Wikipedia defines formative assessment as, “…a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment.” I’ve been preaching its virtues for several years, and using this multiple-choice question as an example:

What is 37 + 15?

  • 52 (right answer)
  • 42 (learner threw away the “1” after adding 7+5 to get 12)
  • 412 (learner added the two columns independently)
  • 43 (learner carried the “1” back into the first column)

A colleague recently asked why I don’t use multiple-choice questions like this when I’m teaching. My answer is that I don’t think I need to when learners are coding along with me in class: that gives me and them real-time feedback on how well the learning is working, paritcularly if I pause regularly to ask questions like, “All right, what will happen if we run this?” or “What should the next command be?” to prompt reflection and integration.

Other people have asked why I don’t do full-on peer instruction. The answer there is cognitive load: I usually teach one-day workshops, and in my experience, asking people to learn a new way of learning while simultaneously learning how to program is asking too much. I believe Mark Guzdial disagrees, though, so in my next couple of programming workshops I’m going to try a few experiments.

And yes, there are times when I think I should have figured all of this out by now, but I can’t ask people to learn new things if I’m not willing to myself. I can’t ask them to reflect on what they’re doing if I won’t, and anyway, I think I’m making progress.