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Formative Assessment and Self-Directed Learning Creating a Classroom for Success

With the rise of the Common Core, we are living in an age where rigorous math and science coursework are becoming the standard. However, it is important that we not overlook the importance of teaching strong writing skills. Handwriting plays a large part in helping students retain information, but the skill of writing itself plays a critical role in the learning process. With the PARCC and Smarter Balance assessments, students aren’t just being tested with multiple choice problems anymore; they are required to write essays and short answers. Recognizing the importance of developing good writing skills, Education Week hosted a brilliant webinar for teachers about strengthening writing instruction through formative assessment.

Presented by 4th grade teacher Kathleen Curran and school consultant/former teacher Leslie Laud, these two experts strongly advocate the use offormative assessment for writing instruction, which they believe is one of the most powerful tools for improving a student’s writing abilities. They define this tool as a process that weaves assessment right into the learning process. According to their research and experience, formative assessment is 20-30 times more effective than other improvement initiatives, 10 times more effective in a reduced class size, and students learn 4 times faster than those without formative assessments.
More than that, though, is the fact that formative assessment changes students’ lives. In their own classrooms, these two educators saw “C” students transform into “A” students, and it was because of the strategies involved in formative assessment. Students are able to play a greater role in their own learning process, and – with the help of their teachers – they are taught to answer three key questions: Where am I? Where am I going? What is my plan? Once they understand the importance of these questions, students can then set goals for themselves and improve their writing independently – but such independent and critical thought doesn’t happen overnight or of its own volition. It requires work from the teacher to use formative assessment to create a classroom for success. Curran and Laud outlined six simple steps to do so:
1. Activate Background Knowledge. Students need to understand what is expected of them; therefore, it’s important that teachers model what it is they want/require their students to learn. Curran and Laud suggested the use of pneumonic strategies, such as POW (Pick my own ideas, Organize my notes, Write and say more) or TREE (Topic, Reasons, Ending, Examine) to help students recognize proper writing structure and know how to get started.
2. Discuss It. This second step involves teachers mapping out all of the elements of writing backwards and going over them step-by-step with their students. This helps each student – whether they are struggling or not – better understand what they are looking for and need to write for themselves.
3. Model It. As mentioned in the first step, it’s absolutely important for teachers to model best practices for the students – and not just in terms of writing. Teachers must also model how to self-evaluate their own work in order to help their students become independent thinkers and learners. Curran and Laud also note that in this step, evaluation does not just come from the teacher or the students themselves, but also from their peers. In fact, they each found that the strongest gains in writing instruction for all students came from the triple-feedback approach, and that after self-scoring, their students truly did become more independent in their writing. Achieving this independence is essential for student success, which is why NMSI strives to train and support all of our teachers to be amazing models and facilitators of learning through our rigorous three-year teacher training program.
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4. Memorize It. Memorization is a fundamental step for students to become independent writers; they need to intrinsically understand what they are doing – or should be doing – so that they don’t have to rely on handouts or help from the teacher. However, memorization does not come from mindless drilling, but rather experience. The more they practice writing critically and properly, the more they will come to retain the information/strategies, and become more self-directed in their learning.
5. Support It. In order for students to become self-directed learners and writers, they need the support of their teachers. Students need encouragement throughout the entire writing process. That’s not to say teachers must constantly hold their hands, but teachers should be readily available to offer support and encouragement. They should also teach their students how to use positive self-talk so that the students can still have a source of support, even when the teacher is not around. This supportive trait is one that defines NMSI’s AP teachers, and it is something we aim to instill and grow in each and every one of them throughout the training process.
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6. Independent Practice. This final step is, in many ways, a culmination of all the previous steps, but it is no less important. Once the students have mastered all the previous steps, they must then make a self-directed learning plan by mapping out what they need to do whenever they write. Teachers must still be on hand to make sure all is correct, but at this point their students should have enough understanding to function on their own, with the teacher serving more as a guide or facilitator.
NMSI believes that formative assessment is a critical component of effective student learning, and such is the reason why it’s embedded throughout all of our lessons. We believe that, in order for students to truly succeed in the classroom – whether they are in elementary school or taking an AP course – they must possess the deep content knowledge that only instruction through formative assessment can provide. That is also why formative assessment is a key element in our Advanced Placement and teacher training programs, and why we have made it our mission to expand our programs into more and more schools. We believe every student should have the opportunity to achieve college and career success, and formative assessment is one of the first steps toward attaining that goal.
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