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Formative Assessment

My current MA assignment is on Formative Assessment and as you might imagine the topic has been at the forefront of my mind recently. It’s a topic I’ve touched on before, and one I’ve wrestled with throughout my entire career.

When I was a trainee teacher I heard the term AfL constantly, I knew it stood for “Assessment for learning”, but I knew very little else.  I remember being shown a video of Dylan Wiliam running a classroom experiment where they removed grades from marking and replaced hands up questioning with lolly sticks. An interesting video, not least because the top achieving girl stole the stick with her own name on!

During my teaching placement I heard on more than one occasion “you need more AfL, use lolly sticks or whiteboards”, I heard comments like “that’s a good card match, and it covers your AfL”, once I heard “get them standing up to cover your AfL”. None of this helped. I still managed to finish my PGCE with only a slim grasp on what AfL even was.

Similarly, my NQT year started without any real ideas, but I started to get to grips when my mentor discussed mini whiteboards and how she’d seen people not use them properly, having pupils wave them as soon as they have an answer. I began to realise their use, and gain a better understanding.

As time progressed I became more reflective and I began to think more about the formative assessment I used. I realised that even though I was doing the assessment right, ensure whole class answers were shown together etc there was no point, as it didn’t affect what I was doing. I was using whiteboards to check understanding but teaching the lesson the same. To be effective, surely the plans have to change.

This realisation rocked my perception a little. Up until this point I had thought that ensuring lessons were thoroughly planned was they key. I now realise that willingness and ability to divert from those plans is. If the students can all do, without prompting, the subject of the lesson when it starts, there’s no point teaching them. But similarly, there’s no point moving on after they’ve done something once as they will not retain that information. Formative Assessment must be constant and effect the lesson, you should be checking baselines, checking they have the skills and knowledge to attempt a task, checking they are practising those to ensure retention.

The same principles apply to written feedback, the longer it goes the more useless it becomes. If you mark every two weeks, at the end of a topic say, and a learner has picked up a misconception you have missed in lesson 1 then there’s a strong likelihood that there’s going to be an issue all through. That’s why checking work in class, as it’s being completed, is imperative. That way you can catch the issues as they happen and correct them on the spot.

There’s a lot of research and writing out there on Formative Assessment, and currently I’ve only just brushed the surface, but I’m adequately intrigued to see what others have said.

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  1. May 16, 2015 at 12:11 am

    I think you hit the nail on the head in the first couple of paragraphs. AfL is something bandied about constantly during ITT but I certainly didn’t really have a true understanding of what it is – I got told things like “mini whiteboards allow you to tick off the AfL criteria” etc. But I’d do these bits of the lesson with them and then carry on as planned. It was only when I started relaxing with the whole planning thing and was willing to go more with the flow of the lesson at the time that these kind of things actually seemed to start working.
    Do you think this realisation could be taught? Or do you think it just comes from experience?

    • May 16, 2015 at 12:13 am

      I think it certainly could be taught better than it is. It makes sense when you think about it.

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