By Guest Writer: Gwendolyn Ruttencutter
Standing somewhere in the Chugach Mountain Range near Anchorage, I knelt down to spread my topographical map across the boulder, while keeping a wary eye out for brown bears. Using a knee and whatever I could pull from my pack to anchor my map in the wind, I began taking compass readings and recording them. All the peaks that lay in front of me looked just the same. I could not find a distinguishing landmark to help me determine where I stood. My goal was rather humble, and immediate: To figure out where I was in relationship to where I wanted to be.
Orienteering in the Alaskan mountains is a lot like teaching and learning: We, instructors and learners alike, have to know where we are and we have to know where we are going. Formative assessment in the classroom is one way to figure this out.
Formative assessment provides information (feedback) we can use to help us not only see where we are, e.g. present level of skill mastery, but also help us to see where we are going, e.g. the desired level of skill mastery. In the classroom, formative assessment functions as a mirror and guidepost for learners. But for formative assessment to inform learners’ action moving forward, we must craft the assessment itself in a way that actually keeps our learners moving forward toward their learning goals.
In their book How learning works, Ambrose et al. (2010) proffer a chapter devoted to feedback and its application to skill development and mastery (the where we are going of orienteering). The authors make a compelling case for formative assessment in fostering our learners’ growth in both skill mastery and self-assessment, provided that assessment approaches are fitted within a valid (are you assessing what you think you are assessing?) and constructive (how will this help the learner to develop toward the desired, explicit learning outcome?) framework. Gleaning from their work, I compiled the TST of formative assessment:
Timely: Figuring out when to intervene and when to let a learner continue to struggle with a problem is never an easy call. Intervene too quickly and learners miss critical opportunities to reflect and think through possible solutions; wait too long to intervene, and learners can become so discouraged and disillusioned that their efficacy is affected. Both of these outcomes impact future learning. The authors warn that there is no one-size-fits-all answer for timeliness of feedback. Instead, the determinant of timing is whatever will support the learning outcomes you, as the instructor, have explicitly identified for your learners.
For example, as a teaching assistant, I used to work with geosciences students in a general education landforms class. It was imperative that students received timely feedback on their understanding of basics of plate tectonics at the front end of the semester because plate tectonics – that unifying theory – was the platform for the rest of the semester’s learning goals. Had students not received very timely, and frequent, feedback on their understanding of plate tectonics, their learning and future performance would have been severely impeded.
Specific: For formative assessment to move learners toward the stated learning goals, the feedback that learners receive must be specific enough to be actionable, and must align with those stated learning goals. An example of non-specific, non-actionable feedback is a grade with no comments. Ambrose et al. advise first giving feedback that helps learners see where they are in their existing knowledge or performance compared to what the stated, desired learning goal is. Then, identify the components of the knowledge or performance that need to improve. This specificity not only helps learners understand their existing level of knowledge or performance in relationship to the desired levels, but it also fosters learners’ meta-cognitive abilities to reflect on, and make adjustments for, their learning; growth in meta-cognitive abilities, in turn, leads to greater self-regulation in learning.
Grades serve as proxy indicators of the degree to which learners have attained (or failed to attain) the desired learning goal. Grades alone, according to the authors, do not provide learners with insight into what is not acceptable in their work, and how it is not acceptable (p. 140). One way of providing specific feedback – the what and how – of learning goals is to use rubrics. Rubrics provide learners with desired specific components of the overall learning goal. Rubrics also provide instructors and learners a common lens through which to examine learners’ work.
Targeted: As instructors, we view the classroom learning process as experts in our respective fields. This sometimes makes it tough to remember what it is like to be a novice learner in our fields. As such, when we grade our learners’ work, we naturally notice everything that is wrong, simply because we have strong command of the content knowledge. The danger of addressing everything that is wrong is that the extensive feedback can overload learners. It is helpful to the learner if we employ a targeted approach to feedback, that is, focus on prioritizing feedback, by addressing what feedback would be most useful to learners at that given time in the semester (p. 149). The authors also advocate balancing weaknesses (what needs to be corrected) and strengths (what the learners are doing well and should continue doing) of feedback so that learners can see where they are in the learning process.
Back in Alaska, I did eventually find my bearings. Figuring out where I was in the mountain landscape in order to get where I wanted to be (ideally, somewhere warm with more coffee and less bears), I hiked out. My topo map and compass were indispensible that day, just as formative assessment is indispensible in the classroom everyday for us and for our learners.