Practical formative assessment

It is intuitive that teachers should constantly monitor the learning of their students, and then use this knowledge to constantly adjust – or completely re-imagine – their pedagogy. In practice, however, this takes considerable and maintained effort, and it can be hindered by external pressures from administration to “cover” a certain range of topics and from students to reduce workloads and keep things fun.  A number of suggested classroom assessment techniques (CATs) are given by Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching that are relatively easy to implement and, interpreted carefully, can greatly inform the relative success of different teaching methods and give feedback on what topics should be covered in more detail.  One suggestion I found interesting was the What’s the Principle CAT, decribed here:

The What’s the Principle? CAT is useful in courses requiring problem-solving. After students figure out what type of problem they are dealing with, they often must decide what principle(s) to apply in order to solve the problem. This CAT provides students with a few problems and asks them to state the principle that best applies to each problem.

I like the stated intent to understand the thought-process of the students as they approach problem solving, but I’m wondering how well it would be received in practice.  Many students  are going to have difficulty identifying such an abstract concept when faced with a new type of problem to solve, and I wonder how much extra time a professor would need to spend describing what is meant by the term “principle.” I have not had much teaching experience, so I could be way off.  Those of you who have more experience, have you tried this approach?  Do you find the extra time investment to be worthwhile in longterm development of problem solving skills?

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2 responses to “Practical formative assessment

  1. One of the things I have found hugely helpful in my own experiences as a science educator is the use of formative assessment strategies like the one you mention above. Here are two main reasons why:

    1) They provide the students with the opportunity for metacognitive thinking about problem solving. This kind of work leads to deeper understanding of course concepts and how to apply them in anticipated as well as novel situations. Experts engage in metacognitive thinking all the time…it becomes almost second nature. Novice learners need the opportunity to do the same.

    2) Information gained form formative assessment is valuable as a diagnostic. It helps the teacher see what kinds of ideas students are bringing to bear on a problem and to provide guidance, support, and challenges to extend thinking. This provides teaching opportuntites that can be directed at individuals, small groups or the entire class depending on the context and need.

    There is no question however that this takes more time and is on tension with content coverage…but…as you mention in a subsequent post…it seems like we are moving in the direction of altering the content coverage question because of open educational content.

  2. The best professor I ever had used to structure about half his quiz and test questions this way: [Statement]. Analyze and evaluate.

    Even though I was a senior in college it took a bit of time to feel fully comfortable with what the guy meant by “analyze and evaluate.” At first I didn’t fully understand how the two concepts differed. Once I “got it” this was the most fulfilling classroom experience I ever had. So from the perspective of a student who benefited enormously from a similar technique, I vote that taking the time to encourage meta thinking is TOTALLY WORTH IT!!

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