Formative assessment is a teaching practice that evidence says makes a difference. In this video, Melissa Garstang-Leary explains how she uses formative assessment in her English lessons.
Watch Formative assessment in English | Australian Education Research Organisation on YouTube.

Duration: 6:30

Formative assessment is a teaching practice that evidence says makes a difference. In this video, Melissa Garstang-Leary explains how she uses formative assessment in her English lessons.

This video can also be used to facilitate a group session where teachers can reflect on their own practice


Hi, my name is Melissa Garstang-Leary. I have taught in both New South Wales and Queensland. I've been teaching for 15 years, mainly as a primary school teacher but also as an adult educator. I really love teaching and I'm always thinking about how to improve my practice.

I've recently enjoyed filming some lessons for Ochre Education and AERO. I've been working on my formative assessment practice, particularly developing my capacity to check student understanding, monitor learning and provide timely feedback.

Perhaps the most important aspect of formative assessment practice to get right is checking for understanding. In order to make formative assessment work, you need to elicit evidence of learning and be able to respond in real time. It's probably one part of teaching that experts make look easy, but it's really hard to do well. And it's something I'm always conscious of improving in my practice.

Checking student understanding is important because we can't see learning directly. We need to actually check that it's occurring or the extent to which it's occurring. We need to do that with the simplest things - it might just be checking that students know where an apostrophe goes in a sentence or perhaps it's something more difficult like analysing a character's motives in a given paragraph. We can't take for granted that the students can do these things because we taught them. We have to check that they know. We also know that students can carry misconceptions with them or think in ways that aren't helpful for our learning objectives. So checking for understanding regularly and routinely helps us to keep on top of all of that. With better information about what students know and can do, we can make better founded decisions in the classroom about what to do next.

When I'm designing lessons online, I have to think really carefully about using pause points. Recently, I designed a series of lessons on biographical writing, and I had to include a series of pause points along the way to check that students understood the definition, the audience, purpose, and key features of biographical writing. They are core to understanding how to write a biography. So I planned for a bulk of my checking for understanding around those concepts. In an online context, sometimes we can't see what our students are producing as they're moving through a lesson. So we need to think carefully about what likely answers they are getting, what likely responses they may be forming. This is where it's important to talk them through the right answer - be explicit about it - but also it's a chance to give feedback on the other alternatives and what those responses might mean for their learning.

In the classroom, I routinely use multiple choice questions and true false questions to elicit evidence of what students are understanding. These kinds of quick checks for understanding seem a bit against the grain of usual practice in an English classroom but we don't always need to check understanding through written responses. I might want to know whether they understand the meaning of some specific vocabulary I've taught or understand a grammatical rule. Those kinds of things can be checked quite quickly in short sharp questions.

In the classroom I often teach my students to do thumbs up, thumbs down for true or false. I can then run the question, scan the room, check responses and we can talk about what they're thinking in real time. This is a time when I can give feedback on responses and help clear up any misconception students might have.

The purpose of checking for understanding is to discover any misconceptions that students may hold or have taken from our teaching. I want to know what my students are thinking, and if they have a misconception then I want to address that as early as possible. This is really important in English. We all know the most common difficulties like punctuating 'its' or common homophone errors. However, misconceptions can sit in any aspect of English from how sentences are constructed to techniques we use to find the main idea of a text and what some of the events are in a complex text. All of these things can be more or less visible but are important to understanding which makes checking for understanding crucial. The last thing I want is for a problem to be rehearsed and embedded in long-term memory. It makes it much more difficult to fix those misconceptions if they are left too long. That is why timely feedback when the student has time to actually practise the revised knowledge is so important.

Even after years of practice, I'm still working on how to use checking for understanding as effectively and efficiently as possible. It's important to realise that formative assessment does not need to be complex. In fact, low key assessments, such as quick quizzes or exit tickets allows you to check for understanding without adding complexities to a lesson. I also know that without regularly engaging with students throughout the lesson, I lose the opportunity to identify misconceptions, check for retention and plan my future instruction. By having this data at my fingertips, I can provide prompt feedback that is individualised and actionable by students, helping them to move their learning forward.

To learn more about formative assessment practices, download the Formative assessment guide from the AERO website and good luck as you explore this element of your own teaching.

Keywords: practice implementation, student progress, student learning