Friday, August 3, 2012

My Favorite Formative Activity

There are many different definitions and ideas of what formative assessment is.  Do you grade it?  Is it just feedback?  Is it an assessment?  A tool?  A process?  Dylan Wiliam says "Formative assessment involves getting the best possible evidence about what students have learned and then using this information to decide what to do next."  Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam, page 50.  I like this statement.  I want to find out what my students know and from there I need to make decisions on what to do next to move learning forward.

There is a lot of debate as to whether formative scores should be recorded.  I've adopted the idea that some of my formative "activities" are simply to collect evidence in an informal way, I will not score these.  The activity I am going to describe in this post falls in this category.  Other formative "activities" I will record and use these to assist with determining overall levels of understanding, "the summative score".  I think that Dr. Marzano best describes this when he says "a specific assessment is neither formative nor summative - it all depends on how the information is used.  Theoretically then, the same assessment could be used in a formative sense or in a summative sense."  Formative Assessment and Standards Based Grading, Robert J. Marzano, page 27.  He goes on to further say that "all assessments are in a sense 'formative'."  page 28.
In my class, I believe all of my formal assessments can be formative in nature.  The student has until the end of the semester to demonstrate deep understanding, so if a "unit test" at the start of the semester is improved upon by the "final exam"  then that unit test was formative in nature.

My favorite "informal" formative "activity" is one that has been routine in my class for about 5 years.  I got the idea from a colleague who did "3 minute reviews" at the start of her class.  It is similar to an entrance slip, but instead of testing what will be happening that day, I ask a question about a past skill/process.  It may or may not have anything to do with the daily lesson.  When the bell rings, there will be a question on the board and the students have 3 - 5 minutes to try and answer it.  For four and a half years, I had students put these in a duo-tang that were kept in my classroom.  I would look at them usually once a week.  They were not graded, just given feedback.  Each day, after the students had time to complete the question we would then take it up as a class.  Sometimes I would have a student put the answer up on the board, sometimes I would question a number of students on each step of the problem.   I loved this activity as I felt it was a great review.   I have had other teachers ask what they should do when at the end of a "unit" a number of students are still struggling with the concept.  In many cases I don't feel that spending one or two more days will be of great benefit.  However if you now do one question a day, for two or three weeks, the students will have the time to sort out their problems, and those who understand it won't be bored.  In my math 9 class, three of the first four outcomes that we learn are rational numbers, polynomials and solving linear equations.  I now have the entire year to continually review these skills, which are essential to success in math down the road.

In about April this past year, I watched the following video that was posted on twitter from The Teaching Channel.  It changed how I went about these entrance slips and has given me better feedback,   instant feedback, and it has given the students better feedback, so learning moves forward at even a quicker pace!  Click here to see the video.  The teacher was doing something very similar to me, except she went one step further.  She then turned the activity into an error analysis.  Brilliant!   It meant a slight change to what I was doing.  Instead of using the duo-tangs that I was, or the index cards she used, I took scrap paper and cut it into four pieces and I hand that out to the kids at the start of class.  They then hand them back to me as they complete the problem, I quickly sort them into yes or no piles, choose one from the "no" to rewrite on the board.  We then spend time going through this solution.  We find things that the student did correctly, we try to analyze where their misconception was, and we correct the solution.    It is instant feedback for the students and for myself and I find that learning occurs quickly.  One of my first attempts with this was when I was reviewing solving linear equations containing fractions.  It had been a while since we had done these in class.  I put a question on the board and discovered that only about 4 students had done it correctly.  The majority of the "no's" had converted the fractions to approximate decimals.  We went through the error analysis and discussed why this was not an exact answer.  The next day, I put a similar question on the board and I had about half of my class get the question correct.  This time only 2 students converted to decimals!  We were improving.  With this process I know how long I need to spend on the same type of question before we are ready to move to another skill.  I also know at the end of it which students now need some extra one on one help with the skill.  I love it!  This whole process takes 5 - 10 minutes, but it is well worth that time.  I don't believe I could accomplish the learning that takes place in this time in one period of extra practice on the skill.  I highly encourage trying this with your students!


  1. I used "My Favorite No" a lot last year, especially with my 6th graders. Same as you, I just used recycled papers and cut them into fourths. The challenge with this is the time it takes for me to go through to find my fav no while the kids are just sitting and waiting for me. It's ideal when I can see the same class again later in the day (we have double periods for math), then I can go through them during lunch or prep. Hopefully this year's schedule turns out like that! I've shared My Favorite No at workshops too -- such a great idea.

  2. I really like this idea! This would work great under my document camera.

  3. Love this idea!!!

    Cannot wait to try this out in my class! I'm always looking for ways to have the students be more comfortable with making mistakes!