formative assessment

***GUEST POST ALERT***

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…

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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.

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