Formative assessment: Going back to the well

It’s that time of year where we all start reflecting on our policies and practice. I’m starting by looking at the marking and feedback policy as I think this the hardest thing for me to get right. It also has far reaching effects on the workload of staff and the learning of all students.

Obviously a lot has been written on the subject, but luckily Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson have done a great job of pulling together the work of the titans of assessment and feedback Dylan Wiliam and Daisy Christodoulou. Their book ‘what does it look like in the classroom’ is a great book to have on the shelf and dip in and out of, so much clarity from some of the worlds leading educational minds.

(side note; If Dylan Wiliam is the Yoda of formative feedback, would that make Daisy Leia?..where would that put Carl and Robin?? I think I’ve settled for R2 and 3po; essentially strong narrative leads that carry us to the experts.)

yoda failure

The main parts that keep ringing in my head by Dylan are:

“..the purpose of feedback is to change the student.”

“Just one sentence explaining to students why feedback was being given made a huge difference to their achievement.”

I think over the last 5 years our department has been on a real journey with regards to feedback and marking. At times I think the fear of the Ofsted bogeyman has informed policy to a point when the most effective things have got lost along the way. Luckily we are heading towards a more holistic and pragmatic approach now. Whilst researching  formative assessment tasks it struck me that I had already come across something that might  work a long time ago in a galaxy far far away….

Many years ago as an NQT I was introduced to a concept called the ‘Thinking Frame’ by a fresh-faced Shaun Allison. The Thinking Frame had been developed as part of the work of the Cams Hill Science Consortium (CHSC). This was/is a group of primary and secondary teachers originally lead by Matthew Newberry, who is now HMI and National Lead for Science. I was later fortunate to join the consortium and get involved in the development of various strategies and tools. I learnt a huge amount about meta-cognition and modelling from Matthew, the other teachers and Professor John Gilbert of the University of Reading (as an aside; cripes I’ve been lucky to work with the people I have over the years)

The Thinking Frame approach was basically 2 ideas:

  1. The Levels Mountain
  2. The Thinking Frame

The Levels Mountain

levels mountain ©The Cams Hill Science Consortium 2004

The Levels Mountain was the best thing for me about NC levels. It was a way of communicating to the students a view on the hierarchy of knowledge and its application.

It based its ideas on blooms and made decisions with regards to how the NC levels were assigned by increasingly complex descriptors.

A lot of this is no longer relevant (and some aspects even heavily critiqued) but the idea of visualising increasing complexity of answers is one I think students can really find valuable. It gives them a road map to success and allows them to reflect and peer/self mark with the proper guidance. Essentially it seems to fit for science explanations.

The Levels Mountain has transformed through various iterations into the learning ladders of ‘badger tasks’ and ‘Activate’ assessment models mainly through the work of Prof Andrew Chandler-Grevatt a CHSC alum.

I think the levels mountain goes a long way to help explain to students why they are being given feedback, to help them climb the mountain and improve their scientific write better scientific answer

The Thinking Frame

Was essentially a way of scaffolding the thought process of answering a question. The idea was if we can slow down the student and get them to unpick their ideas, get feedback and refine them then they will improve the quality of their answers, get misconceptions challenged and improve their mental models and thus their understanding.

Its not ground breaking or highly conceptual:

  • Brainwaves: Students write down all ideas/words that might be part of the answer
  • Think/See: Students draw diagrams add labels to describe what they see in their heads
  • Sequence: Students write bullet points and consider the order of things and literacy more carefully
  • Paragraph: The final piece of written work


thinking frame

I found myself drifting away from this approach over the years as new initiatives were introduced by senior staff and especially since ‘life without levels’. Recently I have found myself re-examining our current formative assessment tools and been left thinking that maybe there is a way of updating this approach for my staff. Our current formative marking comes from scenario questions, but in reflection, while there is scaffolding to support the literacy of the answer, there is no scaffolding to support the students making the next step in a way they could apply to other situations easily. We also tend to do these activities as part of a lesson, possibly not creating a challenging enough question, for fear of running out of time. While knowledge is definitely at the forefront of the modern curriculum the application of it requires students to build up detailed models of the key ideas (energy, particles, forces, cells and survival) to apply to the unfamiliar contexts. If we as teachers can refine a students metal models of the key ideas and the application of those models then we will enable them to improve.

I think for workload, clarity and effectiveness I want to move to a complete lesson for a significant piece of formative assessment. Staff can then use verbal feedback within the lesson and then written feedback afterwards to get the most out of students. Hopefully students will feel the significance and value of the work and improve their understanding of the underlying key ideas and literacy. I’m hoping by reducing the frequency but increasing the depth it’s easier for staff to execute effectively and frees up staff to use their informal feedback strategies more freely in lessons.

I also want these lessons to feel a little different for students. I want us to use a problem as a ‘hook’ to use a counter intuitive demo or concept to confront their misconceptions. I hope this engages their curiosity. Cognitive science suggests that we must confront the students misconceptions head on and demonstrate they are wrong to overcome their confirmation bias and allow them to be receptive to feedback and adjust their mental models.

Mary Myatts talk at ReasearchED conference in Durrington brilliantly summarises the work of Daniel Willingham  in ‘Why don’t students like school?’

key points why dont students like school

I believe the Thinking Frame approach will give our department a good way of modelling some of these ideas and trying to bring some of the wonder back into our lessons. I’m working on finding a way to update the levels mountain so students can have a useful tool to improve.

My next steps involve the training of staff to both use the Thinking Frame approach and also how to design the question to stretch and assess the students in an effective way. As with all formative assessment the setting of the question is key to the students creating work which will elucidate their misconceptions and allow them to improve.

Copies of the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ Thinking Frames can be found here




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