All Articles Education Educational Leadership Getting better at one of the hardest parts of teaching: Formative assessment

Getting better at one of the hardest parts of teaching: Formative assessment

PD brings a common surgical and football tactic to classroom teachers.

6 min read

Educational LeadershipVoice of the Educator

teacher formative assessment

Kenny Eliason/Unsplash

When I was a teacher, people used to ask me what the hardest part of the job was. There are many parts of teaching that are difficult, and it’s hard to choose just one thing. But my answer often surprised whoever asked. From my point of view, one of the hardest things to do in teaching is figure out what students know about a topic and use that information to make in-the-moment decisions about how to teach. Making that formative assessment is much harder than most people realize. 

Michael Driskill is the Chief Operating Officer of Math for America

Consider the case of a teacher who taught a lesson called Representing Quadratic Functions Graphically. This lesson is part of a collection for grade six through 12 math teachers developed by the Math Assessment Resource Service. The lessons are known to be high-quality: A study indicated that students of teachers who used the lessons once a month experienced learning gains equivalent to 4.6 months of additional schooling

The teacher who taught the lesson had agreed to be videotaped as part of a research project sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The project gives teachers opportunities to study how other teachers are implementing the lessons using video cases.

One teacher’s quick decision

The lesson plan called for a warm-up activity in which students were asked to draw two quadratic curves that looked different from one another. After drawing the curves, they were asked to discuss what made the curves different with a partner at their table. The goal of the opening activity was to get students thinking and talking about what they already knew about curves so they would be primed for the rest of the lesson.

In the video, the teacher gives her students the instructions and everything starts according to plan. 

Then something unexpected happens.

As the teacher circulates the room, she overhears one student explaining to their partner that one of the parabolas they drew is different from the other because it’s “small enough to fit entirely in one quadrant.”

The teacher has to make a difficult decision at that moment. She has encountered students discussing an interesting point that indicates a possible misconception related to an important mathematical idea. If she sticks with the lesson plan and moves on, she may miss an important opportunity to discover whether other students share this misconception and address it. If she sticks with the misunderstanding, she may lose precious time to cover the rest of the content. She can only take a couple seconds to decide. What should she do? 

Making a formative assessment

A formative assessment like this is a key dimension of good teaching. Teachers are asked to create opportunities for students to share their ideas in lessons and adjust the teaching plan based on what comes up in the moment. All teachers (not just math) have to make snap decisions like the one described above many times in a single lesson.

Like surgeons or professional athletes, they start with a plan but inevitably encounter unforeseen challenges that require flexibility. Unlike surgeons or professional athletes, teachers in the United States often lack structured opportunities to refine this critical skill. It’s common for groups of surgeons to watch a complex procedure performed by an expert and for professional athletes to analyze a game using film. In contrast, teachers often work in isolation and are given little time to reflect on lessons with colleagues. This needs to change. 

PD builds formative assessment skills

Schools can help build teachers’ capacity for formative assessment by offering professional development that gives teachers sufficient time to reflect on this aspect of their practice in deep and meaningful ways. In lesson study, for example, teachers design a lesson together and then watch each other teach, debriefing and iteratively improving it along the way. This model gives opportunities to notice, study and discuss the unexpected challenges that arise and how to respond. 

Video can also help to develop formative assessment skills. Teachers can participate in video clubs, a form of professional development where teachers discuss excerpts of video from one another’s classrooms. The problem-solving cycle is another form of video-based professional development that blends elements of lesson study and video clubs. With this, teachers create lessons together, videotape themselves and then analyze the video as a group. In the AIM-TRU professional development model, teachers analyze video cases focusing on the implementation of shared, high-quality instructional materials. 

While these professional development methods were developed to support math teachers, they can and should be adapted to other disciplines. We must increasingly provide all teachers opportunities to reflect on this critical dimension of their practice. 

Expanding PD’s impact

The teacher who taught the quadratics lesson ended up making a bold choice. Instead of sticking with the plan, she initiated a rich, whole-class discussion. (You can see the video here.) This decision led to many additional, challenging formative-assessment moments. Thanks to the teacher’s willingness to make her classroom public, this video has been used for professional development by teachers and researchers in different schools, districts and states. 

We need to grow opportunities for teachers to build formative assessment skills in schools and districts nationwide. It should be common in teaching to spend lots of time reflecting on practice, just as in surgery and professional athletics. In doing so we will treat teachers like the professionals they are, which is the best way to advance the field.

Michael Driskill, a former math teacher for grades six through 12, is the chief operating officer of Math for America (MƒA), a nonprofit organization building communities of mathematics and science teachers through collaboration and continued learning. MƒA is a key partner in a National Science Foundation-funded research-practice partnership that gives teachers opportunities to study how other teachers are implementing high-quality mathematics lessons using video case studies.


If you liked this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free email newsletter from ASCD. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.

More from SmartBrief Education: