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The Importance of Formative Assessment in the Classroom

I am a football fan, so bear with me. Picture this, it is a week before the big game and the coach gets up in front of his players and competently explains what he wants them to know and how he would like them to perform next Sunday. He then says, “see you Sunday!” and hopes his team is performing the way he wants them to at the big game. If this scenario seems ridiculous to you, it is the equivalent to the way many of us teach. A football coach wants to observe how his players perform, give them feedback, and watch to see how effectively they are implementing his suggestions to make sure they are performing optimally. Certainly, professional athletics is no more important than the professional positions in our fields, so how can we devote the same level of attention to knowing how our students are doing in our classes?

One potential solution is formative assessment which provides feedback to students about how they are doing while they are still learning, giving them an opportunity to make changes and improvements prior to the “big game” (which might be a major paper, project, or exam). The more traditional model of assessment in courses is summative assessment, which occurs at the end of a course or a learning experience within a course. Using only this form of assessment is equivalent to the somewhat ridiculous football scenario above.

Using formative assessment in your classroom has several advantages – both for your students and for you! A few examples are:

  • Formative assessment eliminates unpleasant “surprises,” both for you and for your students since you’ve consistently been in communication with students about their learning. It gives students the opportunity to seek out assistance in a timely manner and helps you direct students to appropriate resources when necessary (for example, your office hours or other campus resources, such as the University Library or the University Center for Writing-based Learning).
  • This type of assessment focuses you more clearly on what your students are learning, rather than simply what you are trying to teach students.
  • It gives your students more control over their own learning by giving them multiple opportunities to practice without fear of the consequences of ‘failing’ and allowing them to focus their resources (time, attention, energy) in the most productive ways to learn.

A few examples of ways you can incorporate formative feedback into your classroom are:

  • Journaling
  • Problem Sets (which students may complete at home)
  • In-Class Problem Solving Activities
  • Polling (on smart phones or clickers) using apps such as Poll Everywhere
  • Breaking larger projects into parts (ex. drafts of papers)
  • In-Class Discussion

There are many different ways you might incorporate formative assessment into your classroom. It is important to think about how you can become a professional “coach” in your own field, allowing students to practice, fail, and incorporate your feedback into their performances to make every student better at what he or she does in your classroom.


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