Formative learning: knowing what you can and can’t do (yet)

The Antonius college Gouda and the Hooghuis Heesch are both conducting a pilot with formative learning. “At a glance, pupils can see what they can do to successfully take a test that counts.”

High test pressure

Over forty test results in seven weeks, according to history teacher Joop van Den Berg it’s driving the pupils mad at the Antonius college Gouda. Test pressure was also high at Het Hooghuis Heesch. Maths teacher Robert van Oorschot wondered whether his pupils really knew and could apply what he’s asking of them. As a result, both teachers have started with formative learning. The aim? Measuring pupils’ progress in the run-up to their learning goal, and to intervene when necessary. Pupils don’t get grades but find out in which areas there is room for improvement.

Formative learning

“What’s the use of telling a pupil who who fails, that he has to work harder?” Joop wonders. “If it’s clear they’re lacking certain skills, it’s far better to work on that.” This is what formative learning is all about. With formative learning, you measure progress and you intervene with a purpose. Pupils aren’t rewarded (or punished) with grades.

Drawing up learning goals

For this reason, Joop has introduced formative learning in his lessons. He draws up the learning goals for each new paragraph. He uses terminology such as ‘you can explain, describe, make connections and compare’. With a formative skills test he checks whether pupils are on the right track. “The test consists of reproducing, applying and insight questions. This teaches pupils which skills they have mastered, and for which skills they must make more of an effort.”

Formative tests

Pupil Ivo of the Antoniuscollege struggles with questions that require him to analyse sources or understand texts. “The formative test is useful for that. I’d like to practise these kinds of skills more often.” Ivo sees the test as a kind of benchmark and is glad that he isn’t given a mark that counts. “We discuss the test in the following lesson, and you can clearly see how you did on each individual part of the test. All the questions are explained, and you can take extra notes. I’ve noticed that I’m improving.”

“We work with a form on which pupils tick whether they need to work on a goal, whether they have almost or completely mastered it”


Working on learning goals

Maths teacher Robert of Het Hooghuis Heesch has his pupils think in advance about which learning goals they already mastered. “We work with a form on which pupils tick whether they still need to work on a goal, or whether they have almost or completely mastered it.” The pupil’s targets form also lists the results of the written formative tests and the final column contains extra assignments per learning goal. “At a glance, pupils can see what they can do and need to successfully sit a test that does count, at a later stage,” says Robert.

Reflection on marking

Robert also completes a form per pupil and compares his findings to those of the pupil. “So, I compare whether the score they award themselves is the same as I would give them. Some pupils find it hard to check their own work. I try to convince the pupil of the importance of taking a critical look at themselves. Providing them with my score leads to a quick conversation in which we reflect on the pupil’s marking skills and I explain how I would grade things in a test that counts.”

Studying for a test

Pupil Ivo says that he is more likely to study for a test that counts than for a formative test. Joop recognizes this. “But then again, that’s fine. If you pay attention in class and complete the assignments in the exercise book, you’ll know, after taking the skills test, which basics you have remembered and mastered.” Robert agrees. “On top of this, maths is no different to guitar lessons; You can read up on it, but it’s all about doing it. The learning goals form helps me coach the pupils so that they do well in the ‘real ’test’.

“Because we started looking into what pupils must know and be able to do, we discovered which things we do double”

Pupils mark their work

What works well, according to Joop, is having pupils mark each other’s work. “The good thing about it is that they discuss what the right answer should be. Previously, they would do this with me, but now they’re learning from each other.”

More critical of teaching materials

After just a year into the pilot, Robert has noticed that he has become far more critical of the learning materials. “Because we started asking ourselves what pupils should know and be capable of doing, we also discovered what we’re doing multiple times, he says. “It’s nice to conclude that covering less of a chapter is also fine.”


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