Formative Assessment is the KEY to Student Centered Learning

Many of us ask the question, why can our students remember so much about video games and television, but don’t remember what it is that we teach them at school?  Why are they, seemingly, not engaged in learning?  How do I motivate them to persist and engage in the learning that they require to be successful?  The answers to these questions, I believe, lie in the notion that we need to be teaching our students to think deeply and draw conclusions about the world in which we live. To do this, we absolutely need to teach facts (remember what Hattie said about the need to teach facts that could then be connected and then extended to new situations – this is thinking!) and skills, but we need to do this in such a way that we cause students to actually remember.  We also know that student voice in learning, as an active participant (as opposed to being passive and compliant) is critical to remembering which will then lead us to learning.  How do we create these environments in our classrooms?

We focus on Formative Assessment, which is very similar to Assessment for and as Learning. These strategies, when done right, allow for the student to be at the center of the learning, asking questions, wondering, sharing their thinking, collaborating to build understanding, and thus, acquiring experiences that help them to remember as “memory is the residue of thought” (Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? pg. 54, 2009).

…If you think about something carefully, you’ll probably have to think about it again, so it should be stored.  Thus your memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about. (Willingham, pg. 53, 2009).

As educators, we speak about “the person doing the talking is the person doing the thinking”. Formative assessment done right ensures that there is a high degree of student involvement, thus it is the students who are doing the talking and thus, the thinking.

Captureformative assessment

When the teacher assumes a formative stance, they are collecting ongoing evidence about the extent to which students have achieved the learning goal, interpreting this evidence and then planning their strategic response with the goal of closing all gaps in learning. To assume this formative stance then, it is critical that the educator foster the Assessment for and as Learning strategies (Learning Goals, Success Criteria, Feedback, Peer and Self-Assessment, Goal Setting) in the classroom, as both the teacher and the students must be completely clear on what the learning actually is, and how they will know that they have achieved this learning.

When students understand the goal being aimed for and are assisted to develop the skills to make judgements about their progress in relation to that goal, they come to establish a repertoire of operational strategies to regulate their own learning. If students lack the resources to monitor their own learning and take corrective action, then they remain overwhelmingly dependent upon teacher feedback as the primary resource for learning.  As a consequence, they will inevitability be hindered in their capacity to develop as self-sustaining lifelong learners  (Heritage, Formative Assessment in Practice:  A Process of Inquiry and Action, pg. 6, 2014).

When we think about student voice in learning, it is just that…that our students are not only having a say in what they are learning, but they are actively engaged in the learning process. For our district, we must recognize this shift as we move to a fully Student Centered Learning and Pedagogical Environment; we continue to value student voice in certain aspects of the operation of the school, however we are aiming to increase student voice in their learning as this leads to increased meta-cognition and self-regulation.

Metacognitive activity is generally considered to take the form of an internal dialogue that enables self-monitoring during an activity…through self-monitoring, they (the student) generate internal feedback. They are able to act on this feedback because they have a repertoire of strategies to draw from. So metacognition involves both self-monitoring and self-regulatory action. Self-regulatory action includes the mechanisms of goal setting; planning what to do next, evaluating and revising strategies, determining when to seek assistance, when to persist with an approach, and when to adjust learning strategies (from Heritage, pg. 102, 2014).

Thus, in order to actually engage students in their own learning, again we see how critical it is that they know and understand, through experience, the learning goals and success criteria. We also begin to understand how critical it is to help students to become aware of and to evaluate their own learning; generally done through activities that require the students to reflect on and make visible how they learned, such as exit cards, reflection journals, conferences, etc.

The use of these interactive strategies, therefore, are CRITICAL to achieving our board goals – to engage, motivate and help our learners to achieve persistence in learning. Without them, we return to classrooms where

…students are unclear about what it is they are supposed to be learning, or why, or how the lesson fits into a bigger picture of learning. They are unsure about whether, or how, what they are doing today connects to what they learned yesterday, last week, or last month.  The lesson is solely under the direction of the teacher, and its central focus—for teacher and student alike –is on the completion of tasks.  In essence, these classrooms privilege activities and products over the process of learning, its goals and trajectories. These circumstances leave students at a real distance, effectively disabling them from developing the practices of learning how to learn.  (Heritage, pg. 105, 2015).

Until next week…when you speak with students about their learning, what do they know about themselves?

3 responses

  1. Just had a conversation this morning about this very topic and the need to shift from the teaching to learning stance. This fits in nicely with our school improvement plan and how we need to have a clear understanding of the formative assessment piece and how this supports the learning. This information will also support the our inquiry application. Thanks


    1. So glad it will be of help Heidi. I have been thinking so much about this piece lately, and how essential it is for all of us to see how things are connected – and thus to realize that we aren’t going to achieve the desired Student Centered Learning Environment unless we are moving each piece…learning mindsets, conditions for learning and assessment for/as learning. These pieces, while extraordinarily complex, all need to be a focus for us – thus we need to see how they are connected so that we can scaffold the learning. It is hard work but over time, with our commitment, we will see the student impact. Thanks for always reading and responding!


  2. Formative Assessment practices serve a check points for understanding during the learning process. It guides teachers in making decisions about future instruction and helps student to see the purpose behind the task in relation to what they are learning about. Formative assessment should help students see how closely their work matches a given goal, in turn, enabling them to understand and monitor their own learning.

    Ultimately then, students would be more motivated and engaged as they themselves are then clear about what and how they are learning. Your question to reflect on is key, as I believe students are getting better at articulating the WHAT of their learning, but I’m not sure they are able to articulate the HOW… and could that be, because they don’t fully understand themselves as a learner… and struggle to connect the how of themselves to the what of the goal?


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