Formative Assessment: Learning From Wrong Answers

Dylan Wiliam, one of the co-authors of the famous Wiliam and Black study on formative assessment, has recently produced the book, Embedded Formative Assessment. Published by Solution Tree, the book provides great theoretical insights, little known research, and a treasure trove of actionable classroom activities.

One of the key highlights of the book is that it takes a somewhat different view of analyzing formative assessment data. Often, formative assessment is used in the classroom to see if students “get it.” In other words, do students know what is being taught. Wiliam suggests that there is much more that can be learned from formative assessment

In the context of classroom discussions, Wiliam describes the feedback that a teacher can gather as either “evaluative listening” and “interpretive listening.” “When teachers listen to student responses [and] focus more on the correctness of the answers.” they are using the “evaluative listening” approach. Evaluative listening only informs the teacher if the student understood the lesson, or not. There is little additional knowledge gained for the teacher other than the binary: got it/didn’t get it. Alternatively, “interpretative listening” occurs when teachers pay close attention to the wrong answers. In these wrong answers, teachers can interpret, maybe even diagnose, where the student’s learning went off track. The nature of a student’s incorrect answer can provide the teacher with critical information that the teacher can then use to determine how or where the student’s learning when awry.

Setting up learning situations that gives the classroom teacher the time and space to be so attentive is not easy. Fortunately, Wiliam is cognizant of this issue and how it is often used to stop the conversation of reflection and improvement. Pushing back on common grading and assessment practices, Wiliam helps practitioners with different ways of recovering time and activity in the classroom. Additionally, the practical activities that Wiliam provides are excellent. The strength of this book is how it advances professional learning and discourse in a way that marries both theory and practical activity. The two are so well blended together that it is possible to miss some of theoretical nuggets that are inter-placed between sample classroom activities.

The Empowered Schools Model places a premium on formative assessment. To truly reach their fullest potential, a team must make full use of formative assessment. Sadly, many practitioners are working with incomplete understandings of the capacity of formative assessment. Extraordinary development can occur when teams are able to fully access the value of their formative assessments.

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