The Formative Assessment Fallacy

Formative Assessment. What a great assessment technique, right? Tell people how they could improve while they’re still working instead of skewering them at the end! Ongoing feedback means that students have a better chance of success, and it also means that they are more likely to develop meaningful relationships with teachers which also means that the feedback the students receive is that much more directed and useful to their learning journey. Kristin says that librarians are naturals at this, and we probably are. I mean, librarians don’t really go around giving exams or research papers, plus we really like to help people which often translates to conversation.

I think we need to be careful in how we position formative assessment and summative assessment against each other. Each has a place, each complements the other, and neither are without significant short comings. As Kelly brought up in class, there comes a point in formative assessment where the number of suggestions and comments becomes overwhelming and completely defeating. We must be careful not to paralyze with helpfulness. Kelly brought this up in the context of creative writing. I think that all the creative arts are excellent about providing formative assessment – peer review, private lessons, supervised studio time, etc. In fact, in the creative arts, we get almost exclusively formative assessment, with little if any feedback happening after a summative experience (in this context a summative experience might be a published story, a performance, a gallery showing, etc.)

This kind of constant scrutiny can be wonderful, especially when you have a teacher who truly wants to help you succeed, because it means that the student knows where to go for help. Under different circumstances, it can also create an intense paranoia, self-consciousness, and defeatist attitudes. It can create students who are more interested in pleasing a teacher than in developing and solidifying their own artistic sensibilities. And it can create students who can’t see the things that they doing well because they are so focused on what they need to improve.

A couple of tips that work well in creative contexts that will translate to other settings:

  • Always acknowledge when a student has made improvement, especially in reference to a skill that takes a while to build. Example: “I can tell how hard you’ve worked on ——-. The difference is really noticeable in they way that you —–. I think that there’s room to get really great at it, so let’s focus on improving —– by doing —–.”
  • Frame comments in a positive light. Example: “I really liked how you used —— but I think that you can —– better.”

The danger of formative assessment is that it becomes a list of shortcomings instead of a useful tool for improvement. Don’t forget to actually provide the student with the tools for improving! It sounds silly and obvious, but trust me it’s not. Simply pointing out what a student can improve is only half the battle.

5 thoughts on “The Formative Assessment Fallacy

  1. katzalot says:

    I think you make a lot of great points about formative assessment. Especially about negative comments and students need to please.
    I also think that formative assessments works differently in so many different settings. Am I walking around the room as my students work on an assignment. Checking in to make sure they understand what they are working on and not just sitting there doing nothing. I have broken up an assignment into manageable parts so a student so I can better monitor and help students who are having trouble. I sometimes think that especially with in the class formative assessment a key aspect of this is paying attention. I know too many teachers who use group work time as chance to do their own thing. Students know this and resent it. If as librarians we teach a workshop with exercises it will be important to walk the room and let students know we care how they are doing. This will as you point out help us as librarians develop those personal connections that might entice a patron to come back to the library.

    • Megganggan says:

      I completely agree about paying attention. So many teachers treat group projects as extra prep time. Group work time can be used so effectively for learning about your students while they are working on lessons.

  2. petertimmons says:

    I’m having flashbacks to my youth hockey days when my coach would provide in-game guidance (read: formative assessment) by shouting, “Timmons! F*%&ing skate!” He was the best coach I ever had, but probably not the most exemplary model to follow.

    I try to get myself into the mindset of providing decent formative assessment by thinking along the lines of a good coach, because this is essentially what you’re doing: notice patterns of behavior, deduce rationale, explain consequences, provide corrective advice. This works perfectly in library workshops! If they’re a blank-slate, that’s even better since there are fewer bad patterns to correct.

    There is a dilemma because formative assessment generally needs to lead up to something. Good coaching usually translates to scores, victories, Stanley Cups, etc… Libraries aren’t quite so outcome-based with their instruction, but this is a whole ‘nother story.

    Great post!

  3. […] talked a bit about formative assessment here before. I really liked the Sadler article this week. I felt that the analysis of the strengths and […]

  4. Miss Masura says:

    great point about assessment in the arts!

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