By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Resting on my desk before me, a pale but lively shade of green, is a book titled Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning by Jan Chappuis. According to the blurb on the back cover, these three hundred twenty-one pages promise to “[change] teaching and learning and the teachers and students involved in the learning process”.
I came across this book when searching for materials for my Instructional Strategies class and discovered the first chapter published online for free. I was sold within minutes of browsing. This book discusses an instructional intervention that is widely regarded as one of the most effective means of enhancing student learning and closing the gap between low and high achievers. This book aims to take a practical look at how to implement a strategy that every teacher knows is important but cannot find the time for. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this book is about formative assessment.
I’ve shared some videos on formative assessment in past posts (which you can find here and here), and countless studies have convinced me that formative assessment is THE element of my classes that is most worth developing to improve student learning, but nothing I have read has yet offered the level of practical applications of formative assessment as this book, Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning.
And so, here, on Ask CCIT, I’ll share with you my journey through the book. As I start this series of posts, I have only read the first chapter. My goal with each post will be to summarize the most important and practical tips that I learn as I am reading, and to give you examples of how the book will change my way of teaching. I can only offer my experience as an English teacher, and so I encourage readers to post in the comments of each post to explain how you might apply the same lessons to different disciplines.
Let’s get on with Chapter 1, then—titled Assessment in Support of Learning.
In the first chapter, Chappuis defines formative assessment, outlines its effectiveness, and demonstrates how our assessment practices can actually change the culture of the classroom. She starts by differentiating the difference between formative and summative assessments, explaining that while summative assessments are typically formal evaluations that make a judgment about a student’s achievement, formative assessments are “processes teachers and students use to gather evidence for the purposes of informing next steps in learning”. One analogy I use to make sense of the difference is that a summative assessment (such as an exam, project, or final draft) is like the finish line, while formative assessments (the quizzes, rough drafts, and practices drills) are the pit stops along the way that ensure students will make it to the finish line.
The author stresses, however, that formative assessments are only formative if they are used to “adjust teaching and learning.” If I collect a rough draft from my students and give them no feedback on how to revise it, then it isn’t really formative. Even if I give them a grade for completion, I can’t call it a formative assessment because I’m not forming anything. The same can be said of homework practice, quizzes, discussion board posts, and so on. Later in the chapter, Chappuis stresses the dangers of simple completion grades when she says “when done is the goal rather than improved learning, growth is often marginal”.
Assessment that works
Now that we know what formative assessment is and is not, Chappuis summarizes several research studies to explain how we can make our formative assessments effective. Some of the most striking findings include the following:
- Assessments should be designed to assess particular learning targets so that teachers know which students need help in which areas.
- Timing is critical. Teachers need enough time to get feedback to students quickly, and students need enough time to take action on the feedback.
- Certain practices have been found to yield the best achievement gains:
- Using discussions, classroom tasks, and homework to gauge student mastery and identify targets for improvement
- Providing students with feedback on steps to improvement while they are learning
- Teaching students how to assess themselves and their peers
Assessment is not just for the teacher
With these points established, Chappuis goes on to show that assessment is a job for both the teacher and the student by citing Royce Sadler’s “indispensable conditions for improvement“. Sadler argues that in order to maximize learning, the student must be able to (1) have the same standards of quality work as the teacher, (2) evaluate his or her own mastery of learning targets, and (3) take appropriate corrective action in response to learning challenges.
As I read this section of the book, I was reminded of an activity I had my students do in a recent class (before I had read this chapter). I was trying to get students to understand my expectations for their descriptive writing assignments while also creating personal plans for improvement. The activity, in a nutshell, looked like this:
- Students read through the rubric descriptors for A, B, C, and F level work.
- As they read each section of the rubric, they also read a corresponding model from past students of A, B, and C level work (I don’t provide F level models).
- Using the rubric and models as a guide, students give their own draft a score.
- Students then create a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting their draft to the model that is one level higher than their own.
- Students write a list of actions they need to DO in order to make their draft reach the next level.
With this activity, I was unknowingly preparing my students for Chappuis’s “ultimate goal of formative assessment“, which is “both the teacher and the student know what actions to take to keep learning on a successful track”.
Assessment for learning
In the next section of this chapter, the author sets up the framework for the rest of the book. She introduces us to the concept of “assessment for learning”, which is the practice of involving students in the formative assessment process in order to both engage them and enhance their learning. Assessment for learning aims to equip students with the tools they need to answer three questions: “Where am I going?”, “Where am I now?”, and “How can I close the gap?”. Each of these questions is addressed by one or more of the “Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning”, as detailed in the figure below. The remaining six chapters of the book offer a practical guide to each of these strategies.
Assessment, motivation, and grading
Before Chappuis gets into the nitty-gritties of these strategies (i.e., the good stuff!), she ends the first chapter by discussing the relationship among assessment, motivation, and grading. Drawing on several sources, she classifies all students into three possible categories according to their motivations:
- Those with a learning orientation are motivated to improve themselves.
- Those with a performance or ego orientation are motivated to demonstrate their skill or to hide their lack of skill.
- Those with a task-completion orientation are motivated to complete their work for a grade.
Ideally, all of our students would have a learning orientation–they would come to class because they wanted to learn the material, and they would do the work because they understand its value. Unfortunately, these students are few and far between, but Chappuis gives hope by stressing that “our assessment practices do a great deal to shape students’ goal orientations“. To exemplify this, she provides several quotes from students. Compare these two and notice how the difference in the teachers’ assessment practice changes the mindset of the student:
|“I like it. You feel good when you get the quiz because you know, no pressure, you’re just going to find out what you need help in. I actually look forward to taking quizzes in his class because I myself don’t normally ask that much questions, so when I take the quiz … it points out what you’re doing wrong. So I love taking quizzes in his class. That’s a first”||“I’m doomed in English this year. All of my mistakes count against me.”|
If formative assessments are designed to “ding” students for their mistakes, then they will likely develop performance, ego, or task-completion orientations. If we want to foster learning orientations in our classrooms, then our formative assessments should allow for (and even expect) mistakes without penalty.
I think of formative assessments as training wheels on a bike. They let the students know when they aren’t performing correctly without the risk of a major fall. Do we penalize our children every time a training wheel touches the ground? No. So we shouldn’t penalize students if they get a question wrong on the quiz or if their outline is disorganized. Since the final goal is to pass the exam, to write the essay, to build the project–that is, to take the training wheels off–then that is when students’ mistakes should count against them: at the summative assessment.
But how can I motivate my students to do the work without grades?!?! That’s what was going through my mind at this point in the book, and I bet it’s going through yours as well. In fact, the thought of having ungraded assignments almost gives me a mini-panic attack. Visions of classrooms full of students who don’t bring their rough drafts to class haunt my dreams. But Chappuis isn’t doing away with grades, she is just moving them to where they belong. Grades are for evaluation, not motivation. If we bait our students to complete every learning activity with a grade, than we are not conditioning them to learn–we are conditioning them to complete assignments.
In my classes, I don’t give grades for formative assessments anymore. Students’ entire semester grade is determined by their summative evaluations; namely, three essays and a presentation. Formative assessments are not used for evaluation, but rather to measure students’ progress toward the final goal and create opportunities for corrective feedback.
How do I motivate students to complete them? Simple: I tell them that they have to. My policy is that I will not accept a summative assessment (e.g., the final draft), until students have satisfactorily completed all related formative assessments. Notice that I stressed the word satisfactorily. If a student doesn’t master the objective of a formative assessment, they must resubmit their work to show that they can master the objective. In this way, formative assessments become a sort of gatekeeper between students and the summative evaluation. To return to my previous analogy, formative assessments ensure that students don’t take the training wheels off too early.
Thanks for reading! Join me again next week when I explore Chapter 2, which looks at the first two strategies:
- Provide a clear and understandable vision of the learning target.
- Use examples and models of strong and weak work.
Until then, post your thoughts, your challenges, and your own examples in the comments.