Clear learning targets and feedback strengthen social studies and science learning

How do we know that students understand and are learning what we intend in our classrooms? When do we adjust our instructional sequence or delivery of content to meet student needs? To answer these questions, we first must answer this question: What is the role of formative assessment in our classrooms?

First, let’s be clear what we mean by formative assessment. Education has a system of assessments.  Included in that system, are a collection of diagnostic, formative, interim, and summative assessments. Formative assessments are given to uncover student misconceptions, provide feedback to students about their understanding and to provide the teacher with information regarding ongoing adjustments to instruction. Formative assessments are designed to be informational only and not a part of the reporting system, i.e. grades. Grading for achievement level falls under the interim and summative assessments, e.g. unit tests/projects, and district-wide benchmark assessments, etc. compare a student’s work against a defined set of standards.

Many of the ideas that follow emerged in a presentation that Dr. Anita Stewart McCafferty and Dr. Jeff Beaudry from the University of Southern Maine and the Southern Maine Partnership shared with Maine social studies and science teacher leaders in February. Their presentation was one component of the work teacher-leaders were involved with through the Maine Department of Education. That presentation included learning from John Hattie’s Visible Learning in which Hattie ranked effect size from highly positive to highly negative influences in the classroom (sadly, some of what we do in the classroom can actually impede student learning). Anita and Jeff also drew from authors Jan Chappuis, Rick Stiggins, Steve Chappuis and Judith Arter of Classroom Assessment for Student Learning:  Doing It Right – Using It Well.

Formative assessment and good instruction are inextricably linked; educators’ intentional selection and embedding of authentic formative assessment strategies can transform learning. A couple of the strategies that are most effective in engaging students and driving their learning include clear learning targets and descriptive feedback. Good instruction starts with clear learning targets, i.e. goals that are solidly built on a set of standards, are clear to teachers and students, and the focus of instruction is consistent with those targets. Student learning is closely tied to the feedback that they receive from the teacher, peers and through self-reflection. That feedback needs to be descriptive and constructive to move the learner forward and delivered in a timely fashion to be most effective.  The intentional and regular embedding of high quality formative assessment strategies, coupled with adjusting instruction as needed, leads to student success.

Science and social studies teachers of Maine’s Teacher Instructional Practice Network have been looking at formative assessment as part of their examination of research-based practices that support student achievement of proficiency in Maine’s Learning Results. In addition to the presentation highlighted above, the teacher-leaders have reviewed Embedding Formative Assessment:  Practical Techniques for K-12 Classrooms by Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy to inform their practice.  Beyond the immediate impact in individual classrooms, the science and social studies community will benefit by the professional development opportunities under development by these teachers.  The science summer professional development will bring together PK-5 teachers to begin examining the integration of multiple disciplines through science and will utilize some of the work from this year’s 6-12 science cohort. The inaugural Social Studies Summer Symposium being held June 29, will feature workshops designed and delivered by eighteen Social Studies Teacher-Leaders.

For more information, contact Maine DOE Social Studies Specialist Kristie Littlefield at or Maine DOE Science & Technology Specialist Shari Templeton at