By Scott Cormode

(Continued from Part 1.)

I arrived at graduate school as a poor writer. I thought long, complicated sentences made an author sound smart. Just before leaving for grad school, I submitted a scholarly article for publication. They accepted the article, but only on the condition that I have someone help me with my writing. So, I took the paper to one of my professors. The professor pointed out all the flaws but did not really tell me what to do differently. That is summative assessment—and it really did not help me much on the article.

"My professor would mark up a draft of some paper ..."

“My professor would mark up a draft of some paper …”

Once I arrived in graduate school, I had had a very different experience. My professor would mark up a draft of some paper, but he never wrote “awk” in the margins to tell me something was awkward. Instead, he took his soft No. 2 pencil and re-wrote a passage in the margin to model how one convoluted sentence became two clear ones. And, at some point, I stopped trying to get a good grade and began instead trying to live into his standards. I still carry his voice with me every time I write. The other thing he did was to write pointed questions in the margins. “Is that really what the evidence says?” or “How will the reader know you mean X instead of Y?” His questions came to me as an invitation (and a model) for how to improve, rather than a judgment that I had failed.

I tried to follow that professor’s model of formative assessment in teaching my younger daughter to drive. On a recent drive we were working on pulling up to a curb to park. She was having problems because she would drift indecisively toward the curb and would inevitably run out of room before she reached the curb. With the first daughter, I would have said, “No … stop drifting.” That would make her defensive and it would not tell her how to improve. With the second daughter, I said, “OK, let’s stop and talk a moment.” Then I told her that she was drifting because she only turned the wheel toward the curb, when in fact she needed to turn the wheel twice—first to get the car moving toward the curb and then to get the car to straighten out and run parallel to the curb. Formative assessment involves giving the learner feedback that tells them how to improve.

But there is a second aspect to formative assessment, one that comes out if I continue where I left off in the driving example. After telling my daughter about turning the wheel twice, it was time to try it. Her first attempt did not go well. She started the second turn too late and ran right into the curb. That’s when the second part of formative assessment came into play. She reacted as if she had crashed the car—the look of worry, bracing herself for a scolding. Immediately I said, “That’s OK. That’s your first try. You did not crash the car. You hit a curb. No big deal. But now you understand why you have to turn the wheel a second time. You’ve got the idea now. Now you just have to practice it. So let’s try it again.” Formative assessment helps the learner see herself in a learning process. It leaves room for mistakes and failures—indeed, it expects them. But it does not dwell on them. Formative assessment keeps the learner moving forward.

Summative assessment makes people defensive. And defensive reasoning kills learning. Formative assessment, on the other hand, gives the learner specific ways to improve and continually invites the learner to take the next faithful step.

(For a little more on really helping people learn, I recommend Craig Dykstra’s “Evaluation as Collaborative Inquiry” and Chris Argyris’s Harvard Business Review article “Teaching Smart People How to Learn.”)

Scott Cormode is the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters and developer of

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