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Why Formative Assessment Is So Useful in the Classroom

Education is always changing. What seemed to work yesterday could be frowned upon today, and what seems to work today might be frowned upon tomorrow. Regardless of the ever-changing instructional methods of today’s classrooms, it’s hard to dispute the fact that one of its most recent trends, formative assessment, is very beneficial to students.

Formative assessment refers to a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course. The general goal of formative assessment is to collect detailed information that can be used to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening.

Formative assessment can be crucial to student success in the classroom. Not only does it provide students with a break in the curriculum, but it also allows a teacher to plan his or her next move accordingly. Using the data gathered from formative assessment can help teachers differentiate, remediate, and ultimately decide which methods are working in the classroom and which ones are not.

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Overt formative assessment requires that teachers elicit a written or verbal response from a student to ensure mastery of a particular piece of content. It must be conducted in a way that allows for a very short, very precise assessment in order to ensure that students understand the material. It’s often too easy for some students to pretend they know the content in order to keep from looking bad in front of the other students, or sometimes, in order to keep from asking for help from the teacher. Formative assessment can be conducted in a way that allows students to show what they know without being embarrassed.

For example, teachers can use sticky notes as a formative assessment tool. The teacher begins by handing each student a sticky note. The students will be required to answer one question regarding the content for that lesson on the note. After instructing students to only write their name on the back, the teacher will collect the sticky notes and sort them into two categories: students who understood the content and students who didn’t. The teacher can then stick them to the wall in order to give themselves a better visual representation regarding the percentage of students who are having trouble, or the teacher can simply sort them at their desk.

The data gathered from sticky note formative assessments can be a make or break opportunity for some students. Those who would have simply pretended to understand the material until test day would have made it really difficult on the teacher after performing poorly on the summative exam. Formative assessment plays a vital role in catching and fixing errors before it’s too late.

With this data, teachers can also plan their next day to fit the needs of individual students. For example, the teacher might now understand that Johnny is struggling or that Jimmy is advancing quickly. This not only allows a teacher the opportunity to help students who are having trouble, but also allows a teacher to move those who are proficient onto the next level.

Formative assessment allows teachers to get very specific feedback about their students and is sometimes a requested performance by school administrators on a daily basis. While this is a lot of work for teachers, it’s also a critical part of the profession that can’t be ignored.
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