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  • Writer's pictureThings Education

Unit tests are not formative assessments.

Hello and welcome to the 30th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

When do you consider that a topic is done?

Teacher A: We cover the topic in class. Students are in the class. Sometimes we have worksheets for a particular lesson, and once the students submit their worksheets, the topic is considered done.

So, are the students given the worksheets while the topic is still being taught in class or is it later?

Teacher A: Oh, much later. Maybe a week or so later. You see, students have a lot of homework from different subjects, so it is best not to pressure students with more time-sensitive homework.

Hmmm… makes sense. At the same time, how do you know that students have understood the topic?

Teacher B: I know the students by now. I have a fair idea of which students understand the topic right away, which of them will know about it by the time the assessment comes along… and some of the students who will probably never understand the lesson completely.

Teacher A: We covered the topic, right? And that is a good indication that most of the students have understood.

This is a typical conversation when we begin our sessions with teachers on the importance of collecting evidence of student understanding. There is a sense of familiarity among the teachers on how much their students have understood. This belief is based on two factors: one, that the teachers know their students. And two, that when the teacher teaches, the students are all paying attention, listening and learning.

These assumptions are a practical necessity in a teacher’s life. There is a lot of pressure on them to ‘cover the syllabus’ in limited time. Adding to this are the extra-curricular activities that take time away from the lesson time. There are multiple administrative responsibilities that teachers have in schools. In government schools, there are government-mandated responsibilities, while private schools ask (or demand) teachers to multi-task as managers, administrative heads, programme coordinators and many more. So we empathise with teachers when they make assumptions about students learning.

At the same time, students learning is the core of any academic endeavour. How do I know whether a student has understood? How much have they understood? Is my teaching style effective with this group of students? These are important questions that a teacher should ask frequently.

In response to these, teachers have a standard reaction:

Teacher B: Oh… We do formative assessments in the form of a mid-term tests and unit tests. Then we have also given the students worksheets on the topic. And so we can assess students’ understanding level.

Does this make sense? Are we mixing up what formative assessments should do? A long-standing misconception is that the only difference between formative and summative assessments is that formative assessments happen through the year, while summative assessments happen at the end of the year. While this may be true in the sense of when these assessments happen, it leaves out a crucial difference between formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments must inform teaching. These assessments should give teachers feedback on whether the students are understanding the topic or to what extent the topic is understood. And based on this feedback, it should reflect a change in the teacher’s teaching method, if needed. Unit tests or mid-term tests only assess student learning after the topic is taught. These tests will not inform teaching.

So here is the central issue: On the one hand, teachers are working on a strict schedule and need to ‘cover’ the syllabus. On the other hand, it is important to know whether a student is understanding the topic while the topic is being taught. Formative assessments in their correct form may be the answer.

What we ask teachers to do is to look for evidence of understanding. What is evidence of understanding? How do we get this evidence?

Teacher A: A good assessment question.

Teacher B: I know my students. That and asking in class if they have understood gives me a fair idea of how much the student has understood.

We think that Teacher B has a feeling as a teacher and that is important. However, the evidence of understanding is missing. What Teacher A says here is partly correct, we need to make a good assessment question.

Reflecting before forming questions

Questions that check for understanding need to be a result of some reflection by the teacher. This is a crucial step. Teachers need to ask themselves:

  • What response do I accept as evidence that the student has understood?

  • What are other possible responses to the question?

  • What potential misconceptions can these wrong responses unearth?

When we ask ourselves these questions before forming a question to test students’ understanding, there is a good chance that you will get detailed information on student understanding levels in the class.

Timing the assessments carefully

And crucially, the timing of these formative assessments is important. Formative assessments need to feed into teaching in a way that student learning is improved. There are age-old tools like entry or exit slips which can help teachers gauge students’ understanding levels. Also, worksheets are a great idea as suggested by the teacher above. Again, the timing of giving the worksheets and collecting student responses is important. The responses need to reach the teacher before they finish teaching the topic.

Trove of data on student progress

It is understood that if the teacher is expected to include formative assessments as part of their lesson, there is a need for the school management to support it. Collecting data as part of evidence of student understanding also helps school management track student progress. This in turn helps teachers and the school management to have more nuanced discussions on students’ performance with their parents or caregivers.

In our next edition of this series on assessments we will write about the different methods of conducting written and oral formative assessments with the pros and cons of each method.


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Edition: 2.4

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