Our Approach

Rethinking Formative

Mistakes are a valuable and inevitable part of the learning process. To give life to authentic learning, classrooms should be places where students are willing to make mistakes – where they can learn new material, apply it, and receive feedback on their work without fear of negative consequences. And to best serve their students, teachers should embrace mistakes as natural parts of the learning process that offer unique insights into how students might correct their misunderstandings.1

Nevertheless, teachers across the world often unwittingly discourage their students from authentic learning by framing their feedback – and, in turn, their grading schemes – merely in terms of correct and incorrect answers.

Research has shown that presenting students with feedback in simple correct-incorrect terms can negatively influence student achievement because such binary feedback does not provide students enough information to help them determine what knowledge gaps they may possess or how to fill those gaps.2 Additionally, grading schemes tied to correct-incorrect feedback practices discourage students because such schemes leave little room to reward mistake correction and often punish students for mistakes they make before they can realistically be expected to produce error-free work.

In implementing formative assessment in their classrooms, then, teachers would do well to disconnect their feedback from grading, instead focusing only on correcting student mistakes, filling student knowledge gaps, and providing specific next steps students may take to continue building on materials they have mastered.

And because it is best disconnected from grading, formative assessment in its most helpful form should be thought of not as a singular test or assignment meant to gauge what problems a student can and cannot solve, but rather as an ongoing process of providing students meaningful feedback, embedded within the student learning experience.3

Formative assessment is a process, not a one-time event.4, 5

More specifically, formative assessment is a process by which teachers continually gauge the depth of students’ understanding of classroom subject matter and adjust instruction to address gaps in that understanding.6

Explore the essential components of a successful formative process

Putting Theory into Practice

The Enhanced Learning Maps project created an online instructional interface packed with research-based instructional tools designed to help teachers make quick, accurate judgments about how the observations they make about individual students’ performance may indicate specific knowledge gaps those students may have. Those tools include:

  • Teacher Notes, essential contextual information for teachers about how students are likely to learn specific content and what challenges specific content may present to students;
  • Instructional Activities, suggested activities and student handouts for teaching specific content, complete with guiding questions that will help illuminate students’ thought processes so teachers can evaluate students’ progress;
  • Student Activities, specially designed activities for students to complete independently that teachers can use to help personalize their instruction; and
  • Solution Guides, supportive materials to help teachers interpret student work and determine which learning targets students have and have not reached.

These instructional tools are constructed to work in conjunction with the insights presented in the most essential and information-rich resource of Enhanced Learning Maps project: the learning map model.

A learning map model is a graphical representation of learning targets and the connections among them.

A Roadmap for Success

The learning map model produced by the Enhanced Learning Maps project allows teachers to examine the various smaller learning targets students must reach to achieve robust understanding of a particular topic. Additionally, the model illustrates the prerequisite knowledge necessary for achievement of each learning target and makes explicit the connections among its many learning targets.

Connections among learning targets in the learning map model suggest different paths learners may take to reach the same learning goals.7

The learning map model allows teachers to more quickly and easily explore what knowledge gaps a student may have that inhibit that student’s understanding of the current subject matter and identify alternate pathways to reaching learning targets.

In short, then, the learning map model helps teachers responsively adjust instruction to increase student achievement.

Preview a sample of the learning map model

  1. Boaler, J. (2015). Mathematical mindsets: Unleashing students’ potential through creative math, inspiring messages and innovative teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Fyfe & Rittle-Johnson (2016). Feedback both helps and hinders learning: The causal role of prior knowledge. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(1), 82.
  3. Heritage, H. M. (2010). Formative assessment: Making it happen in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  4. Stiggins, R.J. (2015). www.edweek.org/ew/articles…
  1. Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5-31. doi: 10.1007/s11092-008-9068-5
  2. Wiliam, D. (2011). What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37(1), 3-14. doi: 10.1016/j.stueduc.2011.03.001
  3. Dynamic Learning Maps (DLM) Alternate Assessment System Consortium, 2010; www.dynamiclearningmaps.org.