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Science of Learning

Responding to your Learners

The importance of formative assessment

This post originally appeared on the Data Carpentry website

Picture for a moment one of your undergraduate university courses, or a recent meeting of your department’s research seminar. If your experience is typical, more likely than not the instructor or presenter came in with a prepared set of materials on a slide deck (or for the old-school, on projector overheads), talked at you for an hour, maybe asked if there were any questions, and then packed up and left. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably had lots of experience with the standard lecture.

Lecturing has been the default mode of instruction for centuries, as evidenced by its presence in medieval illuminations. As a mechanism for large-scale verbal dissemination of information, lecturing has served a valuable purpose. It’s relatively easy to get adult learners to sit still for an hour and hear what you have to say. But of course, in most cases, the end goal is not to have people listen to you speak, but to have them understand and be able to use new information in their thought process. In other words, you want them to learn something.

Larentius de Voltolina lecture, mid-1300s

We know that in many cases, simple exposure to information isn’t enough to learn it in the sense of integrating the information into a mental model and being able to use it to understand the world. The human brain is expert in tricking us into believing we understand something, for example by forcing new information into existing incorrect mental models of how the world works. This is one reason why asking learners if they have questions, or if “this all makes sense”, is ineffective. Even with the best of intentions, learners often don’t know when they’re confused.

The only way to accurately gauge learner understanding is to ask them to do something using their new information. Traditionally, this “doing something” has been restricted to high-stakes assignments like exams and was meant to serve as an official judgment of the end-result of a learner’s progress. These sorts of tasks are known as summative assessments because they serve as a final measurement of the learner’s ability, without providing an opportunity to learn from mistakes.

In contrast, formative assessments provide opportunities for learners to practice using their new knowledge in a low-stakes atmosphere, with the primary goal of providing feedback to themselves and to the instructor about their level of understanding. Formative assessment is most useful for learners when the results of that assessment are used by the instructor to address misunderstandings and adjust the pace and focus of instruction.

In university classrooms, formative assessments are often carried out using electronic audience response systems. By enabling instructors to rapidly and accurately collect information about their learners’ current knowledge state, these systems can be used to make real-time decisions about the best next step for instruction.

Such electronic systems work well for quarter or semester-long courses, but not so well for workshops for two reasons. First, we don’t want to ask our learners to spend money on a tool they’re only going to use for a couple of days. And second, learning how to use any new technology takes time, a precious commodity in our short workshops.

Instead, we carry out formative assessments using a very low-tech piece of technology - the humble sticky note. Learners are given two different colored sticky notes at the beginning of the workshop. These are used as progress flags during hands-on exercises to signal to the instructor and workshop helpers when learners are stuck (red sticky note) or have successfully completed the exercise (green sticky note). Learners can also use these at any time during the workshop to signal that they want help (red sticky note).

Sticky notes

This system lets instructors quickly gauge the room’s progress and adjust their teaching pace, while simultaneously allowing resources (helpers) to be efficiently targeted towards those learners who need assistance. By making it unnecessary for learners to raise their hands, sticky notes also provide two other benefits - they make it more likely that learners will ask for help (putting up a sticky note is less emotionally threatening than sitting there with a hand raised), and they let learners who are struggling continue to work (it’s hard to type one-handed).

Using just two little pieces of paper and a bit of adhesive, we’re able to harness the amazing power of formative assessment and ensure that we’re teaching our learners rather than just talking at them. So next time you’re in a Carpentry workshop, look around at those little colored flags on everyone’s laptop and remember that sometimes simple tools can do great things.

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