Going Goal-Free During Formative Assessment

I’m making a simple modification to some of my formative assessment this semester. I’m incorporating the goal free effect. The concept behind this effect isn’t very tricky at all. Basically, instead of asking questions this way:

1. List and describe the function(s) of the following parts of the eye:

  1. Iris
  2. Cornea
  3. Retina
  4. Lens

I’ll simply ask this in this manner:

2. Tell me everything you can about vision.

This may seem like a somewhat negligible change, but the second option really provides a better opportunity for more working with the material to be retrieved from memory. With option 1, students have 4 very specific goals. Hopefully, students will know those four structures of the eye and their function(s). This is somewhat limiting. They will perform this task and nothing more. Don’t get me wrong, if they can do this, that’s fantastic…much better than not asking them to retrieve any information. But, with option 2, students may include the four structures and functions from option 1 and then also include more information; perhaps they also state the functions of the pupil, rods, cones, bipolar cells, ganglion cells, et cetera. They still accomplished the goals of option 1, but also included so much more. They may also write their answer in a manner that describes vision as a process, explaining how these structures work together rather than as independent structures. This provides the ability to strengthen the schemas and associations surrounding the topic, which can make retrieval of all information more efficient later. 

My biggest question with using the goal-free effect is this: what if a student has no idea and cannot list any structures of the eye? They’re left doing nothing and not really strengthening their ability to retrieve any of the material while others are writing away. 

My potential solution to this problem: After a few minutes, supply a ‘cheat sheet’ of sorts with terms they should have used. This will provide an opportunity for students to make sure they’re on the right track and allow those who are out of ideas a prompt to get them working again. I plan on encouraging those who are going strong to avoid looking at the cheat sheet…if they don’t need the crutch, they shouldn’t use the crutch. 

After I’ve given students enough time to complete the above, I want the students to have a quick conversation with their nearest peers…what terms/concepts did you include that others did not? What terms/concepts did others include that you omitted? Then, finish up the review/assessment with some whole-class discussion of the topic to make sure we’re all of the same understanding with respect to this topic.

Will option 2 require more time than option 1? Of course, but I believe the quality of work that students produce will be much better…they will be thinking more about the material. Instead of thinking of the different structures as independent bits of information, they will retrieve them as part of the process of vision and see how they all work together. Better thinking, I believe. There’s no shortcut to knowledge acquisition. Generally speaking, the more you efficiently and effectively work with the material, the better. This is actually the topic for my next blog article. 🙂

Do you have any experience with the goal-free effect?

How can this effect be applied in other subject areas?

6 thoughts on “Going Goal-Free During Formative Assessment

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  1. I saw an idea a couple of years back on Twitter to have students “Explain something you have learned in this unit that you didn’t get to use on this exam.” I am continually amazed at the depth that some students go to in answering this question. I love seeing what they either focused on in their studying or what stuck out as most memorable to them. It is a great way to give students credit/positive reinforcement for learning that happened outside of the standards.

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