Questions to and from students in the classroom can work as ‘assessment conversations’

Schoolchildren and teacher in science classQuestions to and from students in the classroom can be more than a tool to encourage participation or to check that students are paying attention, according to a recent article in Journal of Research in Science Teaching. Questions can serve as opportunities for “assessment conversations” that help teachers recognize students’ conceptions, mental models, strategies or language and to use that information to guide instruction.

Study: “Exploring Teachers’ Informal Formative Assessment Practices and Students’ Understanding in the Context of Scientific Inquiry”, by Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo, Erin Marie Furtak, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Volume 4, Number 1, 2007, pp. 57-84.

Conclusion: Students performed better in science when their teachers make effective use of informal formative assessments in the classroom. An ESRU model was developed to guide teachers in conducting these informal assessments. The ESRU model is as follows: The teacher elicits a question, the student responds, the teacher recognizes the student’s response and then uses the information to support student learning. The ESRU model differs from the more common IRE/F model (initiation, response, evaluation/feedback) in that there is greater emphasis on using responses from students to reach learning goals, e.g. asking another question that challenges or redirects the student’s thinking.

Method: The teachers were provided with digital video cameras, microphones and videotapes and asked to videotape every session of the unit. Videotapes (30 lessons by the three teachers) were transcribed and 26 assessment conversations that involved teacher-whole-class interactions were identified in the transcripts. The conversations were coded as complete or incomplete ESRU cycles and they were also coded for whether they focused on the “epistemic” (relating to knowledge) or the “conceptual.” To assess student learning, researchers used two sources of information: a multiple-choice achievement test as a pretest and three assessment activities embedded in three sessions–graphing, prediction question and predict-observe-explain.

Participants: Three middle school teachers who were teaching the first physical science unit of the Foundational Approaches to Science Teaching (FAST 1), “Properties of Matter”, and their students. The FAST curriculum is a constructivist, inquiry-based, middle-school science education program developed by the Curriculum Research and Development Group (CRDG) and aligned with National Science Education Standards.

Main research question: Can a model of informal formative assessment be used to judge the quality of informal practices across different teachers? Can the quality of teachers’ informal formative assessment practices be linked to student performance?

• Informal formative assessment can take place in any student-teacher
interaction (whole-class, small group or one-on-one).• A student’s incorrect response or question can give the teacher assessment
information about a student’s misunderstanding.

• Teachers can “use” information from classroom conversations by encouraging
the contrast of students’ ideas, making connections between new ideas and
familiar ones or increasing the difficulty of the task at hand.

• Evaluations by themselves (“good” or “excellent”) are not part of the ESRU
pattern unless they are embedded in a rationale for the evaluation provided.

• Frequent and ongoing assessment conversations and assessment activities can
help develop habits of scientific inquiry in students; instructional
responsiveness is crucial in teaching scientific inquiry.

Findings: The ESRU model provided important information about the teachers’ informal assessment practices in the classroom, the study found. Based on this small sample, the researchers conclude that the teacher whose whole-class conversations were more consistent with the ESRU cycle, had students who performed better on the assessment activities embedded in the sessions.

Most of the conversations in the transcripts were coded as conceptual conversations; there were few epistemic conversations in the classrooms. Examples of epistemic conversations include comparing and contrasting observation, data or procedures, making predictions, formulating explanations and evaluating the quality of evidence.

The highest percentage of the conceptual questions focused on asking students to define concepts (44%) and checking students for understanding (32%). Few conceptual conversations focused on comparing or contrasting concepts. The most common epistemic conversations focused on applying known procedures and making observations. 

From Assessment for Learning: 12 recent studies on formative assessment and aligning assessments with learning goals, published by Educational Research Newsletter August 2007

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