Minstrell and vanZee (2003) describe questioning as a form of planned-for formative assessment by using questions both to diagnose the state of students’ thinking and to prescribe an appropriate next step for them to take in their learning. VanZee and Minstrell’s (1997) study explored how the “reflective toss” strategy Minstrell used in his high school physics classroom gave students responsibility for monitoring their own thinking and making their meanings clear. A reflective toss is defined as a question that “catches” the meaning of a student’s statement and then “throws” responsibility for thinking back to the student. For example, if a student made a particular assertion, the teacher would respond with another question, such as “Now what do you mean by …” or “If you were to do [that] …, what would you do?” (p. 245). In this way, the teacher (in this case, Minstrell) used questions to find out what students were thinking, to consider with his students how their thinking fits with what physicists think, and to place responsibility for thinking back on the students. While the study took place in the high school classroom of only one teacher, it raises the important point for all levels of science instruction that a simple, planned-for questioning strategy can be an effective tool for formative assessment. The reflective toss forced students to take ownership of their ideas and to think about them further, and it also allowed the teacher to react and take action on students’ ideas as they were offered to the class.
Despite substantial evidence of its positive impact on student achievement (Black and Wiliam, 1998a), research indicates that meaningful formative assessment is, in general, not a key priority for teachers (Crooks 1988; Black and Wiliam, 1998b). Most teachers limit their assessment practices to assigning grades or norm referenced marks that are unrelated to criteria and with few accompanying details or comments (Butler, 1988; Daws and Singh, 1996; Ruiz-Primo et al., 2004).
White and Frederiksen (1998) cite two important caveats to their findings related to reflective assessment: first, both students and teacher need to know that performance is being rated, not individuals, and, second, students must be given the means to understand what it is they need to do well in their performance; otherwise, ratings may be damaging. These caveats, according to White and Frederiksen, relate to the important point that if students are not given explicit feedback on how to improve their performance, they are likely to fall back on ability-related attributions for their performance—similar to Butler’s (1988) findings. In addition, less advantaged students may be further discouraged if performance criteria and steps to improvement are not made clear. The authors caution that reflective assessment is an integral part of a curriculum and should scaffold the development of the skills being developed and should not simply be “added on.”