The Plastic Brain

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Reflections on “The role of formative assessment in effective learning environments”

Dylan Wiliam

I am reading this chapter by Dylan Wiliam, and have decided to share some thoughts as they arise:

  • Feedback is a critical part of formative assessment, and we should be aware of the differentiation in its use in education, compared to sciences and engineering (eg “positive and negative feedback”)
  • More frequent assessment is linked to higher achievement – to a point. More than one test per fortnight had no additional effect – not too surprising.
  • The quality of feedback on these assessments had a much more significant effect than their frequency
  • Effective corrective feedback requires that the learner is active in the process
  • Feedback works best if it is focused on the task (not the learner), and specifically addresses what was done well, and where improvements could be made.
  • No one method of formative assessment appears optimal, and each teacher must find a way to integrate it into their teaching
  • Wiliam’s definition of “formative assessment” focuses on the idea that its purpose is the inform (that is,¬†form) the future learning process based on evidence from the assessment.

The chapter provides a very detailed look into formative assessment, and discusses the effect size of various feedback and assessment strategies. As with other reviews of this type, I am left with a feeling that it is of little value to focus on any individual strategies. In different studies, the same interventions have different effect sizes, indicating that there are so many variables in any study in an educational setting that fine-grained analysis may be meaningless. Nonetheless, Wiliam is able to draw together some general guiding principles, which appear as the 5 key strategies shown above.

My ongoing and proposed actions

  • Continue providing recorded audio feedback
  • Ensure feedback is provided during the same or next lesson for most tasks, within a week for longer summative tasks
  • Provide ongoing records (graphs, charts) or student achievement levels to students (and parents?)
  • Peers to review work from a higher grade band. “What are the students a grade band above you doing?”
  • Review how well my teaching aligns with Wiliam’s key principles.

Other ideas arising

  • Help students view Units of Study as opportunities to add knowledge and skills to their inventory, rather than barriers which they need to bust through then ignore. The vertical integration of the Australian Curriculum provides examples of learning paths which could show learners how this process happens.
  • Wiliam presents Nyquist’s classification of feedback and formative assessments, along with their effect sizes (below). It provides an interesting challenge – especially the level ‘strong formative assessment’. In it, not only is the task designed to provide evidence of learning, but then specific tasks are provided to students to improve areas of deficiency. It is a worthwhile aim, though one would hope for more than a 0.56 effect size.