assessment

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By Dr. Dylan Wiliam

Embedding Formative Assessment, which I wrote with Siobhán Leahy, is designed specifically to help individual teachers develop their practice of formative assessment on their own or with small groups of colleagues. Here are some suggestions for practical techniques you can try in your classroom right now.

Technique 1: Start with samples of work, rather than rubrics, to communicate quality

As an adult in the professional world, if someone were to ask you to write a business plan or create a product brochure and the task was somewhat unfamiliar to you, what’s the first thing you might do to get help? Perhaps you would search the Internet for examples of business plans or product brochures that other professionals have created.

As you examine these examples, you might be able to pick out the high-quality vs. low-quality ones, and even identify why you think this is so. Viewing samples of work in this way can help you as you create your own piece of work and, hopefully, result in a higher-quality product than if you had just started from scratch.

While rubrics have a role to play in your classroom, we believe they are best regarded as the culmination of a developmental process that begins with examination of samples of students’ work. So, before your students do a laboratory report, before they write a ghost story, spend some time getting them to look at other students’ attempts at similar tasks.

Some teachers believe that it is wasteful to take time that students could be generating their own work to look at the work of others, but there are two immediate benefits of getting students to look at samples of student work. First, we are all better at spotting mistakes in the work of others than we are in our own work. Second, when we notice mistakes in the work of others, we are less likely to make the same mistakes in our own work.

Technique 2: No hands up, except to ask a question

Walk into a classroom almost anywhere in the world, and you will see the same script being played out. The teacher asks a question, and a number of students raise their hands to signal they wish to respond. Then, the teacher almost always selects one of the students with his or her hand raised, and that student responds to the question.

But if the aim of questioning is to help the teacher find out what the students know, it makes little sense to select a respondent from the volunteers, because generally, students only raise their hands when they are confident they have the correct answer. Instead, if the teacher is asking the question, students should be given time to think about the question, and then it should be the teacher who selects the student or students to respond, at random.

Technique 3: Focus on the reaction of the students—not the feedback

The only thing that matters with feedback is the reaction of the recipient. That’s it. Feedback, no matter how well designed, that is not acted upon by the student is a waste of time.

This may seem obvious, but hundreds of researchers have ignored this basic truth, and have tried instead to find out whether feedback should be immediate or delayed. Should it be specific or general? Should it be verbal or written? Ultimately, it just comes down to the simple truth that the most effective feedback is just feedback that our students actually use in improving their own learning.

Technique 4: Peer feedback—two stars and a wish

Group students into pairs. When students are giving feedback to each other, they identify two features of the work that are positive (the “stars”) and one suggestion for how the work could be improved (the “wish”). What teachers typically find is that students are much tougher on each other than the teacher would feel able to be, because the power relationships are different.

This is an important observation, since it suggests that, done appropriately, peer feedback may be more effective than teacher feedback, because students are more likely to act on feedback from their peers than they would on feedback from a teacher.

Technique 5: Make self-reports consequential

Provide each student with three colored paper or plastic cups (red, yellow, and green). At the beginning of the lesson, nest the cups so that the green cup is showing. Tell students they can display their yellow cup to signal that the lesson is going too fast or their red cup to stop the lesson in order to ask a question. Accountability is built in by the fact that as soon as one student shows a red cup, the teacher selects another student at random from among those showing green cups, and that student is expected to answer the question being posed by the student who showed the red cup.

Dr. Wiliam’s official formative assessment handbook, Embedding Formative Assessment, provides even more guidance teachers need to conduct effective minute-to-minute formative assessment in the classroom. Order your copy from LSI.