Taking this approach will get your students thinking about how they can improve

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It’s more than doing formative assessment, it’s about ‘being’ formative

I first became interested in the importance of classroom culture to successfully implement formative assessment when I was doing my doctorate in education. So, I want to introduce how to write and use questions more formatively so that they inform teaching and learning.

For me, it’s more than ‘doing’ formative assessment, it’s about ‘being’ formative, by creating a formative culture in your classroom. Formative values underpin everything that is done and said by teachers and learners in the formative classroom, although in real classrooms there is a blend of summative and formative approaches.

 Summative values Formative values
Assessments are given to learners. Assessments are done with learners.
Assessments, tasks and activities focus on outcomes.  Assessments, tasks and activities focus on processes  
Language in the classroom focuses on exam topics, grades and performance.  Language in the classroom focuses on  self-improvement, problem-solving skills and self-regulation.
Teachers and learners assess progress through test results. Teachers and learners assess progress through knowledge and conceptual gain.

The benefits of formative assessment have been seen in classrooms globally over the past two decades. In particular, formative assessment has highlighted the power of effective feedback, led to improvements in our understanding of how feedback can affect motivation, and helped to harness independence in learners through the development of self-regulation.

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An audit to help you develop your formative practice as MS Word or pdf. Answer the questions to work out which practices you use and which you would like to develop.

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An audit to help you develop your formative practice from the Education in Chemistry website: rsc.li/2DVRFef

Different teachers have different values with regard to assessment based on their personal pedagogy and the culture of the school in which they work. So it is useful to reflect upon your values, decide what you want to change and then make those changes in your practice. Here are three examples of formative practices in the use of written questions.

Writing closed questions

Closed questions, often in the form of knowledge tests, are a common approach to assess how well learners know a particular topic. These tests are often written as a list of recall questions that require short one- or two-word answers. In this summative approach, questions need to be closed and unambiguous. For example, what is the chemical symbol for chlorine?

However, these questions can be used more formatively if these become a resource rather than a test. Learners take ownership of the process by self-testing until they feel confident before a summative test takes place.

In a formative culture, you can use questions to support self-regulation. When setting a learning activity — learn the symbols for the first 20 elements — also ask the students ‘how’ they might achieve this. For example, the question could be ‘How will you make sure that you have really remembered the first 20 elements?’ There could be a discussion about which strategies students might try: ‘look, cover, write’ method, regular retesting, mixing up the order, or making a game, such as ‘pairs’ with cards of the names and symbols.

A formative approach focuses on the self-regulation principles of planning, monitoring and evaluating. It also promotes effective ways to learn, such as retrieval practice.

Writing diagnostic questions

Diagnostic questions are intended to be used formatively; they ask a question that is often supported by a choice of answers. Depending on the choice made by a learner, a judgment and intervention can be made. Carefully construct your diagnostic questions to ascertain what a learner knows about a particular concept. The questions can take several forms:

These questions can be difficult to write and often take a lot of research, trials and modifications to get right.

Using diagnostic questions as a summative test is possible, but it rather defeats the object. The follow-up from diagnostic questions focuses on the intervention and the learning. In a formative culture, teachers are more likely to explain the purpose of the activity. For example, a typical introduction to an activity might be: ‘This activity is to help you find out what you know and what you need to do more work on. Once you have done the task, based on the results, you can decide which improvement activity to do. At the end of the lesson, I want you to be able to tell me how you improved and what you did to make those improvements in your learning.’

This approach gives the learners some ownership over how they will address areas for improvement, values improvement by giving it time in the lesson, and emphasises what has been learned and how it has been learned (the process of learning).

Writing open-ended questions

Open questions are written to deliberately invite extended, thoughtful, detailed answers. They encourage learners to identify what they know, what they need to improve, and how to find out and learn deficits in knowledge and understanding.

Open questions, such as ‘What happens when a candle burns?’, often have supporting guidance like ‘Explain the physical and chemical processes that occur when a candle burns’ or a rubric to support the task. Examples of open-ended questions include the use of ‘grade-ladder tasks’ or threshold concept mastery tasks.

The structure of the lesson is often crucial to encourage a formative approach. The first part of the lesson is spent drafting the answer, a middle part reflecting on how to improve and the final part making those improvements. Yet, as with all teaching resources, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it.