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Six teacher habits that can elevate formative assessment in your classroom

Are your formative assessment efforts falling flat? Discover six game-changing teacher habits that will take formative assessment in your classroom to the next level.

Formative assessment has long been hailed as a valuable tool for understanding student progress and fostering growth. However, the misconception that formative assessment is merely a collection of techniques used during teaching has led to missed opportunities in the classroom. Are you looking to revitalise your formative assessment practices and truly empower your students' learning? It's time to break free from the shackles of traditional thinking and explore the transformative power of formative assessment.


By reimagining formative assessment beyond a set of techniques, teachers hold the key to unlocking its true potential. The critical goal of formative assessment is not just data collection; rather, it lies in dispelling student misconceptions and enabling effective learning. In this blog post, we dive deep into the groundbreaking insights shared by education expert Harry Fletcher-Wood. Drawing from his expertise, we have identified six teacher habits that will empower you to transcend the limitations of conventional formative assessment practices.


Teacher Habit One

Specify what students will know and be able to do.

With the vast amount of content to teach and limited time available, it's essential to identify what truly matters in their learning journey. By focusing on the most powerful knowledge and clearly defining what students need to learn, you can create a clear path for effective instruction. Plan for units instead of individual lessons, as this approach allows you to monitor students' progress more closely and ensure a more comprehensive understanding of the subject.


In light of Graham Nuthall's research, it is evident that students need repeated encounters with essential information to fully grasp a concept. To promote effective learning, design activities carefully, ensuring that students actively engage with relevant information. Be mindful of the form in which the information is presented, using various representations like images, diagrams, examples, stories, experiments, and analogies to help students better comprehend complex ideas and concepts.


Moreover, you must anticipate what your students are likely to think and find confusing. Understanding common student conceptions and misconceptions is crucial for effective formative assessment. Addressing and rectifying these misconceptions can significantly enhance students' understanding and eliminate potential hindrances to their learning. Encourage students to notice connections between ideas, as this can further enrich their comprehension and foster deeper learning experiences. Ensuring repeated exposure to relevant information and addressing misconceptions can significantly enhance student learning outcomes. With thoughtful planning and careful consideration of student needs, you can maximise the impact of formative assessment in your classroom.


Teacher Habit Two

Focus lessons on a single, academic purpose.

When planning your lessons, pick a specific focus and ask yourself, "Of what will it make the students think?" According to Daniel Willingham, this question serves as a reliable barometer for every lesson plan. Your main objective should be to teach the subject effectively, ensuring that students engage with the key concepts and ideas. To manage cognitive load, follow the framework proposed by Sweller, Jeroen J. G. van Merriënboer, and Paas, which involves addressing intrinsic, extraneous, and germane cognitive load.


Carefully choose the Intrinsic Cognitive Load, considering the complexity of the ideas you present. Keep in mind that individual facts can be learned in isolation and have low intrinsic cognitive load. Reduce Extraneous Cognitive load by eliminating unproductive distractions that do not contribute to the formation of long-term memories. Focus on tasks that challenge students and increase Germane Cognitive Load, as this additional cognitive effort aids in the formation of long-term memories and deeper understanding.


To ensure your lessons align with the principle of formative assessment, decide on a single focus and determine what is critical to that focus. Identify what supports that focus and what is optional. Every task you assign should be designed to concentrate students' thinking and schema construction on the learning objectives. Be intentional in selecting tasks that target students' cognitive processes effectively, minimise distractions, and introduce appropriate challenges to enhance their recall and comprehension.Focusing on a single academic purpose and managing cognitive load effectively will facilitate better understanding and retention of the subject matter, leading to more meaningful formative assessments and improved learning outcomes for your students.


Teacher Habit Three

Show students what success looks like.

Students often struggle to identify what success entails, and as an educator, you can bridge this gap by providing clear examples. Research by Zhu and Simon (1987) indicates that students who have seen model work tend to learn better and more efficiently. To engage students effectively, consider using a powerful variation of the worked example effect, which involves offering partially completed models and asking students to complete the missing steps. This not only helps decrease extraneous cognitive load but also facilitates the creation of mental models and enhances students' ability to apply their learning to new problems.


Demonstrating what success looks like has proven beneficial for all students, particularly those with lower academic attainment. It helps overcome ambiguity and supports metacognition and motivation. By sharing models that illustrate how to succeed in specific tasks, you can guide your students in understanding what aspects of these examples matter most. Encourage them to analyse and use these models to improve their own work. This practice empowers students to become more self-aware of their learning process and motivates them to strive for higher levels of achievement.


Sharing what success looks like is a powerful strategy to foster student metacognition and increase motivation. When you share models that exemplify successful work, you provide your students with concrete reference points for their learning goals. This clarity not only boosts their confidence but also encourages them to take ownership of their learning journey. Additionally, offering support in identifying the key elements of these models enables students to apply these insights effectively in their own work, leading to continuous improvement and a deeper understanding of the subject matter.


Teacher Habit Four

Assess student learning at the end of each lesson and respond accordingly.

Without direct measures, it can be challenging to gauge what students have truly learned. To gain insight into their understanding, you need objective measures to answer critical questions such as: Did students grasp the concepts? Are they ready to progress to the next lesson? Did your teaching approach effectively convey the lesson's content? Additionally, these assessments help you track your growth as an educator and objectively measure your impact on student learning.


To ensure effective formative assessment, catching student errors early is crucial. Distinguishing between learning, which is a permanent change in behaviour or knowledge, and performance, which is a temporary fluctuation during and immediately after acquisition, is vital. At the conclusion of each lesson, design an exit ticket that encapsulates the lesson's purpose in a task that can be quickly completed and assessed. A well-structured exit ticket should permit valid inferences about students' learning, accurately differentiate between levels of understanding, and elicit potential misconceptions. It should also provide useful data, focusing on the key points covered during the lesson.


The exit ticket should be designed to be swift to answer for students and swift to mark for you. By implementing exit tickets, you can efficiently gather valuable information about your students' progress and adjust your teaching strategies accordingly. End of the lesson assessments allow you to respond promptly to any learning gaps or misconceptions, thus supporting your students' continuous growth and ensuring that they are on track to meet their learning objectives. Through this consistent process of formative assessment, you can enhance your effectiveness as a teacher and create a dynamic and responsive learning environment for your students.


Teacher Habit Five

Track student thinking to adapt teaching during lessons.

It can be challenging to discern what students are truly thinking, and as a result, they may hold on to errors and misconceptions throughout the lesson. To address this, it's crucial to track what every student is thinking, not just those who actively participate. Avoid relying solely on students' confidence levels; instead, focus on understanding their actual comprehension of the content. Knowing what students truly understand is more valuable than merely knowing whether they are confident in their answers.


To effectively track student thinking, incorporate hinge questions into your lessons. These questions are designed to pinpoint misconceptions rapidly and provide you with valuable insights into your students' thought processes. Before using hinge questions, plan ahead and predict potential student misconceptions. By doing so, you can prepare appropriate responses for each misconception, enabling you to address these issues promptly during the lesson.


Another valuable approach to track student thinking is to identify patterns in their responses and ideas. Challenge students to reconsider their thoughts and encourage them to reflect on their understanding. By actively engaging with their thought processes, you create a supportive learning environment that encourages growth and critical thinking.


Tracking student thinking allows you to identify and address misconceptions early, fostering a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Through hinge questions and thoughtful planning, you can engage all students in the learning process and create a dynamic classroom environment that nurtures their intellectual development.


Teacher Habit Six

Help students improve their work.

To ensure feedback moves every student closer to their goals, consider what type of feedback will be most beneficial for each individual. It is essential to ensure that students understand, act upon, and learn from the feedback they receive. Avoid giving feedback that might make students feel discouraged about their work or themselves. While feedback is a powerful tool for improving learning outcomes, its effects can vary significantly. Kluger and DeNisi's (1996) review showed that feedback can have positive, negative, or no effect on performance, highlighting the challenge of providing effective feedback consistently.


Before providing feedback, review your teaching methods to ensure they are effective. Feedback is not a standalone solution; it complements effective teaching practices. If students are struggling or lack foundational knowledge, consider reteaching explicitly to address their needs. Be intentional about the level of feedback you provide and make connections between different levels whenever possible. Keep feedback clear, concise, and direct to ensure students can easily understand and act upon it.


To make sure students benefit from feedback, check their work while they are making improvements. Challenge students to identify how they have improved based on the feedback they received. Plan to revisit key points to ensure continuous progress. Avoid giving grades during formative assessment as it may distract students from the valuable comments provided. Focus on providing constructive comments that lead all students to improve their work. Never hint to students that they should stop trying, as this can be demotivating. Also, avoid social comparison, and instead, use model work from previous years to inspire and guide students without making them feel pressured.


Effective feedback helps students grow, boosts their motivation, and encourages continuous improvement in their work. When students feel supported and understood through your feedback, they are more likely to engage actively in their learning journey and strive to reach their full potential.

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