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Five core principles for formative action

Hilly Drok, Flemming van de Graaf

In the last twenty-five years, formative action – or formative assessment – has become a common part of education . Yet there still appear to be many misconceptions and ambiguities about what formative action is, exactly, and how it can be used effectively by teachers. In this blog, we want to share five core principles of formative action. These principles clarify what formative action is, but more importantly, also indicate what it is not.

Below we will discuss the following five principles of formative action:

  1. Not a method of assessment | but a method of pedagogy
  2. Not going gradeless | but constructive alignment
  3. No time-consuming data collecting | but time-saving in practice
  4. No transmission feedback | but transformative feedback
  5. Not a packed and incoherent curriculum | but a clear and coherent curriculum

 

1. Not a method of assessment, but a method of pedagogy

Not a method of assessment

In the Netherlands we stopped using the term formative assessment, a term that is widely used and by which this particular teaching approach has become known. The term however creates the misconception that it is about testing or grading rather than pedagogy. Teachers would say things like: “your grade for this subject is the average of three formative tests” or “he missed the formative test, so he has to make it up on Friday afternoon at four o’clock”. And these are not statements that fit the pedagogy that we advocate when we speak of formative action.

Method of pedagogy

We started using the term formative action because it is a pedagogical method that ensures that teacher and students can get a better handle on the student’s learning process, in which both teacher and student have a role to play. Formative action makes it quicker, easier and more precise to check if what has been explained by teachers has actually been mastered, so that it becomes clear what the next step in the learning process should be.

In doing so, formative action is goal-oriented action: you are always thinking about the question, ‘what information do we need now in order to decide on the next step in the instructional process?’ And what do I want students to think about right now? That way, it’s about the student’s learning outcome and here the learning process is the focus, not the teacher’s schedule, the handbook’s approach, or the grade the student receives.

Moreover, “formative” is not a characteristic of a test or assessment moment, but the characteristic of a decision you make based on information gathered from students. Formative action involves looking at where the student is at the beginning of the learning process and using that information to determine what a good next step might be. The teacher or student can use the information gathered to make a more informed decision about the next step in the learning process than would have happened without it[1[i]].

Summative assessment, by contrast, is related to whether learning has actually occurred (mastery) and is preferably planned at the end of a learning process, so that a student also has time and practice to achieve mastery.

Practical tips

  • Before class, think carefully about at what point you need information to determine whether students have mastered the material sufficiently to proceed.
  • You can use all sorts of ways to retrieve that information (a whiteboard, raising fingers or an online tool such as Padlet or Mentimeter), but in all cases: think about the goal first, and only then follow up with the tool with which you want to retrieve the required information.
  • It is advisable to apply the maxim that you can proceed on to the next topic when about 80% of the students have mastered the material.
  • Use diagnostic tasks and questions in your lessons to check if students have mastered the material.
  • Check for specific misconceptions that you know are common to the topic covered. Discuss with colleagues which misconceptions are common in the topics you cover.

 

2. Not going gradeless, but constructive alignment

Not going gradeless

Sometimes teachers or school leaders say, “We no longer grade student work at school, because we work formatively,” or conversely, “We don’t want to start with formative action, because we don’t want to get rid of grades.” While it certainly not helpful to grade students in a process of formative action, because this will usually stop the learning, you can still grade students work at the end of a learning process. Even when you have employed formative action during that learning process.

Schools sometimes take up formative action because they believe their students are being given to many tests and exams. When there is too much focus on assessment, it quickly leads to – what we in The Netherlands call – “sweating, achieving, forgetting,” where a student will study hard, the knowledge is stored in their memory long enough to pass a test, but disappears from memory immediately afterwards. Indeed, putting less focus on grades can be a very healthy development for a school, because this can have a positive impact on their long-term learning.

Still, a reduction in the quantity of grades does not immediately mean working entirely without grades. At the end of a lesson series, it is useful for both teachers and students (and their parents) to know whether the learning objectives have been met. So while it can be a very good idea to put less emphasis on grades and assessment, and using and designing tests and exams in a more focused way, summative assessment, and thus grades, can certainly exist alongside formative action.

Constructive alignment

Even when teaching according to the principles of formative action, the learning process can be concluded by an assignment or test whose results are used for a summative decision, for example in the form of a grade. Formative action is, in part, about better aligning the learning goals that the teacher has set with the activities that help the student achieve those learning goals, and the assessment that measures whether the goals have been achieved. This process is better known as “constructive alignment”.

If you want to reduce assessment pressure at school, you can use fewer summative assessment moments. In some cases, the time spent on summative tests can be replaced by time for pedagogy, e.g. by working towards better mastery through repeated recall. This is the case, for example, when there is a so-called sub-goal, e.g. when students need to expand their vocabulary in order to maintain a conversation in French, or when students need to be able to apply certain concepts in order to analyze a social problem.

But formative action is not a substitute for summative assessment. Formative action and summative assessment are two different processes with very different goals, ways of gathering information and “game rules”, and therefore cannot replace each other. When there is too much assessment pressure or there are too many summative assessments in the curriculum, there is a “testing problem” to be solved, and that cannot be done by pedagogical processes. Also it is not beneficial to just replace the graded summative assessment with a gradeless ‘formative assessment’. The risk when that does happen is that the processes of formative action are secretly deployed as summative tests after all; that is explicitly not the function of formative action and can lead to an unsafe learning climate due to the clouding of the processes.

So it is important to design moments of summative assessment well and think carefully about what you want to assess. Summative exams or assignments can be very valuable at the end of the learning process. A grade can be good evidence to a student to which extent the learning objectives have been met. It is then seen not as a moment of reckoning, but as a moment when the student can also celebrate that the learning objective has been achieved and is capable of independently solving a particular task or question.

Practical Tips

– Start by formulating your main and subgoals: what should students master (independently) for your subject? Pay attention to the use of observable and active verbs. These can be found, for example, in Bloom’s taxonomy. Consider what you want your students to memorize. Based on this you can determine what information you need to assess whether goals have been met: the assessment. Only then you can figure out which interim checkpoints you want to build in to make sure that you and the students can see whether they have mastered the material and/or are on the right track.

  • Consult colleagues about the most appropriate moments to collect information from students. This will give you a better view of the moments in a lesson series when this is needed. Even better, construct what we call a PedRo: a pedagogical roadmap.
  • Make use of the test effect: when students try to retrieve information from long-term memory, they are already learning; even when students cannot remember the information.
  • Let the learning material reappear to students as often as possible. The more repetition, the better the learning is remembered. For tips on how to apply this, you can read theory on a spiral curriculum (e.g., The hidden lives of learners by Graham Nuthall from 2007).

 

3. No time-consuming data collection, but time-saving in practice

No time-consuming data collection

Many teachers are fearful that formative action mainly means a lot of extra work. Based on the idea that it is important to monitor student progress, teachers sometimes tend to collect data on where individual students stand in their learning process all the time. This is a very time-consuming activity, which, moreover, is not always effective.

First of all this takes responsibility away from the student, and this is counterproductive considering formative action is meant to help students progress on the road toward autonomy. In addition to this,  collecting data can get in the way of actually acting on the data. Information from the processes of formative action provides teachers or students insight into what the next step in the learning process should be at that exact moment.

Time-saving action in practice

By integrating processes of formative action into your lessons, it will become clear to you whether students have sufficiently mastered the material you have taught. That way you know whether you can continue or whether the students will for example need extra practice. This way, as a teacher, you constantly fine tune your lessons to students’ levels of mastery.

Of course, not every student moves at the same speed and not every student needs the same amount of practice or explanation. Nevertheless, it is not necessary as a teacher to keep precise track of each student’s development. The group as a whole often gives an overall impression of the mastery of the learning objectives.

Again, you can use the maxim that when 80% of the students give the right answer, you can move on. Obviously, you should not leave the remaining 20% to their own devices, but the rest of the class need not wait for them. In other cases, half the class will need additional instruction while the other half can already move on. By letting students keep track of what their follow-up action should be, this ultimately ensures that they are more independent in shaping their own learning.

Practical tips

  • Provide diagnostic questions that give you information at a glance. Whiteboards can be very helpful in this regard, but various online tools can also help.
  • Give the answer options colors or other codes, which students keep themselves. Each code corresponds to a different follow-up action, e.g.: extra practice with topic 1, extra practice with topic 2, move on to topic 3.
  • Take a pictures of student answers. You can discuss these (anonymized!) answers with the whole class. All students then write down the feedback that they can use for their own work.
  • The more often you work this way, the more students will get used to monitoring their own learning and thus the more you can leave it up to the student.

 

4. No transmission feedback, but transformative feedback

No transmission feedback

The general idea about feedback has long been that feedback should follow a task as quickly as possible and be very detailed. However, recent research shows that this is not (necessarily) optimal. For example, it appears that feedback that is too detailed produces little learning. One reason for this is that the learner is left with little to think about.

The ideal timing of feedback is also up for debate. In some cases it is pleasant for the student to receive feedback as soon as possible, so that the student immediately knows what he is doing well and what he can work on further. However, feedback that comes too quickly can make students dependent, because then they do not have to struggle and think about the next step themselves. Thus, as a teacher, you actually take learning opportunities out of students’ hands, which is also referred to as learned helplessness[3[ii]].

Transformative feedback

In many cases, feedback is given at the end of the learning process, as a kind of final judgment on the final product. Many teachers have an endless collection of essays, posters, exams and papers in storage, filled with well-meant feedback, which was never looked at by students: a sad waste of the teacher’s investment and the student’s learning opportunities. Research[4[iii]] shows that when feedback is given in addition to a grade (i.e., at the end of the learning process), students do not look at the feedback at all. The impact of that feedback is very small, while the teacher’s investment in it was very large.

However, when feedback is given during the learning process, it becomes the starting point of the learning process: the student can still apply the feedback in a new phase of the learning process. When students are given time to incorporate the feedback into the next version, the feedback has a landing spot and finds ground. Interestingly and paradoxically, feedback has more impact when it is incomplete, because the student has to think about the next step to take.

At The Formative Action School we like to say: Feedback is information makes you think, before you act upon it.

Practical Tips

  • When designing your lesson, think about when you give feedback and how you you’re your students to process it. Consciously thinking about this ensures that you are more focused in offering a process in which the student is structurally encouraged to learn from feedback.
  • Make sure the adjustments students make in response to the feedback they receive are immediately visible by, for example, sharing the improved version in class or writing it in an online tool.
  • Make use of exit tickets, e.g.: a question at the end of your lesson about the material taught. To limit the amount of work for yourself, you may choose not to review all exit tickets, but to look or scan randomly to see what the most common errors are. You discuss those errors the next lesson in class (without naming students’ names, of course).
  • Make sure students develop a sense for quality (read our blog, new link) so that feedback has a good “landing spot”.
  • Make use of peer feedback. Be sure to work with students on quality awareness here so that students are capable enough to give good feedback.

 

5. Not a packed and incoherent curriculum, but a clear and coherent curriculum

Not a packed and incoherent curriculum…

The school year has begun, the learning paths have been determined, the scheme of work created. In our experience, many schemes are full of excercises that must be completed because they are used in the subject books, which leaves very little room for delay. As a result, teachers sometimes feel they have too little time for formative action. If one exercise  has taken too long, all the other exercises can no longer be carried out. Thus, exercises are reviewed and then the teacher quickly moves on to the next, regardless of the outcome of the previous one. If the teachers don’t do this the run the risk of not completing the program. But in doing so this creates the risk that students are constantly doing separate assignments and the connection between assignments and the main goals is lost – in a so called cycle of non-learning.

… But a clear and coherent curriculum

When exercises are completed but nothing is done with the outcome (e.g., extra explanation or practice to increase student understanding), precious learning opportunities are lost. If a student does not master the basics, the foundation on which to build further becomes very shaky, and eventually that will break the student down: the further a subject goes into depth, the less students will understand it.

This is why it is essential to strive for a thorough understanding and mastery of the subject matter. It is better to cover less content and make sure it is well understood by students, than to cover a lot that is not adequately understood. This requires choices to be made that will sometimes hurt, and it is essential that the conversation in a subject department, like English or biology, should therefore be about what the core objectives are for their field as a whole. When there is consensus on the “what” of the subject, it becomes possible to look at what components really need to be mastered by the student. In many cases there might still be quite a few subjects that are, upon close inspection, not so essential for mastering the final objectives. Therefore, always determine the end goal first, and from there on reason and design your way back to what is necessary for the mastery of these goals to be covered. In doing so, make sure that students take their time to achieve that mastery.

Practical tips

  • Engage with colleagues from your department about the “what” of your subject.
  • Think about the goals you want to achieve with your lessons. Are all assignments from the method necessary to achieve these goals?
  • Dare to make choices! Always choose quality over of quantity.
  • Get in touch with colleagues from other schools via social media and education platforms and discuss how they approach their curriculum design. This can often be quite enlightening!

 

Conclusion

The impact of education on the learning process of a student is greater when the learning process of the student focuses on the visible output of the thinking process of students, rather than on what is offered by the teacher. In other words, student mastery rather than teacher activity. When you as a teacher dare to take control over your time and make choices about what material you do and do not cover and give students the opportunity to think for themselves about his next step, student will become more independent. Eventually being able to shape their own learning processes. Formative action thus focuses on shaping students toward autonomy with self-efficacy, isn’t that what education is about.

Want to know more?

Read our book – Formative Action: From Instrument to Design

Read the blog – Our model for formative practice (new link)

Authors

  • Hilly Drok

    Hilly Drok is a trainer, educational consultant and director at The Formative Action School. She also coordinates the Formative Action course for School Experts. She has been a Dutch teacher for 14 years and pioneered the implementation process of formative action at her high school. She is currently working on the topic of self-regulation.

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  • Flemming van de Graaf

    Flemming van de Graaf is a social studies and social sciences teacher. He aims to use his practical experience to inspire colleagues within his own school and at other schools to teach more effectively using formative action. Flemming is also a trainer for The Formative Action School.

    View all posts

Authors

  • Hilly Drok

    Hilly Drok is a trainer, educational consultant and director at The Formative Action School. She also coordinates the Formative Action course for School Experts. She has been a Dutch teacher for 14 years and pioneered the implementation process of formative action at her high school. She is currently working on the topic of self-regulation.

    View all posts
  • Flemming van de Graaf

    Flemming van de Graaf is a social studies and social sciences teacher. He aims to use his practical experience to inspire colleagues within his own school and at other schools to teach more effectively using formative action. Flemming is also a trainer for The Formative Action School.

    View all posts

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