The Power of Homework as a Formative Tool

If homework is to serve as formative data, then it needs to be instructionally sensitive for both student and teacher alike. Ideally, then, what happened with homework the night before should inform a classroom teacher’s instruction immediately the next day. Rather than simply correcting right/wrong answers and then collecting the homework papers to be recorded somewhere, teachers must consider meaningful and interactive ways to create engaging, learning conversations and generate quality, supportive information for the next lesson following the completion of homework.

Imagine, for example, that a teacher created varying options for homework like the following:

On tonight’s homework, there are 3 learning targets. You must answer a minimum of 3 questions per target area, but, 1) if you have tried the questions but are struggling, then don’t answer any more questions in that section – instead, write out your questions or misunderstandings regarding that target and come prepared to talk about what you don’t understand; 2) if you answered all of the questions in that target area but are unsure you have right answers, then self-assign and try a few more on your own to see if you can figure it out; or 3) if you are certain that you have mastered the question in that target area, then please write 2 or 3 test questions that you think I could use to assess that target. If your questions are good ones, they may show up on our next test.

Clearly, when the learners enter the room the next day there will be a variety of things happening in the homework assignment and simply marking right or wrong answers will not be helpful.

The teacher seeks to generate formative data for instructionally sensitive responses by using a variety of strategies. It might play out like this: “Alright, everyone, let’s take out last night’s homework and begin our learning for today.

  • TARGET 1 – Dots and Error Analysis:  Remember, Target 1 included questions 1 through 5. This was review for us as we’ve already done a lot of work with target 1. The correct answers are provided on the board. Put a dot next to any answer you have that is wrong. Now, get into small groups and analyze each other’s dots. See if you can identify the type of error that was made. Name the error and help your peers identify the strategies needed to fix that type of error. If you had any questions or concerns about this section, you can skip the error analysis work and meet with me by the back table so I can better understand your concerns.
  • TARGET 2 Four Corners:  Let’s move on to target 2. Target 2 included questions 6 – 12 and we haven’t done as much work with this target yet. Let’s take a look at question 10 because it’s a really good example of this target area. If you answered question 10 like this (answer revealed), please stand in the corner marked with books. If you answered like this (answer revealed), please stand in the corner by my desk. If you answered like this (answer revealed), please stand in the corner by the door. If you didn’t know the answer it’s okay because we’re still learning this target.  Please stand in the corner by the windows. Now, wherever you are standing, you must talk with your peers as to why you have that answer and if you are the corner that didn’t know the answer, I want you to discuss what was hard about that question. You can move to any new corner at any time, but if you move, you must be prepared to explain your decision. (Note: In this activity, the teacher has immediate visible data as to who understands and who does not. The teacher stands in the middle of the room to hear discussions, and identify misconceptions (2 of the corners) or misunderstandings/confusion (corner with no answers). After about 2 minutes, the teacher calls for a large group discussion to highlight the right answer and discuss the popular types of errors that can be made with the target area as well as the possible strategies needed to address the errors.)
  • Target 3 – Student Generated Responses:  Target 3 was questions 13 through 20. It was brand new yesterday and I anticipate there may have been a lot of questions or concerns. Did anyone have any questions or concerns about this target area? (Teacher notes all questions and concerns on the board.) Did anyone have any possible test questions that you generated last night that you might be willing to share right now? (Teacher asks a few of the learners to write a question on the board.) Great. Let’s use this question (points to option) to answer this concern (points to concern). Let’s work it out as a group. (All answers are discussed in lieu of what was not understood as a means to build deeper understanding.)

Okay, everyone, take a minute to reflect on your work last night by looking at all 3 target areas and note where you will need to be spending more time and practice as we continue our learning together.”


Even though reviewing homework in this manner continues the teaching process, some teachers might not feel they have the luxury of time to go to such depth.  if so, a few time saving options are offered below:

  • Entrance slips 1: Identify one to three questions that are similar to the homework problems (but not exactly the same) and have students fill them out immediately upon entering the classroom. They can even reference last night’s homework if they have it done. Once students have answers on their slip, they can partner with one to two others to compare answers (individuals can still change answers at this point), discuss how they arrived at the answers they have, and develop a rationale statement for why they think their answers are correct. Identify a few teams to share their answer to question 1 and get feedback and corrections from other teams in the room before giving the actual answer. Then move to questions 2 & 3 using the same process.
  • Entrance slips 2: Identify one question that captures the essence of last night’s homework and engage the learners in the activity called My Favorite No.


In the end, homework that is intended to provide learners with practice opportunities requires that learners engage in safe opportunities to discuss successes and mistakes and receive clear, specific feedback that will help them improve. If the homework is not graded and the conversations are aimed solely at supporting all learners in mastering the targets at hand, then the feedback practices are low risk and a true culture of learning can be built.  Such practices highlight formative assessment at its best because the teacher has activated the learners as resources to one another as well as instructional decision makers regarding their own learning needs. Homework can provide powerful formative data when it engages teachers and learners in deep discussion and becomes a tool for continuing the learning the next day.  As the experts so clearly state, formative assessment and quality teaching are two sides of the same coin!

Focused Formatives

Researchers and educators alike have sounded the clarion call for teachers to implement more formative assessment in their classrooms because the research is overwhelmingly clear that the use of formative assessment in the classroom can radically improve student achievement results.  Unfortunately, the very idea of ‘implementing more’ feels like an ‘add on’ to an already full plate.  Teachers have openly expressed frustration:  More assessments?  When do I get time to teach?  I simply can’t keep adding more assessments!  Formative assessment is instruction, and the prevailing laments make it clear that the concept and application of formative assessment is still misunderstood. Instruction without formative assessment is simply coverage of content.

A team of high school math teachers had been struggling for two years to improve their student achievement scores.  They were putting in extra hours, working on Saturdays, meeting in the evenings, and trying different strategies in the classroom, but with only marginal success.  Then someone suggested they try the following formative assessment strategies for one month and track their results:

  • use quick ungraded exit slips to help learners identify and correct errors in understanding;
  • gather as a team to review those frequent errors and co-create instructional interventions;
  • set up all assessments based on targets and not a general list of questions; and,
  • engage learners in using reflection or analysis sheets following each assessment so they could track their own progress target by target through the instructional process.

At the conclusion of that single month, the math teachers on the team shared what they had tried and what they had learned.  Each teacher on the team was able to report that s/he saw significant gains in achievement – more learners passed the summative than had in past units, all of their learners demonstrated improvement, and their typically struggling learners generated some of the best grades on the summative that they had achieved all semester.  When asked, however, if they would keep using the processes, the team offered a hesitant ‘maybe.’  When asked why, after all the time they had been spending and all of the gains they found in a single month, they would only possibly consider using those same strategies again, each member of the team said it was too time consuming and too hard to keep up the pace for lengthy periods of time.

This was alarming, and it clearly points to the dilemma of ‘adding more’ of anything to a teacher’s already bursting workload and frenetic pace.  If teachers are to implement any new strategy, they must have stop doing list to accompany their start doing list.  The list below is by no means comprehensive, but it offers a window into understanding the most significant areas of concern when it comes to adding more formative assessment to classroom instruction.  Ultimately, it is most powerful and supportive when teams sit together to create their own start and stop doing lists.



Stop Doing

Start Doing

Curriculum Stop working alone and following the sequence of the text or curriculum resources wholesale.

  • First of all, there simply isn’t enough time for such a feat.  When ‘pacing’ hijacks learning, everyone – teachers, schools, and students – loses.
  • Second, there is a significant probability that the text materials are not perfectly aligned to standards.  If this is the case, then teachers are spending time making sure learners have mastered unrequired content at the expense of critical standards that are not covered in the materials.


Start working as a team to prioritize standards, unpack the standards into targets, and then align time and resources to the most critical aspects required of the learners.

  • All standards are important, but not all standards are created equal.  Some will require more time and attention and those decisions must be based on what the learners in that setting need.
  • A standard can be overwhelming as a whole.  It must be unpacked into student friendly terms and packaged into manageable chunks for teachers to make the learning feasible.


Instruction  Stop asking learners to raise their hands if they have the answers.

  • This strategy immediately creates a 2-tiered social structure in the classroom. The increasingly visible line between the learners and the non-learners fosters fixed mindsets and prevents risk taking.  Even the “A” learners are only taking calculated risks in order to keep their standing in the top tier of ‘the brainiacs’.   Learning requires risk.
  • Worse, when teachers only call on learners who have their hands raised with right answers, they generate ‘false positives’ in their data regarding whether or not they can continue to move forward.


Start calling on multiple random students to answer a single question.  Do not give responses between answers.  Let the class work out the differences between student -generated responses.

  • This strategy generates more accurate data and engages all of the learners actively and equally.
  • This strategy requires the learners to work harder than the teachers.
  • Finally, when managed in a culture of safety with a commitment to learning, this strategy activates mistakes as a natural learning tool and encourages learners to analyze errors and problem solve.
Stop asking classroom questions that can be answered by a Google search or that simply require a learner to restate information that was already gleaned from reading or listening to teacher input. Start asking probing, rigorous questions that require learners to challenge thinking, defend answers, and analyze their own and each other’s responses.  This kind of questioning requires pre-planning.
Stop operating as the sole provider of feedback, instruction, and quality control regarding mastery. Start activating learners as instructional resources to one another (Wiliam, D., 2011).  This will require co-creating rubrics and practicing scoring so that learners have inter-rater reliability with teachers.
Assessment  Stop assigning daily homework that is worksheet-oriented with many questions that will generate holistic data on overall performance. Start aligning tight, relevant, and manageable practice experiences that will generate target specific data to inform each student’s instructional decision-making.
Stop tracking progress for the learners in isolation and then ‘owning’ the data in private grade books. Start activating learners as the instructional decision makers that they are.  Engage them in tracking their progress target by target and require data from them that qualifies them to make personal and informed instructional decisions.
Communication  Stop grading or marking everything.  This generates data, but it does not generate information because the data are isolated and out of context. Start requiring learners to track their personal progress and prove readiness target by target.
Stop using scores as sufficient feedback on daily work. Start providing feedback that helps learners answer 3 questions:

  • Where am I supposed to be?
  • Where am I on the journey?
  • What strategies and actions can I use to bridge the gap?

(Chappuis, 2011)

Stop averaging scores to find a culminating number for the report card. Start looking at later samples of work to determine how much has been mastered against the given expectations.


Formative assessment is focused instruction.  Formative assessment is not about how well a teacher employs a specific list of strategies during instruction; rather, it is solely about how engaged the learner is in his/her quest for mastery against a given set of standards or expectations as a result of that strategy.   Shirley Clarke, assessment author and expert, states “The acid test of effective formative assessment, however, is not how well written the strategies are, or how many good techniques are in use, but the extent to which pupils are, as a result of our work, actively engaged in thinking, learning and assessing that learning” (Clarke, 2008, p. 11).

Assessment should never be something that is done to learners; rather, assessment must be done with and for learners.  This requires that every assessment be employed and interpreted with the ultimate end user – the learner – in mind.  “Formative assessment is a powerful tool in the hands of both teachers and students and the closer to everyday instruction, the stronger it is.  Classroom assessment, sensitive to what teachers and students are doing daily, is most capable of providing the basis for understandable and accurate feedback about learning, while there is still time to act on it.  And it has the greatest capacity to develop students’ ability to monitor and adjust their own learning” (Chappuis, 2009.  p. 9).

Done well, then, formative assessment should create a sense of hope and efficacy for learners.  It must activate learners to be self-regulated so they can make the strategic and purposeful decisions necessary to remain ‘in the game,’ and continue on to their next identified aspect of the required learning.  In other words, formative assessment works when the learners become self-regulated and can manage all of the following behaviors on their own:

  • Engage in self-observation (monitoring one’s activities), self-judgment (evaluation of one’s performance), and self-reactions (reactions to performance outcomes).
  • Identify their academic strengths and weaknesses.
  • Attribute their successes or failures to factors within their control (e.g., effort expended on a task, effective use of strategies).
  • Establish a repertoire of strategies to tackle the day-to-day challenges appropriately.
  • Maintain a growth mindset.
  • Accept and even seek challenging tasks, and then rehearse and refine knowledge and skills in order to develop a deep understanding of subject matter.

When learners can be self-regulated, teachers experience a sense of hope and efficacy as well.  It is in this space that learning happens and students are working harder than their teachers.



Chappuis, J.  (2009).  Seven Strategies of Assessment FOR Learning.  Portland, OR:  Pearson Assessment Training Institute.

Clarke, S.  (2008).  Active Learning through Formative Assessment.  London:  Hodder Education.  © Shirley Clarke.

Wiliam, D.  (2011).  Embedded Formative Assessment.  Bloomington, IN:  Solution Tree Press.

Cinderella Summatives

It was probably inevitable that when educational experts began highlighting formative assessment as the Golden Child because of its incredibly positive impact on student achievement, summative assessment would then be dubbed the evil stepchild and relegated to the grunge of ‘clean up’ work.  Summative assessments are tolerated, but distastefully so: today they are popularly referred to as the tools that provide autopsy data.  However, like our diamond-in-the-rough Cinderella, summative assessments are misunderstood, under-appreciated, and chock-o-block full of royal potential.

The misunderstanding of the role and value of summative assessments is evident from the classroom to the boardroom.  The visible disconnect between what is and what could be happening with summative assessments suggests we have so much room to grow in our understanding of a truly healthy and balanced assessment system embedded in a rich learning environment.

There are many fallacies about summative assessments and it’s time to set the record straight:

  • Summative assessments happen on the last day of a marking period or unit of instruction.  We all seem to believe that, but where is it written? It’s true that ‘summative’ suggests a ‘summary’ of the final results, but there is no doctrine that says it must happen on the last day.  Generally, the kinds of assessments that can happen on a single day are paper/pencil assessments.  What if the paper/pencil test were to occur a day or two before the end of the unit, allowing follow up time for enrichments and interventions?  “End” is not the equivalent of “last day.”  What if the summative process was a multi-day event and it was woven into the last week of the unit so we didn’t have to find time outside of the classroom to address gaps?  This strategy, however, would only serve as an interim Band-Aid while we strive to create a more balanced assessment system.  If we really engaged in the formative process better, learners should not require intervention following the summative assessment.  In fact, learners would walk into a summative assessment experience and view it as a knowledge jubilee, for it would only serve to confirm what their formative data have been indicating all along:  they have mastered the critical expectations outlined in the standards.
  • Summative assessments mark the completion of content or processes.  We need to do a much better job of linking our summative assessments together so that learners can grow between summative assessments.  Common core standards, next generation science standards, and 21st century skills are helping to pave the pathway for such work because in all of those frameworks core processes can be practiced over the course of multiple units of instruction.  Our best examples of summatives over time and across content happen in the performance-based disciplines of Physical Education, Music, and Art, etc.  Core skills in those disciplines strand multiple assessments throughout the entire semester or year of learning.  In Language Arts, learners employ the 6 Traits of Writing to improve all aspects of their writing over the course of producing the persuasive, the narrative, the expository, and the comparison papers, etc.  Such learning opportunities can happen in all of our disciplines. For example, with the new science standards, science learners could get better with planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, and engaging in argument from evidence between the gas lab, the heat and cool lab, the gravity lab, and so on.  Social studies learners could improve in their skills of analyzing patterns, making predictions, drawing conclusions, and arguing a perspective through all of the various political structures, eras, and cultures.  Mathematic learners can improve their computational accuracy, communication of math concepts and language, and problem solving skills no matter the algorithm of a particular unit of instruction. “Summative” is not synonymous with “done.”  If we don’t revisit early learning with ongoing practice, what are the chances our learners will remember September’s learning on a May exam?
  • Summative assessments offer autopsy data.  Sadly, this belief is based in current reality, but that is merely a reflection of how summatives are most often employed and it doesn’t have to be the reality.  The fundamental purpose of summative assessment is to certify mastery.  Rarely would a single data point be sufficient to certify anything, except maybe in the case of death.  But mastery is about thriving, not dying, and tons of evidence is needed for mastery to be proven true.  In the evolving and connected skill or process-based assessment system described above, the new data from each new summative should add a new dimension to the full picture.  Consider this:  you’ve been dealing with stomach pains so you go to the doctor.  The doctor will likely run a series of tests (temperature, weight, xrays, blood draws, questions about the severity of the pain, etc.).  Each test generates a summative piece of data: the data are the data are the data.  But each new piece of data adds a new dimension to the full picture.  And if the doctor does a second test to confirm or refute an earlier finding, the new data provide the new finding.  The doctor (thankfully) does not average the first result with the last result, because that would create inaccurate data.  Instead, the doctor looks at the most recent result as the current reality.  Some might argue that viewing summative assessments in this light simply means early summative results actually become formative results as time passes, but that would be inaccurate.  A summative assessment is summative because it requires learners certify current levels of proficiency when standards are integrated in meaningful ways.  But summative assessments offer ‘snapshot’ or ‘moment in time’ data.  The data from such certification processes enter into the full picture and must be considered.  But ‘considered’ does not always mean ‘counted.’  In a true learning culture, averaging is not possible.  Learners would strive to demonstrate mastery through all of their summative assessments and teachers would have to look at later results to determine final competency levels.  In sum, summative data are dynamic, not static, like autopsy data.
  • Summative assessments are comprehensive, and therefore lengthy.  A unit generally only has one summative.  It is possible to have smaller summative assessments and multiple summative assessments within a unit of instruction.  Often, these are ‘gateway’ assessments – a mini assessment aimed at mastering a critical skill before the rest of the learning can occur.  It would be critical, for example, for the Family and Consumer Science teacher to ‘sign off’ on a learner’s ability to use knives appropriately before allowing the student in the kitchen to participate in a lab.  The same can be true for using the band saw in Industrial Technology or the Bunsen burner in Science.  It’s even feasible that the Language Arts teacher would want a guarantee that learners understood recording primary sources before launching into research or Social Studies teachers would want to certify that learners understood the anatomy of an argument before setting students loose to prepare for a debate.  A single unit of instruction can have small and large summative assessments ~ all of which strive to certify a level of proficiency before learners are allowed to advance.
  • Summative assessments must mirror high stakes assessments and are therefore dreaded and dull.  How many times must one eat a Mars bar before one understands the flavor and texture of a Mars bar?  It’s true that our learners might need to experience various testing formats so they are ready for the high stakes assessment formats but that certainly doesn’t mean all of our summatives – or for that matter, even most of our summatives – must be patterned after high stakes testing formats.  Summative assessments are like the big game.  It’s what the learners have been preparing for all along.  As such, they should offer fun, challenge, the dynamic integration of ideas and skills, the chance to solve meaningful problems or create new options, and continued learning through the assessment itself.  In fact, if we’ve built readiness on the foundation of solid formative practices, our learners enter the summative experience with confidence and hope.  The summatives should simply serve as a public celebration of how much learning has happened along the way.  In this light, formative assessments might actually be the more ‘dull’ because like the hard work of daily practice, they represent the little parts or scaffolding that can only lead to the big game.  If we examine our standards carefully (State, Provincial, and the new Common Core standards) we’ll likely note that most are written at the level of performance.   It is impossible to assess ‘designing and conducting a scientific investigation’ or ‘engaging in the art of argumentation through political debate,’ or ‘investigating a compelling research question’ through a selected response test.  Assessment expert Dr. Rick Stiggins frequently asks his audiences ‘what’s the one assessment that you and your learners can’t wait to get to?  That’s the one I want to experience!’  That assessment would be a summative assessment.  It is far from dreaded and dull.

We all know the Cinderella story:  the ugly and unwanted step child was really the princess.  It’s time to see summative assessments with new eyes.  They should not be a royal pain that must be tolerated but instead a magnificent opportunity to change lives through provocative nurturing.  And there is majesty in that.

Data Notebooks

Assessment experts (e.g. Jan Chappuis, Jon Hattie, Rick Stiggins, and Dylan Wiliam, to name a few) state that student motivation has been disconnected from the assessment process in the past, but must be reconnected if schools are to create high levels of student achievement.  Ultimately, students must be the decision makers regarding their progress while learning.  In an effort to reconnect student motivation to assessments, many K – 12 educators across the US have begun the rigorous work of helping learners of all ages track their own learning progress in the form of student data notebooks.

But a data notebook is simply a tool and if it is not managed well, it will not impact student motivation or achievement in positive ways.  There are two important factors educators must consider prior to asking students to create data notebooks:  1) What promotes growth or change over time? And, 2) What are the appropriate ingredients to generate motivation?

First, it’s important to understand growth or change over time, because in order for data notebooks to work, they must be framed around making progress over time.  Learners must maintain a growth mindset, otherwise, all the data gathered in the world will not support the desired change.  Carol Dweck (Mindset:  The New Psychology of Success, 2006) points out that when learners have a growth mindset, they are willing to take risks, they recognize mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures, and they engage their efforts in reducing the discrepancy between where they currently are and where they would like to be in their learning progress.  By description, it might seem as if ‘growth mindset’ learners would always be our brightest and our best, but that would be an over-generalization.  True, growth-mindset learners demonstrate the attributes that educators admire and respect, but these learners are also willing to fail.  Failing often and failing well is a risk-taking, learning based behavior that shouldn’t be a problem (see The Economist’s April 14, 11 article Fail Often, Fail Well), but it never fares well in our grade books.  As a corollary, it is likewise wrong to assume that fixed mindset learners – those who don’t take risks or apply effort to change their current status – are the traditionally labeled “failing learners.”  There are many, many “A” students who, when faced with a challenge that might impact their grade negatively, would prefer to avoid the challenge with the intent of maintaining an image of being smart. These learners are being rewarded for ‘skating by’ in our grade books but they are not engaged in deep learning.

The recording and tracking of data and assessment results over time must inspire continued effort or motivation. In his research based book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, (2009) Dr. Daniel Pink suggests that motivation is not driven by carrots and sticks; rather, it is driven by 3 somewhat surprising ingredients:  Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.  What does that look like in regards to the assessment tools and resulting data that support learning?

  • Autonomy –The learner is the number one instructional decision maker in every classroom.  He/she must gather meaningful information (not aggregate percentages or total points) following each assessment and then organize the data in a visible manner that shows a trajectory of growth throughout the duration of the unit of instruction.  Ultimately, the learner must be able to make quality decisions about what comes next in his/her progression of learning, what skills and strategies he/she will bring to bear on the task ahead, and how he/she will monitor continued progress.
  • Mastery – Formative assessments are used to build hope and foster efficacy.  When formative assessments are managed well, the learner is able to make mistakes during the learning process and still demonstrate mastery by the end of the unit or learning period.  In a rich formative assessment system, the learner can engage in error analysis:  He/she gathers feedback and arranges his/her data and evidence in manner that creates a clear view of patterns or anomalies in the data.  At that point, he/she can then employ the strategies and skills necessary to create improvement in targeted and specific areas from one assessment to the next.  He/she operates under the assurance that success is still possible.  The summative assessment(s) resulting grades reflect an accurate score regarding the learner’s mastery against a given set of standards and achievement level descriptors, and not an average of the sum total for all assessments during the unit.
  • Purpose – The assessments that are tracked in data notebooks are engaging and meaningful.  Literally, the learner can see ‘worth’ in the data he/she is tracking. Most importantly, the culminating data enable the learner to draw healthy and accurate conclusions about his/her own self, developing insights into personal strengths and challenges and reflecting on favored content and learning styles. When the learning is provocative, engaging, and self-illuminating, the learner is better able to maintain a commitment to take risks and continue learning.


If data notebooks are not set up to nurture the fundamental attributes of learning – growth mindsets and motivation – the notebook will simply become a laborious and time-consuming tool.  When that happens, data notebooks are soon abandoned because they are ineffective and inefficient; or, more bluntly, they become time-consuming and useless.

There are some criteria that will support data notebooks becoming the rich learning tools they need to be if they are to increase motivation and growth:

  • Learning goals must be tied to learning standards.
  • Data cannot be perceptual (e.g. self assessment scores like “I think I’m a 3”).  All tracked data must be evidence based.
  • Data recording sheets must be manageable in number and meaningful.  When everything is a goal, then there really are no goals.  Learners must track the essentials.
  • Data that are tracked must show growth between assessments.  This extends far beyond simply documenting pre and post data.
  • Data must be organized in visual ways – bar graphs, pie graphs, run charts, etc. – so that the learner can see progress being made.
  • The learners must be in their data notebooks regularly.  This might not mean daily, but it does mean often enough to inspire action between assessments.
  • The learners must be the ones making the additions and notations in their books because it’s their data.  When teachers record the data for them, the data have minimal impact on the learner’s motivation or growth mindset.  It does not matter if learners fill in their check boxes or bar graphs in sloppy ways so the notebooks are not pretty for parents.  It matters that the data are owned by the primary stakeholder and that same stakeholder can then make better decisions as a result.
  • Data must be confidential.  No child should ever be revealed for his/her results in the data notebooks or on the data walls in the classrooms and hallways.
  • Best practices in formative assessment are necessary to engage learners meaningfully as they interact with their data while on the learning journey.

When in doubt as to whether or not data notebooks are being employed effectively in classrooms, teachers should resort to the educator’s Hippocratic oath:  “above all, do not harm.”  Data that are used to label, sort, or highlight incompetencies, etc. violate the very core of the Hippocratic oath:  Do not harm and maintain absolute regard for learners and the learning process.  After all, the work of transforming another human being – for which data notebooks are employed – is nothing short of sacred.


Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & William, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 9–21.

Chappius, J., (2009).   Seven strategies of assessment for learning. Portland, OR: Pearson Assessment Training Institute.

Hattie, J.  (2009).  Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.  NY: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012).  Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing the impact on learning.  NY: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Stiggins, R. (2008).  An assessment manifesto:  A call for the development of balanced assessment systems. ETS Assessment Training Institute.

Stiggins, R. (October 17, 2007). Five assessment myths and their consequences.  Education Week 27(8), 28 – 29.

Wiliam, D. (2011).  Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN:  Solution Tree Press.

Wiliam, D., & Thompson, M. (2007). Integrating assessment with learning: What will it take to make it work? In C. A. Dwyer (Ed.), The future of assessment: Shaping teaching and learning (pp. 53–82). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

A New Paradigm For Consultants and Schools Engaged in School Improvement Work

A co-authored blog by Timothy Anderson, Bloomington Public Schools, and Cassandra Erkens

Recently, an educator posted a blog in which he asserted that today’s schools need to be more savvy as they hire educational consultants.  While we agree that the premise of his title is true, we would argue for the school/consultant relationship to be more savvy for very different reasons and in very different ways than the author suggested in his article.  Quality school improvement work goes well beyond consultants showing up on time, and delivering engaging content, and remaining open minded.  Both the consultant(s) and the school(s) need to be more sophisticated in their overall approach to getting quality work done.

When schools and districts strive to function as learning communities, they must internalize and own their own professional development.  Every team meeting should in fact be a learning conversation that informs practice.  (For information on Job Embedded Professional development, see the report put out by Learning Forward.)  This is not to suggest that going out for external training opportunities or bringing in external consultants for staff training disappear completely, but it is to suggest that educators must interact with external resources differently.  Professional development can no longer stop at exposure to strategies coupled with implicit faith in both 1) the outside experts to provide quality and 2) the internal staff to apply it.

In a learning community based organization, the consultancy model changes in the following ways:

  • Teams seek desired expertise to answer their own provocative questions;
  • Teams strive to implement proposed new practices with fidelity;
  • Teams have a compulsion to measure effectiveness of those strategies through an action research orientation; and
  • Teams work to develop their own mastery such that they themselves can grow the organization’s capacity to fully implement and internalize the work.

In this model, teams are not dependent on outside consultants to lead them; instead, they partner with outside experts regarding where they are and where they need to be.  Together, school leaders and outside experts co-create and enact plans to address identified next steps.  The new consultancy paradigm involves collaboration internally and externally.

A Case Study: Bloomington Public Schools in Minnesota

Bloomington Public Schools developed a new professional development model to follow the guiding principles of quality professional development in a collaborative organization.  In both June of 12 and June of 13, each secondary school in the district sent a leadership team (comprised of building administrators and teacher leaders) to a two-day leadership academy, held in one of the schools.  The goal of the academy was to empower teams to manage their own growth regarding the district’s  ongoing initiatives:

  • Creating school-wide, responsive intervention systems and plans;
  • Analyzing School Data – qualitative and quantitative;
  • Developing a formative rich assessment culture and practice; and,
  • Aligning grading practices and policies to the best practices that truly support learning.

During the academy, each team was given a room within the school to call home base for the full two days.  They remained in their home base room so they could discuss their building specific, staff needs and then strategize their next steps.  Teams had access to current online data, digital handouts, templates and protocols to support their work as well as projectors, flip chart paper, post it notes and the other essentials critical to support the needs that spontaneously arise during planning sessions.

To support their work, a team of internal coaches and external experts was hired relative to the emerging needs of the district relative to each of the target areas (Interventions, Data Analysis, Formative Assessments, and Grading). In 90 minute blocks of time, experts rotated to meet with the individual teams.  The consultants were advised not to deliver a typical presentation.  Instead, they were to listen, guide, and facilitate the individual team’s work as it related to their specific area of expertise. Those consultants were prepared for each site’s work ahead of time with site-specific data.

Over the course of the past two years, Bloomington’s secondary schools have taken responsibility for their direction in school improvement efforts.  They no longer wait for a consultant to advise them based on the topic of the day.  Now, when consultants visit the Bloomington schools, they are advised on the specific support that the site is seeking.  Throughout the presentation, they are given feedback as to whether or not their efforts are hitting the desired mark.  Together, school leaders and consultants strive to move the school forward.

Becoming Assessment Architects

Assessment is so much more than writing/selecting, employing, and scoring a test.  There is architecture to the entire system of each single assessment event or experience.  Educators must work as assessment architects – sometimes individually and sometimes in teams – as they structure learning progressions, select/modify/create assessments, design accompanying tools and resources (e.g. rubrics, proficiency scales, protocols, templates, etc.), deliver assessments, score with accuracy and consistency, provide productive feedback, respond in instructionally sensitive ways, report results, and build a culture to promote continued and sustained learning over time.  Each task in the aforementioned list is an entire system in and of itself, and a change in one system will likely have an impact in the other systems.

Today, assessment is still treated as an afterthought (designed the night before the test) in too many classrooms.  It is akin to building a house and then deciding the living room wouldn’t be complete without adding a coffee table.  Assessment can never be an afterthought.  Instead, assessment must lead the work of curriculum selection and instructional planning.  In the house metaphor, assessment, then, becomes the architectural blueprint around which the entire house is built.  The standards serve as the specifications that inform the design, the assessment map (includes formative and summative assessments) becomes the blueprint to lead the design work, the curriculum then becomes the concrete and walls as they can make the standards a reality, and the instruction – last in the list – becomes the artistry that makes each house unique:  the colors, the textures, the décor.  This picture of where assessment belongs in the sequence (Standards – Assessment – Curriculum – Instruction) is not new ~ it’s been around since 1998 with Wiggins and McTighe’s book Understanding by Design.  We have been slow to change practice.

Why does it matter?  If we do not become assessment literate, functioning as architects who put the assessment process in it’s proper place with attention to detail, we run the risk of any – or all – of the following happening:

  • Inaccurate assessments;
  • Invalid results;
  • Distrust of the system and the individuals who work in it;
  • And worst of all, disengagement on behalf of our learners.

The costs are grave.

Assessment is teaching.  To teach without engaging in profound and accurate assessment processes, day-by-day and moment-by-moment, is to engage in curriculum coverage.  The measure of teaching, then, must be based in whether or not the learning happened.  The only way to assure the learning happens is to design the architecture of assessments and assessment processes (from the preplanned and obtrusive assessments to the in-the-moment and unobtrusive assessment processes) that scaffold our way to success. We must begin with the end in mind.

Simple Treasures: Solitude

We are a culture that fills our every moment.  If not already entertained, we rush to create our own entertainment, plugging music into our ears, flicking screens before our eyes, or engaging in meaningless conversation just so we can appear important or connected.  We dislike standing alone.  It is as if we are terrified of our own internal uninhabited places where we might crash into loneliness and spiral into irreparable brokenness – in the stillness of our own breathing, silence roars and fragile self-images shatter.Reflection

Solitude is a simple treasure, and one that is often under-appreciated and seldom explored.  We don’t like to set aside time to just ‘be.’  Parker Palmer, once a teacher and now a spiritual writer, says the soul is like a wild beast – it will not show up because we go thundering through the brush demanding that it reveal itself.  Rather, the soul will watch and wait as we sit patiently under a tree, reading, pretending not to care.  It will approach then, curious, nudging around the edges of our humanity, waiting to be noticed and looking to notice us as much as we are seeking to notice it.   In the stillness, we will find ourselves.

Quiet moments are image 2simple treasures.  Like the delicate calla lily, we must unfurl to discover the essence of our very selves. “People who take time to be alone usually have depth, originality, and quiet reserve.”–John Miller

We owe it to ourselves, and certainly to the generations that follow us, to know ourselves deeply, and to enjoy the company we keep in quiet moments.  Today, take time to be.  Learn something new about yourself today – something surprising and delightful.

Simple Treasures: Humor

Humor clearly qualifies as a simple treasure.  It might not always feel simple for the humorist, but it is natural and free, making it ‘simple;’ and it sure feels like a gift to the recipients, making it a treasure.  The ensuing laugh warms everyone’s hearts! Humor is almost always a welcome and simple delight for everyone involved in the funny moment.

Humor can catch us off guard in the oddest of moments. It can be used to disarm angry individuals or steer a negative situation to a better outcome.  It can be used to lighten a mood or change an outlook.  It can be used to de-stress a tense situation. It can help us view ourselves differently, or take ourselves more lightly.  In profound moments, a dose of humor can even increase our capacity to remember important details and hence learn more readily.

People try to tell jokes to make others laugh, but some of the BEST humor comes right out of the fabric of our lives.  Parenting, working, managing health issues, and most certainly, teaching – all of these serious topics require a considerable amount of humor!  Of course, I have many incidents from my own marriage and parenting experiences that would crack anyone up.  And I don’t even have to make it up!  In one of my treasured child-rearing stories, a child of mine (unnamed here because humor can also cause death by embarrassment) had just been potty trained and REFUSED to soil the swimsuit in the middle of the lake; unfortunately, the nearest bathroom was a long pontoon ride away.  It took much cajoling to relieve the bladder, and much patience to bring calm to the nearly hour long-trauma.  Imagine my surprise when the following week that same child stood up in my girlfriend’s pristine backyard ceramic-tiled pool and shouted loud enough for all of the neighbors within a mile radius to hear, “Mommy!  I did it!  I peed in the pool for you!”   Egads.  I stifled my laugh while my girlfrienlaughterd vacated the pool.

Is humor a simple treasure?  Experts have already demonstrated that laughter boosts the immune system, increasing natural disease-fighting cells and lowering blood pressure.  Humor spawns laughter, commonly known as “the best medicine” and “the shortest distance between two people.”  Humor shortens timeframes and makes the unbearable more bearable.  Humor invites, involves, and engages everyone nearby.  Used well, it is a powerful teaching tool.  


As the demands on teachers increase and the expectations for learners become more challenging, it will be important for all of us to seek and employ clean, safe, belly-rolling, milk-snorting humor.  We owe it to ourselves.  We owe it to our learners.

Simple Treasures: Optimism

Some time ago, I wrote a little series called “Simple Treasures” for a friend. In it, I sent regular emails highlighting a simple treasure – the little gifts of daily life we sometimes miss in our hurried days and harried ways. I will do my best to recreate some of that here – not the same notes, of course. These will be notes geared toward educators and the art of teaching and learning.

Glass half full2Optimism is a simple treasure that we all have – it is a choice to see the glass half full as opposed to half empty. Optimism creates hope. One of my favorite authors says, “hope is not a naïve, sunny view of life. It is the capacity not to panic in tight situations, to find ways and resources to address difficult problems” (Michael Fullan). Optimism creates self-fulfilling prophecies. History is filled with stories of people who have overcome some of the most incredible circumstances simply because they believed they could. Optimism generates collective synergy with all those around that good things are possible. In other words, optimism breeds optimism.

The research on optimism, often conducted with people in dire situations, bears out over and over that optimists are both mentally and physically healthier – often beating odds and living longer. Data support that “a sunny outlook and a fighting spirit modulate the nervous system in a way that bolsters immune system defenses and raises the level of disease-fighting cells.”

Optimism truly is a treasure. In general, I think teachers have to remain optimistic. It’s when we lose touch with our own sense of optimism that we might need to consider another profession. Sometimes, we might be the only person in a student’s life who holds optimism out for them. There’s an expression that works here: what you think of me, I’ll think of me; what I think of me, I’ll be. Whale2BM_468x327Our learners need our optimism that they in turn might find this simple treasure in their own lives. After all, we are all encouraged when we experience someone’s fighting spirit to conquer challenging tasks.

Zig Ziglar, a motivational speaker, says “An optimist is someone who goes after Moby Dick in a rowboat and takes the tartar sauce with him.”

As we head into this next school year, let’s row like crazy and bring the tartar sauce. Maybe we can wrap up our school year with a fish fry!

Rewarding Effort Requires Effort

It’s easy to find research that supports praising student effort in schools.  Today, Dr. Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset (2006) leads the way for such claims as it highlights how important it is to praise effort over intelligence:  “[The] growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.  Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience” (Dweck, 2006, p. 7).  And, other educational experts have claimed the same thing.  In fact, educational researcher and meta-analyst Dr. Robert Marzano found that reinforcing effort and providing recognition ranks third on the list of the 9 most powerful instructional strategies for impacting achievement that a teacher has at his/her disposal (2007).  Notions of rewarding or praising effort even carry into the business arena.  Kouzes and Posner, two researchers who explore excellence in leadership and organizational development, state “if you want to build and maintain a culture of excellence and distinction, then you have to recognize, reward, reinforce and celebrate exceptional efforts and successes.  You have to get personally involved in celebrating the actions that contribute to and sustain the culture” (Kouzes and Posner, 2002, p. 368).  It might seem like a dramatic stretch, then, if any educator did not support the idea of praising effort.

The trouble with praising effort is that one cannot actually see effort without applying a little extra effort to determine if what is visible is true.  Effort – defined as an earnest or strenuous attempt, or the amount of physical or mental exertion expended for a specified purpose – is assumed by any individual who is not the original source of how much energy is actually being applied.  Here are two cases in point:

Case 1a

Was Jamal engaged when the adults around him had not observed it?  He clearly learned the same things his new friends had been learning.  Does learning require effort?

Case 2

Was Justine really applying effort to her learning?  Might she have done even better work if she’d dedicated time and more thought to the project? Is it possible that the feedback she received reinforced her belief that she didn’t have to exert much energy to achieve mastery?  Is that an acceptable belief for active learners?  More importantly, what happens to the struggling learners who are exerting all of the effort they can muster who are then told they are not working hard enough?  Or to the naturally talented learners who discover little effort is needed and others will still think they are applying effort?  Effort can only be gauged in the eyes of the beholder.  Educators run the risk of asserting poor judgments when they believe they can identify and reward effort with little additional effort (beyond observation) on their behalf.

When educational researchers are referencing effort, they are actually talking about self-regulation. “Self-regulation involves an interplay between commitment, control, and confidence. . . . It implies autonomy, self-control, self-direction, and self-discipline” (Hattie and Timplerly, 2007, p. 93).  Self-regulated learners practice the following habits with some consistency:

  • Engage in self-observation (monitoring one’s activities), self-judgment (evaluation of one’s performance), and self-reactions (reactions to performance outcomes).
  • Identify their academic strengths and weaknesses.
  • Attribute their successes or failures to factors within their control (e.g., effort expended on a task, effective use of strategies).
  • Establish a repertoire of strategies to tackle the day-to-day challenges appropriately.
  • Maintain a growth mindset.
  • Accept and even seek challenging tasks, and then rehearse and refine knowledge and skills in order to develop a deep understanding of subject matter.

If such processes are internal to the student, then the teachers might coach toward such behaviors by asking guiding questions or exploring strategy options when learners become paralyzed by moments of challenge. A teacher can offer specific, descriptive feedback (more neutral in tone than the evaluative language of praise) around the observable behaviors that make self-regulation evident in the classroom:

Samples of Effort Feedback a

The feedback teachers offer regarding effort should always promote learners’ abilities to self regulate, because self-regulation is among the most powerful feedback options to promote deep processing and mastery of the learning (Hattie and Timperly, 2007).

There is no question that providing quality feedback around effort can make a staggering difference in a learner’s ultimate success.  In her research, Dweck found that students with a strong sense of efficacy also demonstrated self-regulation skills, so it was easy for them to belief they could be successful:  “They [challenged students] knew that human qualities, such as intellectual skills, could be cultivated through effort.  And that’s what they were doing – getting smarter.  Not only weren’t they discouraged by failure, they didn’t even think they were failing.  They thought they were learning”  (Dweck, 2006, p. 4).  Often times, the research on praising effort is misunderstood and thus oversimplified:  great work on your part!  Fantastic effort!  When educators offer quick praise (evaluative language without description of the specific desirable behaviors), they accidently work against their desired state for the classroom.  The task of praising effort is not simple.  In fact, because it involves a change in the way educators have traditionally thought of effort, it will require self-regulation on behalf of teachers as they strive to alter the way they think and implement feedback about effort.  A change in understanding what effort really looks like as well as a change in offering the strategic feedback that nurtures self-regulation offers invaluable rewards:  self-regulated learners are motivated to learn, eager to adjust, and hungry for more.  And that is every teacher’s dream.



Dweck, C.  (2006). Mindset:  The new psychology of success.   NY:  Random House, Inc.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. NY: Routledge.

Hattie, J. and Timperley, H.  (March 2007).  The power of feedback.  Review of Educational Research 77 (1).  81 – 112.

Kouzes, J.M. and Posner, B.Z.  (2002). The Leadership Challenge.  San Francisco, CA:  John Wiley and Sons.

Marzano, R. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction.  Alexandria, VA:  Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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