Using Evidence to Make Informed Decisions

An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in the absence of that evidence.

In Chapter 2 of Embedded Formative Assessment Dylan Wiliam briefly “reviews the research on teacher professional development and shows that while there are many possible ways in which we could seek to develop the practice of serving teachers, attention to minute-by-minute and day-to-day formative assessment is likely to have the biggest impact on student outcomes.”

Wiliam explores the origin of the term “formative assessment” and answers the question “what, exactly, is formative assessment?” He identifies key strategies of formative assessment, each of which is addressed in subsequent chapters, and makes the case that “Assessment occupies such a central position in good teaching because we cannot predict what students will learn, no matter how we design our teaching.”

On the importance of professional development:

Teachers need professional development because the job of teaching is so difficult, so complex, that one lifetime is not enough to master it.

Even the best teachers fail. Talk to these teachers, and no matter how well the lesson went, they can always think of things that didn’t go as well as they would have liked, thing that they will do differently next time.

Note: We also need to recognize that next time/day/period we will have a different group of learners.

Clarifying Terms

The terms “assessment for learning” and “formative assessment” are often used but are not always well understood. Wiliam shares the history of both terms and their uses over the past 25 years.

Through seven examples he illustrates the diversity of formative assessment and provides us with the following definition:

An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicitied, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in the absence of that evidence.

Note that emphasis is on the purpose of the assessment: to make good decisions.

If the formative assessments are designed without any clear decision in mind, then there is a good chance that the information from the assessment will be useless.

Ideally we…

design the assessments backward from the decisions. When the focus is on the decision that needs to be made, the teacher can then look at relevant sources of evidence that would contribute to making that decision in a smarter way.

Wiliam identifies key strategies for embedding formative assessment, each of which is addressed in subsequent chapters (and modelled by BC teachers):

    • Clarifying, Sharing, and Understanding Learning Intentions
    • Clarifying, Sharing, and Co-creating Success Criteria
    • Eliciting Evidence of Learner’s Achievement
    • Providing Feedback That Moves Learning Forward*
    • Activating Students as Instructional Resources for One Another
    • Activating Students as Owners of Their Own Learning

He also makes the case that:

Assessment occupies such a central position in good teaching because we cannot predict what students will learn, no matter how we design our teaching.

And lastly, he emphasizes the importance of design thinking:

When the pressure is on, most of us behave as if lecturing works, but deep down, we know it’s ineffective.  But leaving the students to discover everything for themselves is equally inappropriate.  For this reason, I describe teaching as the engineering of effective learning environments.  And sometimes, a teacher does her best teaching before the students arrive in the classroom.

…one version of what I call the teaching-learning trap: I’m not doing anything; therefore, the students can’t be learning anything.  The other versions of the trap was discussed earlier: I am working hard, so the students must be learning something.

The teacher’s job is not to transmit knowledge, nor to facilitate learning.  It is to engineer effective learning environments for the students.

I would add, as Wiliam and others do, that the design of the learning environment will likely include time and space for direct instruction, facilitated learning, for collaborative work, and any other action/activity.  The OECD published a comprehensive book titled The Nature of Learning (2010) that “brings together the lessons of research on both the nature of learning and different educational applications, and it summarizes these as seven key concluding principles” for the design of strong learning environments.

One more thing, here is BC’s vision for flexible learning environments (which draws heavily on design thinking).

*Though I agreed with Wiliam’s intent on pages 122-127, I found Figure 5.2 (mixing “apples & oranges” to generate a spreadsheet percentage) and Figure 5.4 (imho there are better ways to improve the first submission) to be contradicting the spirit of formative assessment.  The form may be progressive for some jurisdictions but not for our BC context.

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About J Martens

Educator living and working in Vancouver BC Learning how formative assessment, literacy, inquiry, and technology serve to improve learning and increase engagement (for teachers & students).
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2 Responses to Using Evidence to Make Informed Decisions

  1. Pingback: NOII Opportunity and Inquiry Template | Renovating My Classroom

  2. Pingback: Preparing for Session #3 – Wed Nov 13th | Wolfe Book Club

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