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

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

One of my favorite frameworks I learned in teaching 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 before students arrive on college campuses, the need for connections, collaboration, and co-constructing knowledge is still crucial 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 learn (with the help of others). What I appreciate about this philosophy is the use of actual and potential. It implies a growth mindset, a mentality we all could develop, foster, and sustain in 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 essential 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, some objectives 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 a critical approach, even when we try to maybe try to hop two to speed up the time it takes us to get from point A to point B. Stairs 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 can 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 can overlap their formative experiences and skills; however, when they do overlap, they are doing so with more challenging and heightened expectations. We think of spirals because we consistently return to specific ideas to reinforce and then build upon them.

SCAFFOLDS: These are how we find support to build our structures and, in this case, our staircase. Using a formative assessment as a scaffold helps us visualize what we need to do to systemically improve student learning and achievement. Our scaffolding assists our students’ sociocultural and cognitive development while also creating an environment that enhances their feeling of being empowered and supported in their knowledge.

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 and summative assessments.

FORMATIVE ASSESSMENTS are the stairs, spirals, and scaffolds. They represent low-stakes and high-feedback opportunities for students and 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 significant points of a semester. This assessment will be used to conclude a unit and 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 sometimes provide 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 ensure 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 the course. Students get to lead this discussion as well.
  • Misconception checks: Allow students to share what they don’t understand, what’s muddied for them, and how they navigate those issues.
  • Reflection: Outside of having chats with students, I think it is vital for them to consistently reflect on their learning and the design of the course. Think outside the box on your questions, hoping students are also developing metacognitive thinking.
  • 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 their thoughts that way. For example, pink is things students don’t understand, yellow is 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 help you 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 plan 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 into individual steps so the students aren’t overwhelmed by the whole staircase?
  • Spiral: How do I reinforce what students know while building them to their best potential? What skills do I need to strengthen, and how do I elevate them 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 required 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, you are likely not looking to overhaul your assessment structure or plan for your course. However, we can all think about how to 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 approaching a question, text, or task. I show and tell. I then encourage students to do the same. It is essential to note how students respond because this is where you learn what additional labor will 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 explicit connections to what you’ve discussed 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 foreign to new learning. It is undoubtedly 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 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 see how use depends 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 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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