Using Formative Assessments for Lesson Improvement

During the quarter for the Digital Education Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University, the focus has been to develop coaching skills, to understand the role of a peer coach, to define effective learning, and to incorporate 21st century learning. And now module four probes further into coaches collaborating with peers to improve learning activities (Wicks and Foltos, 2015). The ISTE Coaching Standards for this particular week, continues to address standards 1 and 2: Visionary Leadership and Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, which aligns well with lesson design and lesson improvement.

Process for Improving Lessons

Process for Improving Lessons

Examining the Lesson-Improvement Process

The first building block in the process of lesson improvement is to create a task for students. A task that is meaningful for students, includes real-world problems, and problem solving skills (Foltos, 2013). Part of creating an effective task is to use essential questions, that involve students to create products that demonstrate their learning  according to Grant Wiggins’ (November 15, 2007) article, What is an Essential Question? The lesson improvement process then begins with creating student tasks.

Next coaches and teachers should define standards, such as state standards, 21st century skills, and technology standards, that address the lesson and align with the skills needed for mastering of the content (Foltos, 2013). Aligning the standards along with creating a task supports the lesson improvement process. Related to defining the standards, is the task of developing skills that align within the learning activity or context. “How does the learning activities address the standards? Is there any prerequisite knowledge necessary for learning?” (Foltos, 2013)

Then the student directions are important when looking at the lesson improvement process. Students need choice in what and how they learn, collaborative opportunities with their peers, resources to engage in the tasks, and the student directions must be aligned with the standards that are being taught (Foltos, 2013).

Another important building block in the process of lesson improvement involves reflection and feedback by the coach and the learning partner. This crucial part of the process provides the learning partner with valuable information on the work towards improving the lesson activity. This also, according to Foltos (2013), provides an opportunity for coaches to practice their communication skills when offering feedback to their peers.

Along with providing reflection and feedback to improve lesson designs, coaches and learning partners must examine the assessment plan.  Bransford and colleagues (cited by Foltos, 2013, p. 129) suggest that along with summative assessments, “educators must use formative assessment, which gives learners opportunities to receive feedback at benchmarks along the way, ‘to revise and improve the quality of their learning.’ Many educators use formative assessments such as rubrics, checklists, self-assessments, and observations to monitor their students’ progress. The assessment plan of a lesson needs to align with the standards and the learning activities so that it accurately measures the learning of the student (Foltos, 2013).

The last building block of the lesson improvement plan is to identify the curriculum resources, information resources, and technology resources that are important to improving the lesson.

By communicating and working collaboratively on improving teaching practices and learning for students, the lesson improvement process guides coaches and learning partners through a step by step process for effective teaching.

After spending some time reflecting on the lesson improvement process with colleagues and my learning partner, I decided to revisit the formative assessment piece of the process by asking,

What practices could coaches use with their learning partners to improve the quality of learning tasks? How do formative assessments impact effective teaching and learning?

Using Formative Assessments to Inform

Heritage’s (2007) article, Formative Assessment: What do teachers need to know and do? provides an in depth look into formative assessment practices and the value of using these practices in instructional planning. The author defines formative assessment as “a systematic process to continuously gather evidence” (p. 141), or data on learning. By examining the data, teachers identify the current level of learning and then readjust the lessons to meet the needs of students (p. 141). And this  is crucial for coaches and teachers when examining ways to improve lessons. According to Heritage, educators need four knowledge base skills when utilizing formative assessment: 1) domain knowledge, 2) pedagogical content knowledge, 3) knowledge of students’ previous learning, and 4) knowledge of assessment (p.142). Below are brief explanations of these skills and its impact on teachers and their practices.

Knowledge Base Skills

First, teachers need to understand the concepts within a domain and to demonstrate understanding of the learning progression towards the desired learning goal. Furthermore, teachers need to examine student performance to determine if the goals were mastered and if not, then to  provide appropriate feedback. Along with understanding student metacognition, teachers need to help students self-assess their learning. By recognizing and monitoring their own learning, students are capable of using strategies to move forward in their learning (Heritage, 2007, p.142).

Then, pedagogical content knowledge is important because teachers must be familiar with  multiple models of teaching practices and instructional strategies. Having this knowledge guides teachers to better differentiate the instruction for all students (p. 143).

Next teachers need to build on students’ previous learning which includes: 1) students’ level of knowledge and skills in the content area, 2) students’ understanding of concepts, 3) the attitudes that students are developing, and 4) students’ level of language proficiency (p.143).

Finally, teachers must clearly understand the range of formative assessments and the purpose “to promote further learning, its validity hinges on how effectively learning takes place in subsequent instruction” (Heritage, 2009, p. 143).

Heritage’s article distinctly emphasizes that teachers need basic knowledge skills to further improve on lessons which impact student learning.

Using Formative Assessments to Bridge Teaching and Learning

 Wiliam (2013) began his discussion on formative assessments with the statement, “Our students do not learn what we teach.” Reading further to better understand this quote, Wiliam suggested that having carefully planned lessons and learning activities does not necessarily guarantee that students learned the content. But by using assessments, educators can determine “whether the instructional activities in which we engaged our students resulted in the intended learning” (p. 15).

This article is another reminder for educators that there are many layers to formative assessment. Coaching a collaborative peer through the different layers is necessary when enhancing a lesson plan or learning activity. According to Wiliam (2013), “The term formative should apply not to the assessment but to the function that the evidence generated by the assessment actually serves” (p. 15).  My colleague, Annie Tremonte commented on the function of assessments as, Constantly a challenge and this requires TIME. I have struggled to get to this place with groups I’ve worked with. We can become really good at collecting data, but getting buy-in to spend time working on what to do with it is still tough”(A. Tremonte, personal communication, November 22, 2015). Also adding to this conversation was my professor, L. Foltos, “Teachers may not be sure what to do with the data collected, and may turn to their coach to turn the data into something they can take action on” (L. Foltos, personal communication, November 23, 2015). Thinking about these two comments, coaches may need to use a process or a tool for diving into data such as Dianne Leahy’s Looking at Data to support their learning partner.

When there is time to look at the data, formative assessments are usually used as a quick check of whether students understood the learning target. Then the teacher provides feedback to individual students or with a small group of students who “misunderstood” the concept. But Wiliam suggests to delve further into how the assessment will best serve the needs of the students by considering the following  key points in learning :

  1. Where the learner is right now
  2. Where the learner needs to be
  3. How to get there (2013, p.16)

The last point, how to get there, provides a starting place for coaches and peers to begin the conversations for setting academic goals and co-planning strategies to improve the lesson and the learning of students.

“There will never be an optimal model, but as long as teachers continue to investigate that extraordinarily complex relationship between “What did I do as a teacher?” and “What did my students learn?” good things are likely to happen” (Wiliam, 2013, p.20).  After reading this quote by Wiliam, I am reminded again that there is not a teaching model that works for every classroom. Teaching is based on the instruction surrounding the student, the teacher’s style of teaching, and the context of the situation. Using formative assessments, as mentioned by authors Heritage and Wiliam, are just one piece of coaching that moves collaborative teachers toward the improvement of their lessons.

In reviewing the coaching standards and the learning objectives for this module, effective coaching takes practice and knowledge in understanding the role of a peer coach, defining effective learning,  incorporating 21st century learning, and in collaborating with peers when improving learning activities. Examining formative assessment is one building block towards working on lesson improvement. My research has led me to believe that as a coach, I need to probe further when utilizing formative assessments and to align these assessments better with the state standards when working with peers to improve a lesson.

Self-Assessment for Module 4

To assess my goals for this module, I discovered the Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning (Chappuis, 2000, p. 224) tool to analyze my learning.

Blog 4-5References

Chappuis, J. (2009). Seven strategies of assessment for learning. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer coaching: unlocking the power of collaboration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Heritage, M. (2007). Formative assessment: What do teachers need to know and do? Phi Delta Kappan, 89 (2). Retrieved from

Leahy, D. (2004). ATLAS Looking at Data. Retrieved from

Wicks, D. & Foltos, L. (2015). Educational Technology Leadership. Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, Washington.

Wiggins, G. (2007). What is an essential question? Retrieved from

Wiliam, D. (2013). Assessment: The bridge between teaching and learning. Voices from the Middle, 21(2), pp. 15-20. Retrieved from

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