Formative Assessment in Chemistry

My collaborators Irene Morrison-Moncure (Hunter College) and Janey Flanagan (Borough of Manhattan Community College) and I (Borough of Manhattan Community College) presented on formative versus summative assessment. Rick Wormeli ( looked at formative and summative assessment as a means for critical feedback for learning. He explains that formative assessment is really check points along the way and the best kind involves descriptive feedback.

In assessment one is supposed to sit with the learner. This implies it is something we do ‘with’ and ‘for’ students and not ‘to’ students (Green, 1999). How can we as educators accomplish this? For starters, we must evaluate and address our ‘values and attitudes about assessment.’ The following points on ‘values and attitudes about assessment were borrowed from the New Zealand’s Ministry of Education.

    1. Teachers value and believe in students.
    2. Sharing learning goals with the students.
    3. Involving students in self-assessment.
    4. Providing feedback that helps students recognize their next steps and how to take them.
    5. Being confident that every student can improve
    6. Providing students with examples of what we expect from them.

I can truly say that I value my students but I do not always believe in them to achieve the heights that they are capable of reaching. I believe that it is more important for the students to believe that they can be successful. One way of addressing this matter is helping students equip themselves with the right habits and work ethic for the learning process in the semester. The following is a sample of a survey that I gave my students in order to better inform them and myself about strategies that they should or need to employ to be successful chemistry students. Note that this survey is not limited to chemistry students.

What is your major?
 Answer varied
Why are you taking this class (career plans, etc.)?
Most students responded that this course is a requirement for their majors
What mode of instruction works well for you in this class? Check all that applies.
 Blackboard postings
 Lecture with Q & A
 What else? ___________________________________________________
Answers varied
What topic(s) have you had the most difficulty with so far in this class?
Most answered ‘naming compounds’ because it is a new concept to them.
Which of the following steps have you taken to improve your understanding of the topic(s)?
 LRC tutoring
 Consult a classmate/friend/instructor
 Search the web
 Read the textbook
 Attempt the homework questions
 What else_________________________________________________________________________
 Most students answered, ‘attempt homework questions and read the book.’
What more can you do to get to the level that you desire in this class?
Most students said that they need to study and apply themselves more.
How would you rate your study habit/work ethic for this class?
(low)            1          2          3          4          5  (high)
The majority of my students chose 2. They were very honest.

This survey lead to a very open and honest class discussion on what habits need to be changed or adopted in order to be successful in chemistry. I intend to do a follow up survey midway through this semester in order for the students to have a safe space to reflect upon and modify study habits if needed. Taking a moment to address students’ work ethic and study habits is salient to their success. You are no longer a body that spews out content information, instead you have now become a ‘being’ that cares about their learning. Now we are ready to engage in content assessment. Remember, no method or technique will produce the perfect outcome. However, an environment conducive to learning is attainable.

I administer a series of quizzes to my students as a means of checkpoints along the road to learning chemistry. Checkpoints are not limited to quizzes. As I quoted Rick earlier, ‘the best type of formative assessment includes descriptive feedback. Sometimes I will administer a question to the students but they need write in detail what they did or did not understand about the concept. The following is the sample question that I used in my presentation.

Which of the following statements is true?

  • The total energy and entropy of the universe are both increasing.
  • The total energy of the universe is increasing, but the entropy is constant.
  • The total energy of the universe increases, while the entropy decreases.
  • The total energy of the universe is constant, but the entropy is increasing.
  • None of these.

Why did you choose your answer? State in detail the rationale that supports your answer. What did you find to be the most difficult/challenging part of this theory?

The students must first answer these questions before they engage in think/pair share. This is a low stakes assessment (extra credit) that will not negatively impact their grade, they only stand to gain from this exercise.
I also use class discussions and Q&A as means of formative assessment.

One thing that we as educators have to be cognizant of when assessing and teaching students is our own learning style. Pat Guild of John Hopkins University stated that “our own learning styles influence how we teach and what we expect from our students.” If we teach our students based on our own learning styles then we should expect the same outcome from each student which we assess. The problem herein lies the fact that each student acquire and process information differently. Therefore our teaching style should be reflective of the different learning styles in our classroom.

The idea of assessment is to inform us about students’ progress, our teaching practices and the next steps in helping students succeed. The following is a chart that maps out the assessment/teaching learning process.



I would love to hear about the strategies that you employ in assessing your students. I am always looking for ways of improving my approach to assessing and teaching.


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