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Using Formative Assessment Data to Bridge the Gap in My Students’ Understanding.

November 12, 2015

Master Teacher Guest Blog Series – Part 2: Measure Progress

Post 2 of 2

Researcher Thomas Reeves once stated that educational tests are “treated by teachers as autopsies when they should be viewed as physicals.” Formative assessments are like “check-ups,” giving teachers information about how their students are progressing with the material while there is still time to make adjustments and address problems. This commitment to measure progress is the theme of this week’s blogs and a key mindset to the TeachCycle process.

On Tuesday, we heard from Jennifer Valentine about the benefits of collecting and using small data to help students succeed. In today’s blog, Master Teacher Ruth Hutson describes how she uses a variety of formative assessments to constantly keep her finger on the pulse of students’ understanding. By making sure to measure progress regularly during individual classes and across each unit, Ruth is able to meet her students where they are, and help them bridge the gap toward deeper understanding.


businessman between a rock and a hard space

businessman between a rock and a hard space

One of the hardest tasks for me as a teacher is trying to determine my students’ prior knowledge. Students aren’t a blank slate; they come to my class with previous experiences, preconceptions, misconceptions, and naive understanding. As a teacher, I find my lessons will be much more successful if I can predetermine what areas my students have already mastered and where they are still having problems.

Two resources I use to determine the best formative assessment for the task at hand are Classroom Assessment Techniques and Page Keeley’s Misconception Probes. I found both of these tools have greatly helped me modify my practice and elicit the types of responses from my students that truly help me understand their reasoning.

How I use the data

First, I use it at the beginning of a lesson to help me identify the gap between what the student knows and what the students need to know to master the standard.

  • I typically use Keeley’s misconception probes like I did in this Investigating Photosynthesis with Algae lesson. I present students with several scenarios that are in line with their current thinking. Only one of the scenarios is correct. They must commit to a scenario and then explain their reasoning. I then ask several student volunteers to explain their reasoning. Students who differ in their choices can then discuss why they made particular choices.
  • Another assessment probe I use is What Do I Think? I give students several guiding questions that ask them their opinion and have them explain scientific phenomena. This response is revised later in the lesson once students have learned more about a scientific concept.

Second, I use formative assessment data at the end of the lesson to elicit feedback from my students that can help me determine their understanding and guide the next day’s lesson.

  • I will have my students revise their What Do I Think response made earlier in the lesson. Using What Do I Think Now, students edit their initial response and tell how their thinking has changed because of the new information they learned in the lesson.
  • A modification of What Do I Think Now is I used to think, but now I know. In this assessment, students respond to a previous misconception probe and explain where their reasoning was naive or faulty. They provide evidence from the lesson to support their new understanding.
  • One of my favorite Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) that enable students to practice summarizing their learning are one sentence summaries. This activity requires students to summarize the main point of the lesson in one sentence by telling who, did what, to whom, where, when, why, and how.
  • Another great CAT is modified minute papers. In this activity, students are given three to five minutes to write a three to five sentence summary of the lesson. Many times I ask my student to explain the most important that they learned in the day’s lesson. I also may ask them to tell me what important question remains unanswered for them.

Third, I use formative assessment data to measure learning progressions over a period of several lessons.  By breaking the standards into smaller learning goals, I can help scaffold my students’ learning.

  • I use both misconception probes and table of characteristics to help my students summarize and synthesize their understanding.
  • A targeted misconception probe like this Seedlings in a Jar question I use when we study the life cycle of plants, is a great way to get students thinking and to uncover underlying misconceptions. We revisit this prompt several times throughout the Plant and Cellular Respiration unit so students can better understand seed germination and that all living things undergo cellular respiration.

Finally, I use formative assessment data as a method of self-assessment, which allows students to make decisions in their own learning.

  • The Classroom Assessment Techniques that I typically use is The Muddiest Point. This CAT allows students to give feedback on where they are still confused and ask questions about areas where they are curious and want more information about a related topic.

Measuring and reporting student proficiency

Collecting data is only the first part in helping my students improve their understanding. It is very important to report the findings from the assessment to my students. I like to do this using a bulls-eye analogy, which visually represents each student’s response on a target diagram. Depending on the results of the assessment, the bulls-eye analogy will serve as a segue into a short remediation activity or the introduction to new content.

Providing students processing time

I find it essential to provide time for my students to reflect about what they learned at the end of every lesson. If students are not given time to synthesize what they have learned or put together all of the pieces, then they still maintain their naive understanding of the concept. They are also less likely to retain what we have covered. By their very nature, formative assessments are designed to allow students to reflect in a short period of time. My students respond to the assessment probes in their lab notebooks. These notebooks are then left with me so I can skim through their responses and evaluate the direction the class needs to go the following day.


Ruth Hutson is the science teacher at Blue Valley High in Randolph, Kansas and is a part of the BetterLesson Science Master Teacher Project. The only high school science teacher in her district, Ruth teaches Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Physics, Anatomy & Physiology, and Applied Statistics and Analysis in Science. In addition to teaching, Ruth has served as an online advisor for the NSTA Learning Center, helping to train preservice teachers. She also moderates web seminars for NSTA. To read Ruth’s earlier post about strategies for differentiation, please click here.

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