Carrot / Stick

By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

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.

Defining assessment

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

Next Exit: Assessment

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:

  1. Students read through the rubric descriptors for A, B, C, and F level work.
  2. 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).
  3. Using the rubric and models as a guide, students give their own draft a score.
  4. Students then create a Venn diagram comparing and contrasting their draft to the model that is one level higher than their own.
  5. 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.

7 Strategies of Assessment for Learning

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:

  1. Those with a learning orientation are motivated to improve themselves.
  2. Those with a performance or ego orientation are motivated to demonstrate their skill or to hide their lack of skill.
  3. 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:

  1. Provide a clear and understandable vision of the learning target.
  2. Use examples and models of strong and weak work.

Until then, post your thoughts, your challenges, and your own examples in the comments.


  1. spouns4 years ago

    Whoa! This is a lot of really helpful information. I wish I had signed up for the course! This reminds me, for any of my fellow Writing Center Coordinators out there, of the Writing Center assessment book that everyone always raves about: Building Writing Center Assessments That Matter. I know the perspective is a lot different, but some of the suggestions for constructing assessments are surprisingly similar!

    1. Ish Stabosz4 years ago

      I haven’t heard of that one, Stacey. I’ll have to check it out.

  2. Cory Budischak4 years ago

    Ish, great post. Could you elaborate a little more on your policy of not assigning a grade to formative assessments? I am intrigued and want to know exactly how this works in your classroom.

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  4. Ish Stabosz4 years ago

    Sure thing, Cory. Basically, the students’ final grade for the course is only determined by the major assignments (the summative assessments): 3 essays and a presentation. Each of these summative assessments has a number of formative assessments tied to it. They are basically the stepping stones to completing the major assignment.

    So, for example, tomorrow I am collecting my students’ first major assignment: the final draft of their Observation essays. I just checked my grade book, and this major assignment has 15 formative assessments tied to it. These are made up of the homework and exit tickets that students complete on a daily basis. Some of these are easy assignments like “Read chapter 3 and write a list of the top 5 most important aspects of angle of vision”; some are medium assignments like “Draft a thesis statement for your reflective essay”; and some are hard assignments like “Write two descriptive paragraphs of the same scene from different angles of vision”. But they are all formative, meaning that they aren’t meant for evaluating students mastery yet. The formative assessments give me (and the students) a chance to see where they can improve so that when it is time for the summative evaluation, they are prepared.

    My official policy is that I won’t accept a student’s Observation Essay until he or she has satisfactorily completed all 15 of the formative assessments. If they submit a thesis statement that is completely off-track, they’ve got to revise it and run it by me before they can hand in the final draft. That’s the official policy, and for most students, that’s the way it goes.

    I am flexible though. I’ve got a couple students, for example, that for one reason or another didn’t get all of the formative assessments done. And, rather than overloading them with tons of makeup work, I’ve just worked with them individually to create alternative assessment plans. I still won’t let them submit the final draft until I’ve had the chance to formatively assess what needs assessing, I’ll just assess it on different terms than the 15 assignments that most of the class is doing. And, since the formative assessments aren’t actually calculated into the grade, this doesn’t mess up my grade book at all.

    I created this policy after coming across some research that followed 3 different cohorts of students: one cohort received just grades; another cohort received just feedback; and the final cohort received both grades and feedback. At the end of the study, they measured all of the students’ learning and found that the students who received ONLY feedback learned the most.

    I was trying to think about why this works, so I put myself in a hypothetical situation. I imagined myself as a math student who just received a quiz back. In one scenario, I get an 87% on the front page. What do I do? I flip through the quiz to find where I lost points with a mind set of “How can I improve my grade?”. In another scenario, there is no score on the front page. What do I do? I read through the entire quiz with a mindset of “What math skills or concepts did I miss?” The difference is subtle, but I think it helps explain something that the author of this book says: “Grades are important. Grades do matter. They simply don’t work well to guide learning.”

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  6. Ernie Kulhanek4 years ago


    Interesting post. Thanks for taking the time to share. It’s so funny…I guess I have always thought about formative assessment being crucial to student learning, however I never quite considered why. I am on record as saying that, although I love teaching and learning, I “hate tests, final essays, midterms, etc.” I dreaded them even more as a student than I do now as a teacher.

    I think this is because the way in which summative assessments were being used (by my teachers and, initially, by me). If formative assessments are used in the way you describe above, summative assessments can be viewed not as proof of what you don’t know, but rather affirmation of all of the progress you have made toward mastering a certain skill or concept. This makes the summative assignment something to look forward to rather than fear (at least in my mind).

    If our students get timely and useful feedback that helps them “fix” specific issues along the way (as your “15 steps toward turning in your paper assignment” describes), they should be able to reasonably predict how well they will do on the summative assessment before submission/completion. That is a powerful concept. I am looking forward to catching up on these posts! Thanks again.

  7. ketaninkorea4 years ago
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