Erin Ryan

Taking a closer look at formative assessment in remote and hybrid instruction

Blog Post created by Erin Ryan on Sep 22, 2020

Formative assessment—involving teacher-led formal and informal check-ins during the learning process to measure understanding and make in-the-moment instructional decisions—becomes a more fundamental part of learning each day. As students and teachers adapt to learning in new circumstances, it may be more important than ever.

I sat down with Erin Beard, MEd, EdD, a content designer for the Professional Learning team and formative expert at NWEA, to discuss the role of formative assessment in the classroom, how to make the best use of it in remote and hybrid classrooms, and a new resource from NWEA that teachers can use to get started. Erin’s responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Thanks for speaking with me! Let’s start with the basics: What do you do in your role as a content designer on the Professional Learning team?

I get to work on our assessment literacy and formative assessment projects! We're trying, as an organization, to do a better job of (a) connecting to the bigger picture of how to use assessment processes as tools for learning and (b) highlighting the power of using assessments as part of a process for learning rather than a periodic event.


I’m pretty passionate about making sure we use assessments in the context of partnership, too, and to me that means remembering that assessment isn’t something that we do to other people, but with them.


The ultimate aim of adopting a formative assessment approach is to make students agents of their own learning. So really, it’s about building in the metacognition—helping students see themselves taking ownership, which gradually shifts responsibility from teachers. That can also take pressure off teachers and put it back into the students' hands, but in an empowering way. That's the goal. It's easier said than done, but that's the goal.


How has your role changed since teaching and learning went online last spring?

I started full-time at NWEA in July 2020, and I came from the classroom; most recently, eighth-grade social studies. And in my classroom, even when we were face-to-face, I leveraged digital tools. I’m a big believer in digital tools, not as entertainment or busywork, but as supports for learning. So I’ve been taking some of my experiences with digital tools in the classroom and sharing them internally with colleagues and externally with partners.


For example, I use several free tools that can operate as formative assessment checks for understanding, like Socrative. I brought that to my team to explore how we might leverage it, and I’m also asking them to bring new ideas. As they're talking to partners, as they're looking at their social media feeds, what do they notice that people aren't using or what are they using? What are teachers already using for formative checks that we might adopt?


Of course, it’s 2020, so we all have to be more nimble, but that’s been an opportunity to try new digital tools and cool solutions. On my team, we're swapping ideas partially for ourselves as designers and facilitators, and we also have the opportunity to find new ways to make sure we’re designing our professional learning workshops that “walk the walk” of formative practices.


The Professional Learning team is doing a lot around formative assessment this fall. Can you tell me more about that?

A lot of the work we do is around the idea of helping educators create a balanced assessment system for their districts. And that means we—educators and the partners who support them—understand that different assessments have different purposes, and it’s critical to choose the proper process for the task at hand.


For example, there's definitely a time and place for summative assessments—the kinds of processes that certify student understanding—and that can be in smaller contexts, like at the end of the unit, or it can be in bigger contexts, like the end of a grade band. But if we misuse them, that's a problem. In a balanced assessment system, summative assessments are used in coordination with, and complemented by, other assessments.


So really what we're trying to do is work with school districts to rebalance, and in this case it means trusting that if we invest in solid formative processes, summative will take care of itself—that is, get used for its intended purpose. That way, we’re not devoting as much energy to large-scale assessments, but instead we’re focusing on the day-to-day classroom needs, because the smaller processes are far more responsive to immediate teacher and student needs.


For classroom teachers ready to focus on that rebalance, how would you suggest they begin, especially with the added challenge of remote or hybrid learning?

I know it's exciting and terrifying all at the same time, especially for educators who maybe didn't dabble in lots of digital tools before. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: Check out this article from Teach. Learn. Grow. all about tools and tricks for adapting formative practices in remote classrooms.) What I've heard and what I've felt is teachers have had to shift and adjust so they’re focused and clear on:

1. What the learning goal is
2. Which tool is going to get them there (or get them there the fastest)


Not everything needs to be done fast, but moving quickly helps so we don't lose engagement and attention. In the classroom you might have the luxury of zigging and zagging; with remote, not so much—because sometimes just trying to get students into a remote situation is harder. So being very clear about the learning goal (How am I going to get them there? Which tool is going to work the best?) is a focus that’s really working for our partner teachers.

That’s been helpful for me, because starting with those questions lets me take action right away.


The Professional Learning team just released a free eBook all about leveraging formative assessment to supercharge instruction. Can you tell me more about your article?

The piece I got to work on is something I feel passionate about. My angle was all about looking at the intersection of solid, healthy assessment practices with trauma and stress-informed practices—and making the point that those aren’t two separate things.


If we invest in formative assessment that's responsive to our learners with a goal of releasing responsibility to them, we are also doing trauma-informed practices. Providing clear goals, clear structures to hit those goals, and knowing our students well enough to be able to help make those decisions—that all intersects. It's the same work, which for me is really when it feels like, “Oh, okay, I'm not a therapist. I have not been trained to be a clinician. But I know my kids are hurting. And especially this year, they experienced a lot. Where do I start?” Okay. Well, if I do my job really well, I actually am helping them, and it's all aligned.

Special thanks to Erin Beard for taking the time to share her insights with Show of Hands. For additional resources or support with formative assessment, visit the NWEA Resource Center or our Teach. Learn. Grow. blog.