September/October 2017 – Vol. 30 No. 1

Formative Assessment vs. Checking for Understanding

Posted: Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

by Rick Pomeroy

Many teachers claim that they are doing formative assessment when checking for understanding but, unfortunately, this is not always the case. The difference between formative assessment and checking for understanding lies in the purpose of the activity and what is done with the information that is gained in the process. Formative assessment can be one of the most powerful tools in a teacher’s arsenal for improving student understanding when 

“….it improves instructional decisions, that are made by teachers, learners, and peers. The decisions can be immediate, on-the-fly, or longer term.”

“ The five key strategies (of formative assessment) are:

  • clarifying and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success.
  • engineering effective classroom discussions, questions, and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
  • providing feedback that moves learners forward
  • activating students as instructional resources for each other, and
  • activating students as owners of their own learning

The ‘big idea’ (being) that evidence about learning is used to adjust instruction to meet the students – in other words, teaching is adaptive to the learner’s needs.”

Dylan Wiliam (2011) p. 45-46, Embedded Formative Assessment.

Checking for understanding is an important strategy in any class. If you aren’t connected to your students and how they are processing the content you are presenting in lecture, discussion, or lab, it is impossible to know when to stop and restate or revisit an idea. Unfortunately, many teachers do not take this critical step. Instead, after checking where their students are, they press on due to pacing guides and bell schedules, often loosing the teachable moment that pausing and adjusting instruction would provide. In our fast-paced, assessment-driven curricula, it seems counter intuitive to take the time to stop and address a common misconception, a missed foundational point, or a key relationship between concepts. As teachers, we often feel that they may not fully “get it” as a result of this activity but when they grapple with it in homework, when it is addressed in the bell activity the next day, and when it is visited during the test review, surely they will understand. Do they?  Have those time “tested” strategies resulted in the deep and connected understanding that you would desire, or that the new NGSS driven instruction is striving for?  Based on my years of observing in classrooms, I would say that the results are often disappointing, resulting in the implementation of other, add on activities, to generate enough points for a passing grade.

I do not claim to be an expert on formative assessment but in recent months I have had several opportunities to visit this topic. In that process, I have learned a few key points: First, good formative assessment is not a mistake and it does not happen by chance. Formative assessment is part of an overall assessment plan that seeks to generate the kind of information a teacher needs to insure effective instruction. Second, there are excellent resources for formative assessment strategies. Third, when formative assessment is integrated into instruction at all levels, students learn its value and use those opportunities to improve both their content knowledge as well as their pedagogical skills. In short, students learn how to learn. It would be impossible to cover, in detail, one, much less all three, of these key points but there are many resources available to help teachers who genuinely seek to improve their formative assessment skills. The text that I found most useful in helping me clarify my ideas about formative assessment is Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, Second Edition, 1993, Angelo, T. and Cross, K. P.  Though the title indicates that the text is written for college faculty, the ideas about establishing an assessment system prior to instruction and the 50 Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATS) provide an excellent overview of the value of formative assessment and creative ways to engage classes of 20-200 in these practices.

As we move forward, we need to engage our students both in their understanding of the content and sharing what they don’t understand. Armed with that knowledge, it is imperative that we adjust our instruction to engage our students’ thinking and their participation in their own learning.

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Written by Rick Pomeroy

Rick Pomeroy

Rick Pomeroy is science education lecturer/supervisor in the School of Education, University of California Davis and is a past-president of CSTA.

One Response

  1. Your points are well taken and research based. Thank you.

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