May/June 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 7

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.

One Response

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

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Participate in Chemistry Education Research Study, Earn $500-800 Dollars!

Posted: Tuesday, May 9th, 2017

WestEd, a non-profit educational research agency, has been funded by the US Department of Education to test a new molecular modeling kit, Happy Atoms. Happy Atoms is an interactive chemistry learning experience that consists of a set of physical atoms that connect magnetically to form molecules, and an app that uses image recognition to identify the molecules that you create with the set. WestEd is conducting a study around the effectiveness of using Happy Atoms in the classroom, and we are looking for high school chemistry teachers in California to participate.

As part of the study, teachers will be randomly assigned to either the treatment group (who uses Happy Atoms) or the control group (who uses Happy Atoms at a later date). Teachers in the treatment group will be asked to use the Happy Atoms set in their classrooms for 5 lessons over the course of the fall 2017 semester. Students will complete pre- and post-assessments and surveys around their chemistry content knowledge and beliefs about learning chemistry. WestEd will provide access to all teacher materials, teacher training, and student materials needed to participate.

Participating teachers will receive a stipend of $500-800. You can read more information about the study here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/HappyAtoms

Please contact Rosanne Luu at rluu@wested.org or 650.381.6432 if you are interested in participating in this opportunity, or if you have any questions!

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption Reviewer Application

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education are now accepting applications for reviewers for the 2018 Science Instructional Materials Adoption. The application deadline is 3:00 pm, July 21, 2017. The application is comprehensive, so don’t wait until the last minute to apply.

On Tuesday, May 9, 2017, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson forwarded this recruitment letter to county and district superintendents and charter school administrators.

Review panel members will evaluate instructional materials for use in kindergarten through grade eight, inclusive, that are aligned with the California Next Generation Science Content Standards for California Public Schools (CA NGSS). Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Lessons Learned from the NGSS Early Implementer Districts

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

On March 31, 2017, Achieve released two documents examining some lessons learned from the California K-8 Early Implementation Initiative. The initiative began in August 2014 and was developed by the K-12 Alliance at WestEd, with close collaborative input on its design and objectives from the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and Achieve.

Eight (8) traditional school districts and two (2) charter management organizations were selected to participate in the initiative, becoming the first districts in California to implement the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Those districts included Galt Joint Union Elementary, Kings Canyon Joint Unified, Lakeside Union, Oakland Unified, Palm Springs Unified, San Diego Unified, Tracy Joint Unified, Vista Unified, Aspire, and High Tech High.

To more closely examine some of the early successes and challenges experienced by the Early Implementer LEAs, Achieve interviewed nine of the ten participating districts and compiled that information into two resources, focusing primarily on professional learning and instructional materials. Learn More…

Written by California Science Teachers Association

California Science Teachers Association

CSTA represents science educators statewide—in every science discipline at every grade level, Kindergarten through University.

Using Online Simulations to Support the NGSS in Middle School Classrooms

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

by Lesley Gates, Loren Nikkel, and Kambria Eastham

Middle school teachers in Kings Canyon Unified School District (KCUSD), a CA NGSS K-8 Early Implementation Initiative district, have been diligently working on transitioning to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) integrated model for middle school. This year, the teachers focused on building their own knowledge of the Science and Engineering Practices (SEPs). They have been gathering and sharing ideas at monthly collaborative meetings as to how to make sure their students are not just learning about science but that they are actually doing science in their classrooms. Students should be planning and carrying out investigations to gather data for analysis in order to construct explanations. This is best done through hands-on lab experiments. Experimental work is such an important part of the learning of science and education research shows that students learn better and retain more when they are active through inquiry, investigation, and application. A Framework for K-12 Science Education (2011) notes, “…learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. Thus the framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 Science Education” (pg. 11).

Many middle school teachers in KCUSD are facing challenges as they begin implementing these student-driven, inquiry-based NGSS science experiences in their classrooms. First, many of the middle school classrooms at our K-8 school sites are not designed as science labs. Learn More…

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Written by NGSS Early Implementer

NGSS Early Implementer

In 2015 CSTA began to publish a series of articles written by teachers participating in the NGSS Early Implementation Initiative. This article was written by an educator(s) participating in the initiative. CSTA thanks them for their contributions and for sharing their experience with the science teaching community.

Celestial Highlights: May – July 2017

Posted: Monday, May 8th, 2017

May Through July 2017 with Web Resources for the Solar Eclipse of August 21, 2017

by Robert C. Victor. Twilight sky maps by Robert D. Miller. Graphs of planet rising and setting times by Jeffrey L. Hunt.

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Written by Robert Victor

Robert Victor

Robert C. Victor was Staff Astronomer at Abrams Planetarium, Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs, CA. Robert is a member of CSTA.