“Try It, You’ll Like It”: Formative Assessment in Professional Development

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When powerful digital formative assessment tools are woven into professional development, they help teachers reflect on their own learning while giving them the practice and confidence to use these tools in their own classrooms.

Through my work in Seattle Pacific University’s Digital Education Leadership program I have come to understand the power of formative assessment and how crucial it is for learning and improving instruction. What better way for teachers to familiarize themselves with assessment tools than through their own professional development sessions? They can see what formative assessment looks like from the student side and gain experience with different products and techniques. Offering practical, hands-on instruction that supports best practices in assessment and adult learning reflects ISTE Coaching Standard 4, indicator B (Design, develop, and implement technology rich professional learning programs that model principles of adult learning and promote digital age best practices in teaching, learning, and assessment) (ISTE, 2011).

Formative Assessment Framework

Wiliam and Thompson (2009) developed a framework for formative assessment that included 5 supporting strategies, shown in Figure 1. The “big idea” of the framework seems obvious: teachers use what they learn from formative assessments to modify their instruction. They do this through “engineering” an environment that produces strong evidence of learning through discussions, questions, and activities. The assessment is not just done by teachers but also by students assessing each other and themselves.

Figure 1: Formative Assessment Framework (Wiliam and Thompson, 2009)

This framework applies to students of all ages, including adult learners. Leaders of professional development for teachers can apply the strategies through:

  • Making clear what teachers can expect to learn in the training and how they can determine if their understanding is sufficient (strategy 1)
  • Employing hands-on activities that produce artifacts that can be assessed by the instructor, professional learning community (PLC), or the teacher themselves (strategies 2, 4, & 5)
  • Using feedback, either from the instructor or professional learning community to increase understanding and affect teacher learning (strategies 3 & 4)

Best Practices for Professional Development Apply to Formative Assessment Training Too

Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner (2017) determined that successful professional development should be focused, hands-on, and collaborative, and include modeled practice, feedback and reflection.

Trumball and Gerzon (2013) reviewed eleven studies of professional development programs that focused on formative assessment. They confirmed Darling-Hammond, Hyler & Gardner’s indicators of successful professional development and in addition (citing Hirsch, 2011), suggested the importance of modeling the use of formative assessment during professional development on formative assessment. 

Andersson and Palm (2018) found similar results when studying successful application of formative assessment by teachers who had received training. Teachers gained confidence in both the understanding and use of formative assessment techniques by using them during professional development and had a stronger belief in the effectiveness of these techniques as a result of the explanations and modeling provided by the instructors.

“The activities made available to the teachers during the PDP, and the possibilities for the teachers to test these activities in their classrooms with subsequent reflections, made it possible to experience the positive effects that these activities may have on students’ attitudes and learning.”

Andersson & Palm, 2018, p.593

Digital Tools for Formative Assessment

Fortunately, there are many great digital tools for formative assessment that can be used in professional development and later applied in the classroom. Categories include polling/quiz apps, video capture, videos with embedded quizzes, and whiteboard/brainstorming apps. I have highlighted a few below.  For a more extensive list, see 75 Digital Tools and Apps Teachers Can Use to Support Formative Assessment in the Classroom on the NWEA website (Hamilton, 2018). Using a variety of tools during professional development and modeling how they might be applied in the classroom gives teachers hands-on experience and the confidence to try them.

Tools for Analyzing Data

Teachers often cite time as the reason not to do formative assessment (Andersson and Palm, 2018). Digital assessment tools can help with this as they can be used to take a quick assessment on the front end and are even more efficient on the back end for analyzing data. An example is a short quiz created in Google Forms.

Figure 2: Google Forms summarizes the results of a quiz
Figure 3: Google Forms pulls out the questions that gave students the most trouble

Apps like Google Forms and Microsoft Forms (which can now be embedded into a Classroom OneNote) provide data snapshots and generate spreadsheets for further analysis. Other products save time on the front end by offering ready-made content (Quizlet and Formative) or standards-aligned quizzes (Edulastic), in addition to giving teacher data on individual and class performance.

Quick Checks

Educator Vicki Davis (2017) described in a blog post how she checked her students’ understanding of binary numbers after a lesson she had taught. Two students said it was easy and asked to move on. She asked the rest of the class if they agreed and all nodded their heads yes. She thought they probably did understand the concept but decided on a whim to test them using Socrative, a classroom polling app.

When she looked at the results she was “floored.” Only the two students who said the topic was easy got the answer right. She went back to teaching the concept and used Socrative again with slightly better results. She persevered until all of her students had a score of 90% or higher. She estimates that doing this reduced the number of days it took to teach binary numbers from five days to three days.

Other quick response apps include Poll Everywhere and the ever-popular Kahoot.

Alternate Forms of Assessment

“…different learning tasks are best measured in different ways, and we can see why we need a variety of formative assessment tools we can deploy quickly, seamlessly, and in a low-stakes way—all while not creating an unmanageable workload.”

Thomas (2019)

Video and audio formative assessment methods are useful in giving students an alternative way to show what they know. Leaders of professional development can use Edpuzzle to embed a quiz into a video or assign Flipgrid for teachers to video themselves asking questions or showing their understanding of a topic. Whiteboard apps such as Explain Everything can be used by teachers to upload lesson plans, for example, and add voice or ink annotations that explain their thinking.

Bottom Line

The point of formative assessment for both teachers in professional development and young students in a classroom is for instructors to change their practice based on the results of the assessments they give and for students to take a more active role in their learning. The following video from Common Sense Media, though directed at classroom teachers, could equally apply to professional development: digital formative assessment tools should be used to improve teaching and deepen student understanding.

“3 Tips for Great Formative Assessment” Common Sense Media (2016)


3 great tips for formative assessment (July 12, 2016). Common Sense Education. Retrieved from: https://www.commonsense.org/education/videos/3-tips-for-great-formative-assessment

Andersson, C. & Palm, T. (2018) Reasons for teachers’ successful development of a formative assessment practice through professional development – a motivation perspective, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 25:6, 576-597, DOI: 10.1080/0969594X.2018.1430685. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0969594X.2018.1430685

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., & Gardner, M. (2017). Effective teacher professional development. Learning Policy Institute Research Brief. Retrieved from: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/sites/default/files/product-files/Effective_Teacher_Professional_Development_BRIEF.pdf

Davis, V. (2017). 5 fast formative assessment tools. Edutopia. Retrieved from: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/5-fast-formative-assessment-tools-vicki-davis

Hamilton, B. (2018). Integrating technology in the classroom. ISTE.

Hirsch, S. (2011). Building professional development to support new student assessment systems. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward/National Staff Development Council.

ISTE Standards for coaches (2011). ISTE. Retrieved from: https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches

Thomas, L. (April 26, 2019). 7 Smart, fast ways to do formative assessment.  Edutopia. Retrieved from:https://www.edutopia.org/article/7-smart-fast-ways-do-formative-assessment

Trumbull, E. & Gerzon, N. (2013). Professional development on formative assessment: Insights from research and practice.  Wested.org. Retrieved from:  wested.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/1370913036resource13051-3.pdf

Wiliam, D. & Thompson, M. (2008). Integrating assessment with learning: what will it take to make it work? In Carol A. Dwyer (Ed.), The future of assessment: Shaping teaching and learning. (pp. 52–75). New York & London: Routledge. Also Available at: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10001162/1/Wiliam2006Integrating.pdf

5 thoughts on ““Try It, You’ll Like It”: Formative Assessment in Professional Development”

  1. I love the list of formative assessment tools. As you point out, having a variety of formative assessment tools is a must have for all of the different learning tasks that educators are likely to face. I do feel you point about how collecting and analyzing data can be a very time consuming task – particularly if any part of this requires manual work from the educator. This is where having tools that provide proper support for the learning task is even more important. Great post!

  2. Your post is informative on formative assessment. I like the “big idea” of the framework which can help teachers to grain the strong evidence of learning through discussions, questions, and activities to modify their instruction. I like the digital tools you list for analyzing data from formative assessment. With the data, teachers can understand student learning better and adjust the teaching practice to deepen student understanding. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I would love to have PD on how to use those formative assessment tools in my classroom – even with my desire to use assessment tools and technology to support this, I still hesitate to use the tools that analyze data and quick check platforms you mention because I have had no specific PD around using it in my classroom with 2nd graders and it feels overwhelming to dig into it…though I just need to and this post reminds me of that so thank you! I also love the way you broke down the Framework for Formative Assessment in a way that gives ideas for how PD leaders can implement each idea successfully ~ really helpful!

  4. Bridget, You are point on with your suggestions to use formative assessment in PD to model classroom use. Sometimes when we do a check for understanding in class I get that funny teacher feeling, do my students really understand? Do they know how to ask questions to articulate what they don’t understand? How can I check in on the main learning points to support mastery quickly and supportively. You provided so many helpful reasources- thank you for putting my feelings into words.

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