Formative assessment task design

Formative assessments can be used in a multitude of classroom settings, for a variety of purposes. When teachers consider their ultimate purposes for delivering their formative assessments, they can enhance the impact that the formative assessments have on their students and their future decisions in the classroom. Formative assessments that teachers write have a range of accessibility and ability to reveal student thinking. Their effectiveness depends on the purpose that the teacher has set for administering the formative assessment. A formative assessment to determine if a student knows a right answer vs understands a concept would be designed quite differently.

The four quadrant model for formative assessment design

A useful way to categorize formative assessments is by using a four quadrant grid, shown at the top of the page, that categorizes them according to accessibility of the formative assessment, which increases from left to right, and how well the formative assessment reveals of students' thinking, which increases from the top to the bottom. No one type of formative assessment is "right" or "wrong", rather they are all administered in line with the teachers' overall lesson goals. Listed below are four formative assessments, each of which would be useful for teachers to utilize purposefully at the appropriate time.  Despite the utility of all four types of formative assessment, we at ACCT believe that it is often helpful for teachers to make them more accessible and revealing in order to maximize utility. Let's examine the four quadrants and how they can be utilized.

Quadrant A - Not accessible, not revelatory of student thinking

Formative assessments that fall into quadrant A require that students have particular background knowledge in order to be able to answer the question.  Specific vocabulary terms, or an understanding of the meaning of visual representations of the content are required for students to be able to answer the question. This type of formative assessment is appropriate to administer as a "bell ringer" at the end of class or a "do now" at the beginning of a class the day after the content was taught at a time that it is important for students to know the scientifically correct answer. The students' thinking behind their answer is not the teacher's concern behind this particular type of formative assessment, perhaps during preparation for a standardized test. An example of a formative assessment that fits into quadrant A is:

Write the chemical reaction that is consistent with the data on the graph below:

Notice how the student would need to know the definition of concentration and be able to interpret this particular type of graph in order to infer a stoichiometric relationship from a hypothetical chemical reaction. Without that prior knowledge, the student would not be able to overcome the barrier to answering this question.

Quadrant B - Accessible, but not revelatory of student thinking

Formative assessments that fit into quadrant B may not need as much background information as indicated in quadrant A. This category of formative assessment grants students access to the question by providing necessary background information that students can use to answer the question. Formative assessments in this quadrant do not, however, reveal anything about students' chemical thinking. A formative assessment that fits into quadrant B is

The density formula is  D = M/V.  If the mass of the rock is 354.5 grams, and the volume of the same rock is 85 mL, what is the density of the rock?

Notice how students are given the mass and volume of the rock, but also the formula that they can use in order to determine its density. The images of the scale and the graduated cylinders also reinforce students' prior experiences in the laboratory.  Despite the accessibility of this formative assessment question, it does not reveal anything about how students think about density or what density means to them in their lives.

Quadrant C - Not accessible, but is revelatory of student thinking

Formative assessments that fit into quadrant C require students to describe their understanding at a deeper level in order to indicate whether they fully understand the topic of study. A teacher could learn about how students are thinking about the topic of the formative assessment below:

It is snowing right now in Boston. Consider the map below and explain everything that is important to know about this map. Snowfall inches (white numbers) and temperature (gray boxes)

In this case, the teacher could learn what students knew about the connection between tempearture on the ground, amount of precipitation, and proximity to the ocean. There is an accessibility barrier to learning this information as this formative assessment is written however, as students could know a great deal about these topics but simply not know how to interpret the map, which would prevent them from being able to share their thinking.

Quadrant D - Accessible and revealing of student thinking

Formative assessments that fit into quadrant D reveal how students think about things by making the question tangible and accessible to all students. Students do not have to understand scientific vocabulary or particular symbolic representations, as the questions are written in a manner that does not put up barriers for students to share their thinking, yet they still can engage deeply in applying complex and sophisticated ideas and practices. A quadrant D style formative assessment would be:

The M & M company claims that M & M candies melt in your mouth but not in your hand. Do you agree with this claim? Why or why not? Back up your answer with evidence.

Notice how this question could reveal student thinking regarding several chemistry topics such as solubility and melting temperature, but does not explicitly state that these concepts are required to answer the question. By avoiding scientific vocabulary or models that could limit students' access, this type of formative assessment enables students to reveal their thinking in their own words.