Raising the topic of assessment at a dinner party or an education conference is generally a pretty sure way to end up alone. Assessment is often an emotionally charged topic for students, parents, teachers, leaders, policy makers, and philanthropists alike, as many have strong but differing opinions about the purpose of assessments, how often they should be given, and their impact (or lack thereof) on student learning.
An important distinction to make, though, is that most of these disagreements relate to summative assessments, which are designed to measure what a student knows at a certain point in time. Formative assessments, on the other hand, are used to measure the specific knowledge or skills a student has gleaned in order to inform further instruction. Formative assessments are relatively short (anywhere from a few seconds to 30 minutes) and are always used to determine next steps in instruction.
Experts widely agree that administering frequent, well-designed formative assessments is one of the single most impactful practices for improving student learning. Multiple meta-analyses have confirmed that formative assessment has a significant effect on student learning – more significant than almost any other practice (see Hattie’s Visible Learning or Marzano’s What Works in Schools for more information). This research provided support for naming formative assessment – or more specifically, frequent, transparent use of formative data to assess each student’s level of mastery of the lesson’s purpose and inform instructional decisions – as a core instructional practice for our Notre Dame ACE Academies and leadership programs at ACE.
One of the reasons that blended learning can be a particularly effective way to improve student learning is because it can significantly increase the amount of formative feedback students receive as they learn. In a traditional classroom, students typically only receive feedback on their learning from their teacher, who is probably trying to assess 20+ students’ understanding as fast and as frequently as he/she possibly can. In a blended-learning classroom, however, students receive feedback from multiple different sources throughout a class period.
Perhaps most obviously, students receive targeted instruction and feedback from software programs. These programs assess a student’s knowledge and skills to deliver instruction at the student’s level, and the programs also adapt in real time to help students understand when they make mistakes and appropriately scaffold learning at their just-right level. For the portion of the class in which students engage in online learning, they receive real-time, individualized feedback on their learning.
But it doesn’t end there! The true magic of blended-learning models is that they allow teachers to work with smaller groups of students, delivering targeted instruction and more immediate feedback. Though it is certainly possible (and critical!) for teachers to administer formative assessments in whole-group formats, it is substantially easier to assess what specifically students know or do not know when teachers work with five or ten students at a time as opposed to 20 or 30. In these smaller groups, assessments of what students know is more efficient and the teacher has more opportunities to immediately provide targeted instruction based on the data he/she collects.
Blended learning classrooms also have the potential to increase peer- and self-assessments, two nontraditional but crucial forms of formative assessment. Most blended classrooms have structures in place to encourage students to seek help and feedback from their peers before their teacher, which teaches students not to rely on their teacher for answers and increases the number of sources of formative feedback quite significantly. Finally, most successful blended classrooms build in daily self-assessment practices, particularly tied to independent online learning, which allow students to reflect on their own learning and also provide important information to the teacher that he/she may not be able to gather otherwise.
With all these sources of assessment and feedback in place, it is no wonder that blended learning can impact student learning so greatly – but it is not a given either. In order for blended learning to have its greatest impact, teachers must actually use the data the software programs provide to inform their instruction. Anecdotally, the single biggest difference I notice between effective and ineffective blended-learning classrooms is the teacher’s use of formative data from the software programs (or, again, lack thereof).
Overall, formative assessment is not a practice unique to blended-learning classrooms, but blended-learning models do have the potential to significantly increase the amount of formative assessment taking place in your classroom every day.