formative assessment


It is with great pleasure that I host my first ever guest post. The following blog post is courtesy of my dear friend, Manuel Alex Solano. Alex is a fellow student in the MAT-ESOL program at Marlboro College Graduate School. He has been teaching English as a Second Language in Costa Rica for the past seven years. Two of those years have been spent as a teacher trainer. Alex has a BA in TESOL as well as a number of teaching certificates from SIT, including: workshop design, adult learning theory, compassionate communication, and most recently formative assessment.

OK! let’s talk assessment…


Throughout life we constantly face moments in which we evaluate situations, things, or people. This also makes us objects of critical observation or examination. When this happens, when people are being evaluated or judged, there is a sense of unfairness that makes us ask ourselves questions such as; Does she/he know who I am? Or has she/he even taken her/his time to understand why I did that? This idea of something not being fair appears especially when the results of the examinations are perceived as negative.

In the classroom some situations are similar. Students evaluate their peers and teachers on different aspects while teachers do the same with students, but most times only to test their abilities, knowledge, and even memory. Many times students think they are not being evaluated fairly and sometimes they might be right.

What do most institutions want to see by the end of the courses? Of course they want to see grades. It could be letters or numbers but it has to be a tool that “shows” that learners are either ready to pass a course or to graduate. Institutions want something to magically turn learning into figures, something more concrete. Is that possible? How can teachers represent in numbers how much a student has learned? Are we informing our students about their progress when we give them grades? Are we treating students fairly? Do final tests always show students’ progress?

There is a tool we can use to assess students’ learning and to provide them with a clear picture of their progress. It is known as formative assessment. This tool might be the key to answer some of our questions, but what is formative assessment? What is actually useful or beneficial about it?

We use the general term assessment to refer to all those activities undertaken by teachers—and by their students in assessing themselves—that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs.

Black, P. & William, D. 1998. Inside the black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, King’s College, London

Formative assessment refers to a variety of techniques or methods teachers use to observe students’ progress/learning and identify needs. The purpose of this is to gather as much feedback as possible to make any kind of adjustment needed in order to better opportunities for students to acquire knowledge, or for them to learn within a more holistic experience. It is important to remember that tools such as self-assessment and peer-assessment could also be part of formative assessment. This will also inform students of their own development.

There are some important characteristics we should keep in mind when designing formative assessment tools. Two of them are validity and reliability. Validity we understand as the extent in which an assessment tool measures what it says it is measuring. In other words, the tool must be designed in the same format we teach and addressing the same material that we cover with our students in class. In this case, reliability may be defined/understood as how much we can trust that the results would be similar if the tool was used at a different time or place. In other words, no factor other than knowledge affects the results of the given tool.

For assessment tools we have quizzes, presentations, charts, tests, and others. Basically we can make any kind of tool formative, as long as we do not use it for grading and as long as we use it to inform our students and our selves of where students are, where we all want them to get, and where students arrive. It is not about the final results but about the progress students make. With this we can keep our institutions’ rules but we can bend the way we get to those only for our students’ learning benefits.

So, wouldn’t it be great to take our time, gather information, observe and compare results to use those as feedback to improve relationships with people? If the answer is no, at least as teachers we should follow these principles to focus more on students’ growth and less on numbers or letters. The fact that a student is not ready to go to the next level it, does not mean she/he has not improved. Therefore, it is in our hands to gather information and make students participants of this progress to witness learning and development. By doing so we are letting everybody know how much we care and we are also promoting autonomy so that students become more responsible for their own learning.


assumption hunting

A snapshot of my current thoughts and feelings surrounding reflective practice.


Seeking out and identifying the assumptions I have, the underlying biases that define my personal understandings, is a step in my reflective practice that I have only recently begun to explicitly explore. It is challenging. Discovering the unconscious biases that define the perspective through which I view the classroom, and the world, is not an easy web to untangle.

How does one seek out assumptions that are unconscious? This is a question with no easy answer, no definitive result. Hunting assumptions is a process, one in which I’m aiming to make a recurring objective in my critical reflective practice. If I take for granted that I am constantly learning, growing and experiencing the world around me; I must also take for granted that the assumptions that guide my beliefs and practices in the classroom are also ever changing.

Assumptions are not, in of themselves, bad things. Assumptions help to guide my decision making as a teacher. As Brookfield states, “informed actions…are based on assumptions that have been carefully and critically investigated.” If I accept this, the objective is not to eliminate assumptions from my teaching practice, but to better understand and analyze those assumptions through a process of reflective investigation. Such inquiry better places me to assess whether or not my assumptions have a concrete base on which to stand.

Open mindedness is a prerequisite to a successful investigation of these unconscious biases. Without an acceptance to consider all possibilities the very assumptions I seek will blind me from finding them. It is important to remember that “[open-mindedness] is not a blind acceptance of all ideas without intelligent critique. Rather it means a willingness to entertain different perspectives, coupled with an acceptance of the ‘possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us” (Rodgers). It is easy to observe benefits in being open minded, far harder is finding the strength to walk the walk, to remain open to all possibilities, even those that poke the emotive, soft center of my inner self.

Building a safe space, creating a judgement free zone, is a requirement for both individual and group reflection. However, even with such a space created, the onus of open-mindedness falls upon myself alone. It is a state of being that requires presence and a continual willingness to examine my thoughts, feelings and needs. It is a demand of reflective practice that has at times scared me. I have found that fear has caused a reflexive defensiveness that inhibits my ability to successfully discover the assumptions hidden within my practice.

Accepting ‘the possibility of error’ with myself is a challenge. Doing so in a group brings with it challenges on a greater scale. Understanding that “[reflection] is incomplete if not done in the company of others”(Dewey) is one thing. Finding the motivation and strength for open-minded critical reflective inquiry within a group can only be found within myself.

By remembering that, “no action a teacher takes can ever be experienced as universally and uniformly positive” (Brookfield) I try to preempt my fear of analyzing beliefs that guide my decisions. I try to remind myself that reflecting on my teaching leads not to a final judgement, good or bad, but rather to a greater awareness of why I make the decisions I do. It is this raised awareness, this greater understanding of the inner terrain that defines my world, in which I was formerly blind or ignorant of, that maintains my integrative motivation regards reflective practice.

Reflective practice also provides an enormous boost to the enjoyment and satisfaction I have in my job. Having peers and colleagues on which to rely, on whom I can count on not to judge, but to assist me in seeing the different perspectives that are necessary to accurately hunt down the assumptions that guide me, is invaluable.

Hunting assumptions requires much, but the benefit I have derived from doing so has been many times greater. I am looking forward to continuing this hunt and developing a greater awareness of myself and my teaching practice.


Some questions for all you readers out there

What do you think of when you hear the words “reflective practice”? How do you maintain the motivation to develop and grow as a teacher? What challenges have you faced in doing so?

Brookfield, Stephen. “The Getting of Wisdom: What Critically Reflective Teaching is and Why It’s Important”
Dewey, John. “How We Think”.
Rodgers, Carol. “The Role of Descriptive Inquiry in Building Presence and Civic Capacity”.

feedback for the sake of feedback

I know feedback is important. One method I employ to garner feedback is to give my students a couple written questions every day.

I then take the responses and read them. I comment on them. Or I ask questions. Often times I request more specific information.

I take great pride in collecting feedback and reviewing it assiduously. I believe all this effort helps to show students my interest in their learning. It also provides a line of communication that may prove more accessible to students. It makes me a more effective teacher (at least that is what I tell myself when I look in the mirror).

All well and good. But what is it all for?

In my previous post I discussed losing my focus. I managed to lose it even while eliciting daily feedback in a number of ways. How, you might ask, did this happen.

Asking for feedback, collecting it, talking about it is all for not if we don’t bloody listen to it.

While in class today I heard a number of students tell me (for the umpteenth time) they have a hard time with taking notes. Something finally clicked. They had been giving me feedback for days requesting specific help with taking notes on what they are listening to.

Instead of listening, I carried on doing what, in my mind, was needed. Somehow I allowed their requests to enter my brain space but not sink into my thoughts on how to guide their learning. I allowed the demands of a static curriculum to guide me, not the needs of my students. I was aware of what my students needed, but it was a superficial awareness. The dots between the feedback and planning didn’t connect.

There are all kinds of interpretations we can infer from this reflection on my teaching. Your guess is as good as mine at the moment (more self reflection certainly called for).

Feedback is meant to help us adjust, to be flexible to the ever changing contexts of the classroom. Feedback is meant to help us meet the needs of individuals and classes as a whole.

It doesn’t do any good to elicit feedback if we aren’t actually going to be present to our students needs and plan our lessons accordingly.




trying to do everything…

…and getting nothing done. Or, to be more precise, failing to satisfactorily facilitate learning.

Over the past week and two days I have begun teaching again. It is the first time back in a classroom since the end of January. I am in a new country. I am already on my second apartment (which both have different voltage standards = huge headache) since my arrival. I have taken over a class, in the middle of an 8 week term, from a teacher who left due to a lack of…well he wasn’t a good fit shall we say.

Basically, I have been tasked with completing a term worth of work in half the time. This is hard enough in the best of times, but when I am still learning myriad admin duties …whilst trying to settle in professionally and personally … and help students with developing classroom/learning skills outside of the remit for the course.. the situation calls to mind one word, cluster….difficulty.

And yet I have been working my tail off to manage it all; perhaps from naivety, perhaps from hubris.

While I was reflecting on this clusterdifficulty today I realized that I had allowed the immensity of the task to consume me like quicksand. I realized I had lost my focus.

Somewhere in the mess of life I stopped facilitating learning. Instead my focus turned to keeping the juggling act going at all costs.

We teachers manage an immense amount on our proverbial plates. I know that I have often taken pride in how much I can handle on mine. There is, however, a limit to our abilities to manage.

I know now that when I try to do too much it is my learners who suffer.

Reflection, feedback and experience all helped pull me out of the quicksand. And you know what, I’m not upset with myself for losing focus. Believe you me, this is a major surprise to myself most of all. Usually the self flagellation takes at least 24 hours to work itself out of my system. I put this success down to presence. Daily practice with being present has provided a monumental shift with how I interact with the world. But most importantly it has provided the most wonderful gift, true self compassion. Words yet fail me in attempting to explain this. But I am sure I will find them, most likely in a future blog post.

And so ends this rambly blog entry. Here’s to avoiding the quicksand and finding the self compassion to truly be kind with ourselves.


This post is dedicated to (a very few of) the books/articles/presentation that have facilitated a fantastic amount of genuine (Tony Gurr style) LEARNing for me this past summer. LEARNing which has made me eager to get back into the classroom and continue my personal LEARNing journey through the practice of teaching and reflecting critically.

The following sources of learning are followed by short summaries of my personal learning from each.

Donald Freeman’s presentation on teacher development 

July 2014

Freeman’s presentation was phenomenal and rich. He spoke of teacher development, specifically how content is defined in a TESOL classroom. Thanks to this presentation I have found a way to clearly define some of the fuzzy thoughts that have rolled around my head since my career began. As I have learned well this summer, making what is tacit, explicit is a critical skill (a skill this blog is meant to assist me with).

Instead of coming to class with a suitcase full of language, I try to bring an empty suitcase (Freeman’s metaphor). I am then prepared to take that suitcase and close it around content autonomously chosen by learners. I want to take that content and manipulate it in order to orient learner attention to the form, meaning, use of language. Skills involved in these tasks include: using information garnered from interaction with and among students to design/provide engaging contexts, highlighting the pragmatic qualities of use and implications of intonation, matching learner needs with course requirements, analyzing the usefulness of learner errors and adjusting tasks to meet the needs of learner, persistence in requesting feedback. When learners lose engagement with content, change the content by mining learner output and explicitly requesting feedback from learners.

—–Find openness to question self

“Social Identity, Investment and Language Learning” (Norton Pierce 1997)

Norton Pierce produced a stellar piece of research which really helped inform my thoughts surrounding learner identity and it’s effect on language learning. The author here convincingly reconceptualizes current second language acquisition (SLA) theories conceptions of the individual.

A binary view of learner motivation is inadequate when the multi-faceted and fluctuating nature of identity is understood.

“confusion arises because artificial distinctions are drawn between the individual and the social, which lead to arbitrary mapping of particular factors on either the individual or the social, with little rigorous justification”

Thanks to understanding found in this article I now hope to find new ways of facilitating learner investment in their learning journeys by helping them acquire tools needed to enter and maintain conversation, namely by focusing on increasing phatic and pragmatic competence. It is my theory that if these skills are honed, learners begin to feel they own the language they use. That is when the magic happens.

“Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching” (Cook 1999)

Cook was instrumental in helping me make sense of my thoughts surrounding English as a lingua franca.

A few snapshots of my notes:

– The native speaker is not a monolith

– The native speaker norm intimidates learners

– Considerations of learner mulit-competency should be a component of task/lesson creation

I’ve always considered unattainable goals demoralizing and agree with Cook in believing we should redefine the Native Speaker/Non-native Speaker paradigm as L1/L2 users of language. Each user of the language owns their own version of it. Learner goals should reflect learner need and context.

“selections from the work of Earl Stevick” (2015)

Stevick was perhaps the most enjoyable of resources I encountered this summer. His ideas on the roles of the teacher and learner were very enlightening. If you haven’t yet encountered his work, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What I pulled from the first two chapters of this book:

– if what reinforces your self image contradicts/detracts from mine, mine is threatened

– the stakes in any social encounter are high

– deep experiences draw more energy from our “world of meaningful action” and in turn help to shape that world

– critical self plays a negative role when the performing self fails to meet expectations

– Students need to know that choices offered them fit into the teachers overall plan and that they are not presented with them out of teacher weakness

Reading Stevick has helped me better define how to find a holistic understanding to language teaching. His ideas on teaching and the classroom have provoked an immense amount of personal reflection and have helped to orient my attention to aspects of teaching that I had previously been blind to. If I recommended one person to read, it would be Earl Stevick.


It was a remarkable summer and these tidbits don’t come close to highlighting all the wonderful resources I encountered (some of which I hope to cover in future posts).






I have been exploring Non-violent communication (NVC) for some time now. Recently I have been orienting my focus towards empathetic listening and it’s application in a community learning context.

In doing so I have received some quality feedback, the most striking being, “You ask too many questions!”

This really surprised me. How can we ask too many questions? Isn’t providing a space for others to detail there thoughts a productive exercise? Doesn’t that space allow for the kind of empathy and understanding that we need when expressing the thoughts and ideas we hold dear?

And there I go again with my questions.

Pondering this conundrum, reflecting on it with friends and personally, has taken up a fair chunk of my time recently.

I think I’m starting to find the clear edges to ideas that were fuzzy and ill-defined at the start.


There is so much to unpack in this question it is difficult to properly outline it here. The gist is that every experience, ever interaction exists in isolation. As an empathetic listener we have to be present, existing in the moment only.

In addition, we (as a listener) need to identify the specific context to this encounter. Does the speaker(s) need to be heard, or want feedback? Perhaps the speaker(s) desires our opinion or insight? What is the topic of discussion? How personal are the thoughts being expressed? Do we need to tread lightly or does the speaker wish us to be clear and assert our perspective? How do we adjust ourselves with the ever changing dynamics of the conversation?

How we handle and respond to all of these questions will differ on who we are and how we read each encounter.


Questions are a powerful tool. They can help to illuminate a speaker’s needs as well as clarify the meaning or intention of a speakers utterance.

Questions can also be a major stumbling block to communication. The body language, tone and intention behind our questions have a major impact on how they are received and responded to by our interlocutor.

Considering this fact I have been trying to come up with some identifying markers to these different types of questions. In addition, I’ve been wondering what the benefits and pitfalls to each might be.

1) Targeted questions: The goal of a targeted question is to get the speaker to illuminate a specific point or clarify a specific utterance so that we might better understand their meaning or intention. These questions can be helpful if applied in the right way at the right times. However, they easily can be misinterpreted or misunderstood. The right tone, body language and word choice is vital to conveying the genuineness of our intentions.

2) Targeting questions: The goal of a targeting question is to get the speaker to illuminate a specific aspect so that we might argue the point, steer the conversation in a way that allows us to respond the way we want, or demonstrate our perceived superior knowledge on the subject. These types of questions are seductive to a listener who is bent on making a point or “enlightening” their interlocutor as to a “better” path/way/idea. These questions are dangerous and lead to conflict.

TargetED questions can easily be misinterpreted for targetING questions based on the tone, wording or body language we employ when posing the question. In addition, we need to be aware that our interlocutors personal culture may perceive an attack EVEN IF we are being conscious of the above mentioned obstacles. As an empathetic listener it is vital that in times like these that we effectively filter the emotions behind our interlocutor’s responses so as to understand the meaning and basis for the speakers resistance.

3) Illuminating questions: The goal of an illuminating question is to receive clarification or added depth to a speakers utterance. These questions allow a speaker the space to freely respond. These questions build awareness and understanding of a speaker’s point. Tone, body language and wording are all critical in employing these questions successfully.

4) Directed illuminating questions: These are questions we ask when we want the speaker to clarify or go deeper, but in a specific way we have predestined for the speaker. These questions can pose an obstacle for the questioner because they require us to truly be aware of ourselves and our own intentions. These questions can very easily be formed in an illuminated way (see #3), but when we do not hear an answer that follows an expected path we reframe and ask again and again until the speaker goes in the direction we want. These types of questions can cause immense friction between the interlocutors, easily leading to a breakdown in communication altogether.


Questions can be a tricky business, but they are vital to the successful, meaningful interactions that build connections between two people. With an open heart and mind the right questions can lead to discovery, learning and a strengthened bond. Without these attributes encounters have the possibility of becoming ugly, disconnecting and self defeating.

I am sure these are but a few of the question categories to be considered. I would be very interested to hear thoughts or additions that anyone else may have.


I would like to stress that all of this requires practice and that I, nor anyone else, has all the answers. These are personal, self discoveries I have made and would like to share. I am always open to others discoveries and discussions surrounding the snapshots of thinking that are presented herein on this blog.






Empathetic Listening

Graduate school has started with a bang. Orientation has come and gone. Classes have begun in earnest and our collective journey of learning has begun to take shape.

There are ten of us. From vastly differing backgrounds we have come together to develop as human beings as well as educators. The incredible diversity of personal experience has led to a rich and challenging learning environment that I am sure will yield much fruit.

A key component to collective learning is the idea of empathetic listening. It is a skill that demands continual practice. It is a skill many believe they have, but few truly obtain.

To empathetically listen we must first be wholly present. Chuang-Tzu put it well

The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another. But the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence it demands the emptiness of all faculties. And when the faculties are empty, then the whole being listens. There is then a direct grasp of what is right there before you that can never be heard with the ear or understood with the mind.” 

Creating emptiness of faculties is far easier said than done.

Listening empathetically demands nothing but you. The past matters not, and neither does the future. Only your presence in the here and now is required. Maintaining this presence is a struggle. It is this struggle that demands our constant attention.

Success in this endeavour yields the positive connections that underpin our interactions, and thus the experiences that shape us as human beings.

It is hard to remember a time that have I returned home at the end of the day feeling so enriched, challenged and mentally fatigued as I have following each day of this previous week. It’s a magnificent feeling.

Listening empathetically is perhaps one of the greatest gifts we can give to others. When speaking with another today, try only to be there. Don’t think of the next thing you’d like to say. Don’t offer advice. Don’t one-up or educate. Don’t console, tell a story or shut down the line of communication. Don’t sympathize or interrogate. Don’t correct or explain. Simply listen with your whole being and respond spontaneously.

A large debt of gratitude for this post needs be paid to Marshall Rosenburg. The ideas herein are generated largely from his fantastic book NonViolent Communication: A Language of Life.