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Allow Them To Try, Fail, and Bounce Back Using Regular Formative Assessments

By Ingrid Delange
Allow Them To Try, Fail, and Bounce Back Using Regular Formative Assessments

“Failure is a great teacher and, if you are open to it, every mistake has a lesson to offer.” Oprah Winfrey

Craig Randall’s model of trust-based observations for teachers has become more and more popular in the last few years. This model of teacher observations is “focused on building trusting relationships that spark teaching and learning growth.” Observations are then frequent, informal, and followed by supportive reflections. Good teaching skills get evaluated in terms of progression instead of a once or twice a year “ticking-the-boxes” exercise. The focus is on formative assessment of teachers’ professional development. The traditional, standardized good skills are not the ultimate targets but the tools, ingredients to spice the lessons. Most teachers come into this career because of a personal drive; they want to make a difference in students’ lives, kindling students’ flame and sharing their love for their subject. If we reduce their dream to a standardized to-do list to achieve, obviously we reduce them to factory workers, crashing their individuality to fit the mold of the school’s idea of a good education. Holistic education is the opposite of this. To support an educational spirit that fosters differentiation, “risk-taking, innovation, and creativity,” schools must create a safe environment where teachers’ evaluations are individualized, differentiated, and human. It must be a community network where members are allowed to try, fail, and bounce back with constant support.

How can we include students in this approach? How can we lighten the pressure of the end of term/unit summative assessment model?  

The question is particularly important as traditional testing can have long-lasting consequences on students’ lives. As adults, we can easily make the difference between our personal worth and someone else’s judgment after a class observation. For a student, the inequality is not as obvious. In countries where parental pressure is high, students often value themselves through their grades, their ability to memorize, and their exam skills. Real life skills are irrelevant. Critical minds are to be switched off to leave enough space and energy to learn to pass artificially imposed rituals. This is crucial as they bring glory or shame to the family, and open or close the door to good universities and then to money and freedom in adulthood. Teenage life is reduced to a dark transition. Everything turns around, impressing on paper and showing compliance. Trying to fit the mold is the only issue, the only way to belong to your parents, friends, and community. When students refuse to be examined this way or for some reason cannot comply, they are alienated. Their difference is a source of shame, and the students can get rejected by their loved ones, leaving them no choice but to work hard to erase their differences. 

How can we help build a more holistic education?

As teachers, we don’t have a choice in our curriculum. Students often have to sit standardized tests. So, helping them value their journey and not only the end result is a difficult task, even more so when the school managing team is not interested in holistic education.  A possible approach is then to bring the concept of a growth mindset into classes. With the regular use of the magical “not yet” phrasing and formative assessments followed promptly by feedback, students gradually become accustomed to seeing a future after a pitfall. For trust-based observations, formative assessments focus on ways to progress by providing strategies to analyze and favor progression. Pre-assessments give a clear grasp of the starting level and the scope of learning opportunities offered. Regular formative assessments accompany students on their learning journey, strengthening their approach to learning skills, e.g., motivation, regularity, pacing, or even creativity. They also give teachers the opportunity to be varied in their approach to testing and differentiating, finding the way to their students’ favorite styles. Reaching students from different angles also help them achieve expertise by preventing them from locking themselves into routines and standard ways of doing things. In becoming more naturally adaptive, they develop their cognitive flexibility and learn to deal with strong emotions such as surprise, stress, frustration, or even curiosity. Those feelings support the grounding of their learning experiences into their long-term memory. Assessments for learning, peer assessments, and group assessment offer countless opportunities to stimulate their motivations and make them develop their sense of community and responsibility, collaboration skills, time management, leadership, and resilience. 

How can we build a safe learning zone?

Eduardo Briceño’s talk in his TED talk on “How to get better at the things you care about” nailed it perfectly. The key to efficient learning is to understand the difference between the learning zone and the performing zone and alternate between them. “The learning zone is when our goal is to improve…concentrating on what we haven't mastered yet, which means we have to expect to make mistakes, knowing that we will learn from them. That is very different from what we do when we're in our performance zone, which is when our goal is to do something as best as we can, to execute. Then we concentrate on what we have already mastered and we try to minimize mistakes.” Formative assessment can favor risk-taking and resilience in front of failure, using open-ended instruction or inquiry-based tasks. In such cases, reflections and feedback need to be immediate, thorough, and carefully monitored to encourage or support students to stretch or bounce back without delay. Formative assessments are then amazing differentiation tools. They favor collaboration and collegiality and provide a safe opportunity for the members of the community to extend their zone of proximal development and grow holistically.

How can teachers use formative and not end up being swamped by work?

Formative assessment does not necessarily imply teachers are overloaded with marking. Covid has brought the internet and computers to most classrooms.  Online peer-marking help is a valuable tool, the first few trials are usually disastrous but if assessing the students’ feedback is involved, students start getting the value, and gradually the marking workload reduces. Giving feedback is also faster as comments tend to be repetitive and using cutting and pasting saves a lot of time. If you want more synchronous feedback, there are also fantastic free websites and apps that can shorten marking time to almost nothing with customizable quizzes, e.g., Kahoot, quizizz, quizlets, and forms. All of these enable teachers to focus their time on developing solutions to support their students instead of judging them. 

How will a switch to formative assessment be received in more traditional settings?

Introducing this concept in traditional schools might, at first, create some discomfort. The number of assessments can be seen as a huge reduction in teaching time. It is, however, not the case. Studies show that students learn both actively and passively. Passive learning takes place when students are receptacles of knowledge, while active learning involves students doing something other than listening. Pre-assessment will help students stimulate their long-term memory and feel the annoyance of having forgotten and the drive to remember. It will cut the time of passive learning, as teachers will be able to differentiate and start from the appropriate level. It will favor group work centered on certain needs and thus reduce redundancy. Regular formative assessments for learning will also bring pace in the learning process, bringing regular momentums and possibly a stronger grasp of skills helping students to stay focused and on task throughout the unit.

One other major contestation to face is that regular assessments trigger students’ anxiety. This can happen, at first, especially to students who are used to being under the judging eye of their teachers. It is not abnormal. A teacher coming from a traditional observation background would find it suspicious to be regularly observed or could even consider it less serious. A culture switch takes time and patience. However, once students start receiving caring, personal feedback, the transition happens. They finally understand that the focus is the journey and not only the end. They eventually see their teachers and peers as collaborators, coaches, and learning facilitators. They are ready to build “trusting relationships that spark… learning growth.” They understand that learning is a never-ending process of trials, failures, and victories. In the process, they learn to grow independent, building a long-lasting spirit of “risk-taking, innovation, and creativity.” 

After focusing so much on formative assessments should we still have summative assessments? 

Summative assessments obviously cannot and should not be banned. After working hard climbing a mountain it is nice to pause and see the view.  The summative should be the opportunity to see this view and revisit the entire journey from the pre-assessment. For this reason, summative assessments should not be hard or perceived as hard but instead, they should stand out as a celebration of learning. This does not imply that standards need to be lowered. It means that students should be so well trained that summative assessments should be rated as easier than formative. Because their learning and understanding have been so regularly assessed, their grasps should be fully polished, their lateral thinking exercised, and their exam skills, in particular, flawless. Moreover, after regular formative assessments, students already know their minimum level when they sit the exam. Their target is only to improve so the pressure is lower and their success higher. 



Ingrid Delange is a seasoned mathematics and theory of knowledge teacher, head of houses, and pastoral and sustainability program coordinator. She is also a senior examiner, interdisciplinary unit scrutinizer, and is regularly involved in the mathematics e-assessment for the middle years program. She writes mathematics and theory of knowledge content for numerous educational publications such as Oxford University Press, Kognity, and the International Baccalaureate (IB). Passionate about the latest research in education, she is an IB student innovator reviewer and ally, a wellbeing and mindfulness field practitioner, and an international award leader.

LinkedIn: Ingrid Delange

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