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EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Using EssayTagger for fast formative assessment, pt1

In part one we'll quickly review what formative assessment is and some of its key characteristics. Then we'll learn how to use EssayTagger for fast, effective formative assessment.

"The giving of marks and the grading function are overemphasized, while the giving of useful advice and the learning function are underemphasized."  
- Black, Paul, and Wiliam

Buzzword primer
I often get lost in the absurd world of edu-speak lingo. So before we even start, let's define our two key terms:

Formative assessment is an approach where the teacher "build[s] in many opportunities to assess how students are learning and then use[s] this information to make beneficial changes in instruction" (Boston). Formative assessments happen during a unit, within the flow of instruction. It's about quickly diagnosing problems and adjusting what you're doing tomorrow to produce better results before the unit ends.

Summative assessment "generally takes place after a period of instruction and requires making a judgment about the learning that has occurred (e.g., by grading or scoring a test or paper)" (Boston). You could also call this "Final assessment"--it's looking to measure the end result of instruction.

The two can be boiled down to: "where are we struggling?" (formative assessment) vs. "how did we do?" (summative assessment). Or, if you prefer a more colorful analogy: "what's the patient's temperature" vs "how many patients survived?"

Formative Assessment Key #1: Speed
If your goal is to modify instruction tomorrow, clearly your formative assessments need to be fast. It would be absurd for a nurse to take a patient's temperature and then have to wait a week for the results.

Formative Assessment Key #2: Detailed diagnostics
One of the key principles behind formative assessment is that it "provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape teaching" (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick). In this sense they are diagnostic, identifying the areas where students are struggling. The more detail it can provide--exactly who is struggling in which areas--the better, but this generally slams up against the need for speed. It's very difficult to do quick formative assessments that are highly detailed and still allow the teacher to have a life.

Formative Assessment Key #3: Quality feedback
While the first two keys were teacher-centric, this one is student-centric. Part of what powers formative assessment's effectiveness is the targeted feedback provided to each individual student. It's not enough to merely see where course corrections are needed; each student must be explicitly steered in that direction.

Black, Paul, and Wiliam note that "Feedback has been shown to improve learning when it gives each pupil specific guidance on strengths and weaknesses, preferably without any overall marks" (8). Such feedback puts the student in a position to learn and show improvement as the unit progresses. The lack of "any overall marks" is to prevent any stigmatization related to misunderstanding or struggle with the material. The point of formative assessment is to identify areas of struggle and improve them; they should not shame or punish a student for lacking mastery at this as-yet-incomplete stage of instruction.

Speed vs detail and quality
At this point effective formative assessment seems nearly impossible for the already-overloaded teacher. How can you possibly assess quickly (and often!), collect tons of useful data, and provide personalized, targeted feedback?! I think most teachers, myself included, bend to the need for speed--tomorrow is coming no matter what!--and end up sacrificing the detail of the diagnostics as well as the quality of the feedback offered, and that's all assuming we even attempt any formative assessment in the first place!

Well I don't have any magical solutions for you, but we do have the power of EssayTagger and its built-in tools and data analysis at our disposal. We're going to ignore the "Essay" part of EssayTagger's name and instead see it in a simpler light: as a tool for fast evaluation and delivering specific feedback.

Continue to part two to see how we'll work use short, open-ended journal questions and EssayTagger to nail all three key areas: speed, detailed diagnostics, and quality feedback.

Black, Paul, and Dylan Wiliam. "Inside the Black Box."

Boston, Carol. "The concept of formative assessment." Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation 8.9 (2002): 1-5.

Nicol, David J., and Debra Macfarlane‐Dick. "Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice." Studies in higher education 31.2 (2006): 199-218.