Less is More: Simple Formative Assessment Strategies in the Classroom

I’m not sure when, but at some point in education, it became popular to make instruction more complex.  The more steps and/or manipulatives you could use in a lesson, the better.  Because, the more the student has to do, the more they will remember…at least, I think that’s the logic.  And as I sit here writing this, I’m not sure why.  To quote the immortal Avril Lavigne:

“Why do you have to go and make things so complicated?”

I’m not sure why the status quo is to add more to lessons…more technology, more activity, flexible seating, more dog and pony show, etc.  I’ve written previously about the pitfalls of over-complicating the classroom on memory.  The more ‘mores’ we add to a lesson, I believe, the more we actually take away from a productive and organized environment for learning.  When did it become a negative to believe the main purpose of education is…learning and remembering stuff?  Just last week, this was posted about one of my blogs:

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Well…yes?  I don’t know why that’s even up for debate.  I hope that doesn’t seem too contentious.  

Am I saying technology and/or collaboration are bad for the classroom?  No.  Like all things, they have their purpose and their place.  I do know, however,  that I am constantly bombarded on twitter with ‘21st century skills’ I should be teaching my students and the myth that 65% of the jobs I’m preparing my students for don’t even exist yet.  Heck, even the current United States Secretary of Education is on this bandwagon.  I just don’t get it.  Am I anti-creativity and innovation?  No.  But I know that humans need knowledge to be creative.  So, even if you believe most students will participate in a more innovative or creative profession that doesn’t exist yet, they still need knowledge.  Basic knowledge.  In a discussion with one of the art teachers at my high school, she said something absolutely beautiful. While viewing incredible art from the advanced and AP art students, she mentioned that those students in beginners art design more basic drawings because:

“they need to know the rules before they can break them.”  

Exactly.  They need to know the basics of shaping, shading, etc.  Knowledge is the key ingredient in creativity and innovation…even in a subject, like art, that easily allows for student’s unique expression.

So, in my classroom, while covering my curriculum (AP Psychology), I keep instruction simple…at least for initial presentation of material and during formative assessment of learning.  My students have very little knowledge of psychology…they know the name Freud, but that’s it.  I like simple.  My students like simple.  In an end-of-class assignment I give my students every semester, the most frequent ‘thing I would change about this class’ is always overwhelmingly to get rid of the collaboration and extra ‘stuff’.  I don’t rid my classes of collaboration, because it has its worth, but I do sympathize a bit with the students who want nothing more than to know the material…they don’t want the fluff.  Or should I grant my students that much ownership of the classroom, give them the ‘student voice’ I see so much of on twitter and discontinue the use of collaboration?  It is, after all, what the students want.  Please read the sarcasm here.  (You want contentious?  That’s contentious.  🙂 )  

Anywho…What does this formative assessment of material look like in my classroom?  How do I know if my students have learned; if they’ve acquired the knowledge I believe is so important?  I believe the most effective way to formatively assess student learning is also the most simple.  Here are a few different activities I frequently use in my classroom:

Last Lesson, Last Week, Last Month
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So, this is…simple.  Provide questions (usually around 3) from the last lesson, the last week, and the last month.  Outside of letting students know what they know and what they’ve forgotten, this is particularly good for discussing common threads throughout lessons and units, tracing back to material covered a month or more in the past.  Often, students see different units/chapters of a class as being ‘stand-alone’ and fail to understand how one concept in math or one event in history connects to what we’re discussing today.

Brain Dump

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This is super easy and is used by many teachers…ask students to write as much as they can about a topic provided…anything and everything they believe might relate to the topic.  Often times, information they believe is mundane or unrelated can retrieve other material that is associated with the topic.  

In the image above, you’ll see a ‘part 1’ and ‘part 2’.  This is a variation that I sometimes use…part 1 is completed first and tells the students what they knew with zero assistance or prompting.  After the students have exhausted part 1, I use part 2 to assist students with the most key terms/concepts and to, hopefully, help them retrieve other related information.  

Grouping Like Terms/Concepts

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I tend to use this activity in class as a formative assessment when material is particularly confusing to students.  It provides a clear and concise way for students to create a narrative with all like terms…plus it gives you a reason to use all those highlighters you bought at the beginning of the term.  🙂

Overarching Guidelines

I prefer to begin with giving students zero help, when applicable, while initially assessing learning through retrieval practice.  I only want them using their brain.  That’s it.  This is the only way they can truly assess their learning.  With any assistance (word banks, multiple-choices, etc.), students may guess and get the answer correct.  However, I remind my students a correctly guessed answer does not mean you have learned the information…you just got lucky on the guess.  After they have answered all they can with no cues, I will provide either a few hints, or allow for a short conversation to, hopefully, prime memories of the material.

Also, I stress with my students how easily they can accommodate these activities for almost any subject and any material…a true beauty of spaced practice, retrieval practice, interleaving, and dual coding to assess their learning.  I take it a step further and discuss how they can use these strategies and other very simple strategies to assess their learning in college.  Studying, when done properly, can be effective.  Too often students believe this means rereading and highlighting; two vastly overused techniques that provide very underwhelming results.  

Simple…a word…a concept that is increasingly becoming lost in the modern classroom.  I believe we are harming our students by over complicating our schools.  A complicated presentation or collaborative activity only ‘clogs’ student’s working memory with unnecessary information and leaves little space for the acquisition of knowledge required to be creative and/or innovative.  At least while initially presenting students with new information/concepts, simple should be the name of the game.  They’ve got to know the rules before they can break them.  


13 thoughts on “Less is More: Simple Formative Assessment Strategies in the Classroom

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  1. Like the post, just a quick addition. In regards to MCQ, you can mitigate alot if the guesswork by having multiple correct answers, multiple questions and similar answers. Royal & stock dale, (2017) have a good study on MCQs generally. Now I do use them more imeithin the lesson but some good MCQs for recall allows for quick assessment and focused recall. Granted same could be said for completion problems.

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