Formative assessment gets teachers closer to an often-elusive goal: understanding how well students are learning material while they're still in the process of learning it. Often, assessments of student learning are conducted at the end of a lesson or unit in the form of a test, quiz or essay. On the other hand, formative assessment offers quick, real-time insight into how well students are absorbing and comprehending science material. Educators preparing for a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction – Science Education will want to become familiar with formative assessment as one potential tool for guiding their teaching.
Formative assessments are non-graded feedback tools. They can be thought of as "check-ins," helping a teacher guide the next few days of instruction. Has the class absorbed the material yet? Do certain areas need clarification? Are some students struggling while others are ready to move on? Formative assessments ideally take up little instruction time. Instead, they're efficient touchpoints for gauging students' comprehension of scientific concepts and shaping upcoming lessons accordingly.
Formative assessment is contrasted with "summative assessment," which is a test, essay or project given at the end of a unit or lesson to assess how much students have learned, rather than how much learning is taking place. Tests and projects are often individual, graded assessments that don't offer students an opportunity to adjust or improve their comprehension of the material. In this way, formative assessments are more oriented towards improving student learning while it is still happening.
Benefits of Formative Assessment
Formative assessments aren't just for the instructor's benefit. They also provide non-graded feedback to students about their own science learning. This type of assessment can help students realize when they're stuck or confused before the panic of an exam sets in. They may also identify students who are easily grasping concepts and who might be ready for a next-level learning challenge. Research has shown that students who self-regulate their learning are more likely to develop feelings of empowerment and autonomy.
There's also evidence that formative assessments can help students retain information. Judith Dodge, author of 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom, writes that "in the rush to cover more, students are actually learning less. Without time to reflect on and interact meaningfully with new information, students are unlikely to retain much of what is 'covered' in their classrooms."
Formative Assessment for Science Education
Formative assessment can take many shapes — from basic "exit ticket" notecards to interactive online polls. Here are a few strategies that science instructors can incorporate into their classrooms:
Exit Tickets: One of the most affordable and straightforward methods involves only notecards and pens. "Exit tickets" involve asking students to answer a question or apply a science concept in written form on a notecard, which they turn in to the teacher as they leave the classroom. Participants can then sort the cards into three groups: those who understand the material fully, those who are almost ready to apply the material, and those struggling to grasp the material. Teachers can then assess which students need more help and gauge whether the whole class needs to review the material.
Think-Pair-Share: Another popular and low-cost tool involves asking the classroom a question based on the day's science lesson. Students are invited to write their answers and ideas on a piece of paper and are then split into pairs to discuss their individual answers. (During this time, a teacher can visit with each pair to assess individual students' comprehension.) After discussion together, the students are invited to present their conclusions jointly to the class.
Basketball Discussions: Most classroom discussions are like ping-pong — the teacher asks a question and a student answers. A basketball discussion encourages discussion between and among students, and it can even incorporate an actual basketball or hacky sack to make it a tactile experience. In this assessment, the teacher questions a student, who then asks another student a question (passing the ball, if a physical one is used). That student answers, then asks a question of another student, and so on. This is a technique for science instructors to engage students beyond the typical "hand-raisers" and gain insight into how much material the class has absorbed from a lesson.
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