Mastery/Competency-Based Feedback Boosting Student Engagement

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John Gawin, a teacher at University Academy in Kansas City, has recently switched to using online tools for formative assessment. Based on his reading of the literature, his expectation was that formative assessment would help him guide instruction better. He was surprised to find students pumping their fists, asking to retake the quiz, even playfully trash talking about their mastery in an online chatroom.

The process of Formative Assessment is generally regarded as best practice and effective at boosting student achievement because of its use in guiding instruction. It is also becoming increasingly mainstream in US schools, both by using software and by more traditional processes which can include the "thumbs up/thumbs down" method, using colored cups to symbolize understanding, and "exit tickets." Perhaps it is also obvious that any formative assessment process would involve more student engagement, but the literature to date does not focus on this benefit.

Recently, a slew of websites and software programs have been introduced that include formative assessment. The advantage of any prebuilt formative assessment tool is the immediate scoring and data. Teachers of course appreciate the data, but students do as well. Many students who use these tools say "the scores make it seem more like a video game." Said differently, the data—real time feedback—is engaging and helps student motivation.

John Gawin discusses further the rationale for his decision to move to online formative assessment. "Using paper worksheets, if you have 20 students, you might get to check in with two students for about a minute or so during a 30 minute activity. So, I thought that using the prebuilt formative assessments (in this case, using OpenEd) would help me guide learning for many more of them."

John continues, "the ability to automatically score the prebuilt formative assessments in real time empowers the students with instant feedback, creating more self-motivated learners. I have visibly seen students pump their fists in the air after getting a question right after several attempts. I have also noticed the comment section making a big difference when it comes to student motivation to reach 100 percent on an assignment. Lately, I have simply posted to the online comment section "7 out of 7 is mastery," and this created a firestorm of students blowing up online comments comment section bragging about their mastery level. One student even tried an assignment several times. This would have never been possible with traditional paper worksheets or homework."

A common misperception is that formative assessment with data is only available at richer districts that have more technology. Formative assessment with data can be done with use of shared computer labs, shared computers in the classroom, Chromebook carts and even computers at home. John's students are primarily free and reduced lunch, but he does have periodic access to Chromebooks. Furthermore, he reports that most have access to technology at home. For the ones who do not have access, he "simply prints out the formative assessment for the student to do on paper. Not ideal, but it works!"

In summary, any formative assessment, from thumbs up to online tests will be effective in guiding instruction. However, formative assessments with data will be more effective in general, but in particular in improve student engagement. We look forward to seeing the results of research on this topic.


Ron Drabkin (@DrabkinRon) is vice president, marketing, at OpenEd. He has worked at JRG Software, where he was cofounder, and JustAnswer, where he helped take sales to over $125 million. Passionate about education, he also was part of the startup team for the innovative Design Tech High School. He has degrees from Duke University and the University of California, Berkeley.