Using formative assessment to think in stairs, spirals, and scaffolds

Setting a foundation for thinking is important for helping students build toward success.

One of my favorite frameworks I learned in teacher school as an undergrad was the Zone of Proximal Development. It comes from educational theorist Lev Vygotsky’s (one of my most beloved thinkers) work in learning development, particularly his theory of sociocultural cognitive development. Vygotsky’s framework, like many other educational theorists, often goes unnoticed in higher education in our teaching practice. It suggests that we develop beliefs, cultural values, and problem-solving strategies through collaboration and the knowledge of others. Within this perspective lies the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).

Social interaction is a core part of Vygotsky’s belief that we need others to learn and adapt within and across cultures. And while much of this cognitive development is accomplished prior to students’ arrival on college campuses, the need for connections, collaboration, and co-constructing knowledge is still important in post-secondary education. This is why ZPD matters. The Zone of Proximal Development refers to the distance between what our students know (their actual development) and what they have the potential to know (with the help of others). What I appreciate about this philosophy is the use of actual and potential. It implies a growth mindset, which is a mentality we all could develop, foster, and sustain in our adulthood.

However, we cannot assume that we know where students actually are. But we know where we want their potential to be –this is where formative assessments come in, and why objectives are important to achieving potential.

Building Blocks

When we write curriculum, we think about what we want the students to be able to do by the time they leave our courses. We call these objectives. In some places, there are objectives that are prescribed by the institution, while in others they are entirely up to the instructor. Regardless of the method, they serve as the benchmark of student potential.

So how do we get there? Three words: stairs, spirals, and scaffolds.

STAIRS: Taking one stair at a time is an important approach, even when we try to maybe try to hop two in order to speed up the time it takes us to get from point A to point B. Stairs in this case should be thought of as the way we get from a student’s actual learning to their potential learning. Each stair step represents a formative experience that elevates them toward achieving their course potential. Now, because they are stairs, students have the ability to go back down if they hit a hurdle or come across an issue that impedes them from reaching the top.

SPIRALS: Our staircase is also not a simple vertical one either. Instead, in education we strive to think of our curricular experience as a spiral staircase where students are able to overlap their formative experiences and skills; however, when they do overlap, they are doing so with more difficult and heightened expectations. We think of spirals because we consistently return to certain ideas in order to reinforce and then build upon them.

SCAFFOLDS: These are the ways in which we find support to build up our structures and in this case our staircase. Thinking about formative assessment as a scaffold helps us visualize what we need to be doing to systemically improve student learning and achievement. Our scaffolding assists in the sociocultural and cognitive development of our students, while also creating an environment that enhances students feeling empowered and supported in their learning.

Collectively, these three terms help us navigate our use of formative assessments. They also help us navigate a student’s trajectory from actual to potential.

Formative versus Summative Assessments

When we create products to assess student success, we can break them down into formative assessment and summative assessment.

FORMATIVE ASSESSMENTS are the stairs, spirals, and scaffolds. They represent low-stakes and high-feedback opportunities for students, as well as help us as instructors gauge what we need to do to help students navigate the actual to the potential.

SUMMATIVE ASSESSMENTS are the outcomes and the major points of a semester. This type of assessment will be used to conclude a unit and also the semester. It also is the measurement of students learning on the unit and course objectives. This type of assessment is often used in higher education courses when and where formative assessments should be.

Creating sustainable formative assessments

Our formative assessments provide us sometimes quick check-ins on student learning, but they also can be more sustained efforts to track growth and progress toward an end goal. Here are some examples of formative assessments commonly found in higher education courses:

One of the ways you can connect with the students is to allow them to speak in the language they know best: text speak. Integrating emojis, for example, could help students more easily express their connection to the information. However, limit the emojis the students can share with you to make sure you can use the information to improve the learning environment.
  • Entry and exit slips
    • Quick free-writes at the beginning of class or sliding bars
    • Use emojis or images to help visualize student learning
    • Exit opportunities to see if students retained what you talked about
  • Quizzes (low stakes) and polls
  • Focus observations: asking students to
    • visualize something,
    • write a letter,
    • or even a think-pair-share
  • Chats: I like to use a week of class to meet with students where they come prepared to share how they think they are doing based on the rubrics and scores they’ve encountered in class. Students get to lead this discussion as well.
  • Misconception checks: Allow students to share what they aren’t understanding, what’s muddied for them, and how they are navigating those issues.
  • Reflection: Outside of having chats with students, I think it is important for them to consistently reflect on their learning and the design of the course. Think outside of the box on the types of questions you ask, with the hope that students are developing metacognitive thinking as well.
  • Board notes and sticky conversations: Depending on the room and resources you have, you can have students share thoughts directly on the board or screen. You can also use different colored post-it notes and have students organize thoughts that way. For example, pink are things students don’t understand, yellow are things that students think lack clarity but kind of understand, and green is that they could help their classmates with that knowledge. What you do with that information can lead to small group discussions, or it can help you to decide if there is information that needs to be retaught so students can master the content.

Use the three visual metaphors above to help you in your planning of formative assessments. Below are questions you can ask yourself and your assessment to improve its use and purpose in your curriculum:

  • Stairs: What do students know and how do I get them to where I want them to be? How do I break those skills up into individual steps so that the students aren’t overwhelmed by the whole staircase?
  • Spiral: What ways do I reinforce what students know while also building them to their best potential? What are the skills I need to reinforce and how do I elevate the skills each time I reinforce them?
  • Scaffold: What can I be doing to guide the students to success? What structures do I need to put in place to maximize student learning? What supports are needed to help differentiate student learning and address diverse learners in my classroom?
Scaffolding strategies to integrate into your classroom today

If you are like me and it is already a few weeks into the semester, then you are likely not looking to overhaul your assessment structure or plan for your course. However, what we all can do is think about how we can add and build scaffolding into the curriculum, which isn’t as difficult as one may think. Here are a few strategies you can add to your classes today:

  • Thinking Aloud: Some even call this show-and-tell. Here is your quick glimpse at what students know at the moment. I also like to use this as a modeling strategy where I speak openly about how I am approaching a question, text, or task. I show and tell. I then encourage students to do the same. It is important to keep note of how students are responding because this is where you learn what additional labor is going to be needed for the whole group, or if you will need to differentiate to improve individual student success.
    • Models for assignment outcomes
    • Fish-bowl discussions
    • Hands up for the level of understanding (1-5 fingers equal current level of processing)
  • Activate Prior Knowledge: This strategy relies on helping students to make clear connections to what you’ve talked about previously. Try and use a combination of you as the instructor making those connections and then asking students to do similarly with a different concept or question.
    • KWL charts
    • Image brainstorms
    • Anticipatory guides
    • Graphic organizers
  • Guiding Vocabulary Acquisition: A lot of the language we use in class could be considered a foreign language to new learning, and it certainly is full of hidden curricula (especially for our international and first-generation college students). Our textbooks and articles are also full of terms that make it difficult for students to know what they are reading, which will impede their ability to move up the staircase from actual to potential. Provide definitions of key and important terms ahead of reading, or even directly lecture about those terms ahead of students attempting to do so on their own. I personally like to have students have a list of the terms, look up the terms in the dictionary, and then find the word in the text and look at the definition in context. I then have them write the definition of the term in the margins near where the word appears. This helps students to see how use is dependent on educational, social, and cultural factors. But it also encourages them to actively read.
    • Word lists
    • Frayer model: Word maps and four-corner graphic organizers
    • Linear arrays

Reframing our thinking and shifting our vocabulary both in our design and in our teaching. It is one thing to ask ourselves to change how we design our curriculum, but it is another to move our thinking to be more transparent in our spaces with students.

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