Formative 3

Returning to School After COVID-19: Understanding What Students Know and What They Need to Learn

Caroline Wylie Principal Research Scientist at ETS
Christine Lyon

The current unknowns far outweigh the answers when it comes to questions about what school will look like come fall. What will teaching and learning look like? What precautions will need to be taken? How can online, remote learning be improved? Among the critical concerns is how we can understand what students know and what they will need to learn.

The dramatic shifts required this school year and next will undoubtedly change the information available to teachers. The information about new classes of students will be different; conflated with attendance, effort, and other variables, and will most likely demonstrate the differences between the highest- and lowest-achieving students that are amplified by the abrupt switch to remote learning and summer learning losses.

It will be critical for teachers and students to consider where they are now, identify where they need to be, and to develop plans to bridge these gaps. This process is at the core of formative assessment. Educators should plan for the integration and continuous implementation of formative assessment processes throughout the school year to help them to make real-time instructional adjustments to meet learners where they are. The start of each new unit presents opportunities to collect evidence that can be used to plan the most efficient and effective use of instructional time. This formative assessment opportunity is often referred to as pre-assessment.

Understanding Pre-Assessment

Pre-assessment has numerous benefits. For teachers, the development of a pre-assessment helps them identify critical and related content for a new unit such as prerequisite skills and knowledge. The evidence from pre-assessments help determine where to begin with the new topic and to identify groups of students who may need more help or additional opportunities to stretch their learning. For students, they can provide a bigger picture of where the learning is going, connect new learning to previous learning, and allow opportunities for them to share knowledge and skills that come from their families and communities that connects to the upcoming learning.

Pre-assessments consider the big ideas of an entire unit and plot out where you hope students will be in their learning and understanding by the end of the unit. While daily formative assessment focuses on a specific learning intention, a pre-assessment may cover a wider range of content, drawing on key ideas from previous units of the current year or even previous years that will be needed to support the new unit. Pre-assessments should effectively:

  • Help teachers and students understand what is known before a new topic is started and to obtain specific insights that will impact instructional plans. They should be quick to complete and the responses quick to review and analyze. This can be done by using questions from existing resources to save time and effort.
  • Focus on content that will take one to two weeks to cover and provide results that can inform or adjust subsequent lessons. The pre-assessments should be collected before students have started the new unit. Be sure to share with students that they should not expect to get many of the questions correct and that the goal is to find “the edge” of a student’s learning so you can help them to move forward. As you use the information to adjust instruction, share with the students how their responses to the pre-assessment helped you to pinpoint where to start your teaching and learning activities.
  • Maximize information, being cautious of multiple-choice questions since guessing can introduce inaccurate information about what students may know. Focusing on patterns in student responses on a series of multiple-choice questions and alternative formats such as free-writes, concept maps, and discussions that give students freedom to illustrate their ideas and understandings is ideal.
  • Be responsive by reviewing and responding to the information collected from the pre-assessment. You should not grade student responses, but you should review them and take action based on what you learn.

Effective Pre-Assessment in Practice

Student self-assessment and peer-assessment are key aspects of formative assessment and can be used with pre-assessment tasks and activities to collect deep information about what students know and can do. Similarly, opening up classroom discussions can uncover student misconceptions and allow students to share knowledge and skills that students have that come from their families and communities or their “funds of knowledge.”

Pre-assessment strategies are often used in person with students, however, these strategies can also be adapted using online programs and apps. For example, students could individually or collaboratively create concept maps using programs such as PowerPoint® or slides. Similarly, a brainstorming session could be completed virtually using online planning tools that allow you to visually group similar ideas and themes. Word clouds, word walls, or word maps provide visual representations of student ideas and existing knowledge that could also help organize student thinking.

In a time where remote, asynchronous learning may be the new normal, considering ways to use technology to enhance pre-assessment opportunities will be critical.

Importance of Responsiveness

The final and most important characteristic of a pre-assessment is that the results are analyzed, interpreted, and used. While pre-assessments should not be included as part of a grade, students will quickly learn to not pay attention to pre-assessments if they realize that they have already learned the specific material they are being assigned. Here are some suggestions for reviewing the information that support analysis and use:

  • Sort the data: If you gave students a quiz with questions that you scored as right and wrong, a spreadsheet sorted by the number correct per student and the number of students who get a question correct can help you more easily see patterns in the data.
  • Quicksort response: For written responses or diagrams/webs, group similar responses so that you can see the range of ideas and themes.
  • Tag responses: Use flags to mark responses that include multiple ideas that you want to capture and use to help you visualize common and less common ideas from students.
  • Make notes: If the pre-assessment covered content across two or three weeks of learning, document specific patterns, ideas, or experiences shared by students in a place or a specific lesson where it will be most appropriate to revisit the topic and use the information.

Formative assessment and pre-assessment strategies are always important for responsive teaching. However, in this next school year they will be more essential than ever as teachers work to ascertain what support individual and groups of students need to succeed.

Caroline Wylie is a director of Research in Research & Development at ETS. Christine Lyon is a lead research project manager in Research & Development at ETS.