Tag Archives: Dylan Wiliam

Formative Assessment in a World of Learning Outcomes

Consider this scenario: You’re teaching language arts to a middle school special ed class. The learning objective is to write a story about making something. While you go through the provided writing sample about children building a clubhouse, your students get more excited about the clubhouse than writing a story. They ask to build a clubhouse. Do you make them write the story or do you let them build a clubhouse first?

If you go with the clubhouse, you’re delaying writing the story and you may not have time to fulfill all the learning objectives embedded in your curriculum. On the other hand, if you decide, as I did, to build your lesson on your students’ spontaneous enthusiasm, you are choosing to write in additional learning objectives involving commitment, collaboration, and problem-solving before writing the story. And, you must alter your teaching plans to achieve them.

My decision was based on formative assessment or assessment for learning. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam wrote the classic definition of formative assessment in 1998:

….the term ‘assessment’ refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs.

This definition holds true for higher education even though Wiliam’s continuing work is with teachers in K-12. He emphasizes that many strategies can be successful as long as we remember “the big idea is to use evidence-based learning to adapt instruction to meet student needs.”  I encourage you to watch his exceptional talk, Assessment for Learning, below:

Education technology offers us valuable tools for assessment. Evidence-based programs can quickly adapt instruction based on feedback from student learning. These programs also help instructors alter their class instruction because aggregate data is available in real time. (see my earlier blog, What’s a Seventeen-Year-Old to Do?).

But there is a downside. Since, like all effective formative assessment, adaptive learning programs tie instruction and feedback to learning outcomes, the learning outcomes in adaptive programs are predetermined Formative assessment means changing student learning pathways–more material for a struggling student; less for an excelling student. But all pathways lead to the same goal.

The movement for student competencies and consistency in higher education also rests on predetermined learning outcomes. While these trends have merit, we need to be cautious and not allow them to get us entrenched in rigid practices, deterring instructors from going “off-script” and tapping into students’ enthusiasm and innovative ideas–these, too, are worthwhile in the learning environment. (When you look back, isn’t it the off-script instructors who influenced you the most?)

As we develop and use technology to get more precise evidence-based snapshots of student progress, we need to build in flexibility so that formative assessment based on student feedback can modify learning outcomes as well as learning pathways.