Formative Assessment and Yoga

I’ve been doing yoga for ten years. I’ve practiced in many types of yoga classes- ashtanga, vinyassa, hot, power, yoga-at-church classes, yoga for relaxation, yoga videos, prenatal yoga- and currently I’m taking a class at my school that is for faculty and staff. The hardest part for me in yoga (and in life) is staying present in the moment. So, instead of focusing on my breathing during my class on Tuesday, my mind was wandering. Despite the fact that this lack of focus led to incredible balance issues in Warrior 3, I mentally stumbled upon the topic for this blog post: formative assessment.

For those of you non-yogis, let me describe a typical yoga class to you. From start to finish, the students are doing. The teacher tells students the moves to follow, and the students practice those moves. As the teacher walks around the class and observes what his or her students are doing, the teacher will make comments about how to improve the poses. Most of the time, the teacher makes general comments that everyone can use:

“While you’re in plank, push your weight through your heels, push your finger pads down, tuck your tail and tighten your stomach.”

These suggestions, corrections made in real time, have an immediate impact on the practice. I don’t know whether they’re directed specifically at me, but if I do them, my pose is better.

Other times, the teacher will walk around and speak specifically to one student, making specific corrections for that person who needs that individualized instruction.

Every now and then, the teacher will even scaffold the practice further by moving an student’s arm into a better position, or help press them further into a forward fold to help that student modify their practice and go further than they could go on their own.

So what does this have to do with formative assessment? Well, the class is built around formative assessment. I have never faced a “summative” yoga assessment, yet I learn a significant amount each class.

First, the feedback is in real time. I don’t go to class, do yoga, and then 3 weeks later get notes back from my teacher about how I did. I get feedback immediately, as I’m doing the pose.

Second, the feedback can be specific to each student or the whole class can use it. Because the feedback is in real time and comes in short bursts, the teacher has more time to spend individually with students.

Third, there is no angst attached to the formative assessment feedback we get. If a teacher walks over to correct another student, I don’t feel sorry for that poor-fool-who-isn’t-doing-the-pose-right. No! I’m actually a little jealous that they’re getting feedback that I’m not. I wonder to myself, “what’s the teacher showing that person? How can I improve?” I actually WANT feedback during my practice. I’m never scared of it.

Fourth, a teacher can easily level his or her instructions and challenges to the class. Frequently you hear teachers say, “now if you want to modify this pose and make it easier, do x, but if you feel good in the pose and want to challenge yourself, do y.” Students can choose what to do based on their ability. If the teacher looks around and everyone is struggling with a particular concept, he can give instructions to everyone that will help bring them up to level.

Now, imagine a yoga class that functions the way we traditionally approach classroom teaching. It might go something like this:

The teacher stands at the whiteboard with notes about different yoga poses. “Today, students, we’re going to talk about downward facing dog. The first thing you must know about adho muka svanasana, or downward dog, is that your heels must be facing downwards….” Students would sit in desks, taking notes about what the teacher said without ever actually practicing the pose itself.

downward facing dog

Then, students would be assigned homework, where, at home without any guidance – except from maybe a parent who tried yoga 20 years ago- they would try out the pose. They might take a picture of themselves in downward facing dog, and turn that in to the teacher who would grade it and return it a few days later.

On Friday, there would be a test. Everyone would be doing downward facing dog, but no one would be allowed to look at anyone else’s pose since that would be cheating. Then, the teacher would grade each pose individually in writing, and give the notes back to the student to review. Since grading is a laborious process, it might take a week or more to get the feedback on the pose back to the student.

Since the student’s ability to continue on to the next yoga class depends on whether or not he or she makes a C or above, the first and only thing she worries about on the test feedback is whether or not she made an A,B,C or F.

I probably would never practice yoga if class was like that.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a place for summative assessment, even in yoga. If I were applying to be a yoga teacher or to attend a particularly rigorous yoga studio, it would make sense that I should pass a summative assessment to get in.

However, just like in learning, the formative assessment is the more powerful tool for helping students learn (and enjoy what they’re learning!). I hope to teach using formative assessment more–I guess that means I need to structure my classes more like yoga class.


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2 Responses to Formative Assessment and Yoga

  1. cajuncart says:

    It’s funny how we’ve isolated “school” as a separate entity … why can’t it look like a yoga class? How do we do that, epd? Learning is not looking forward to the grade handed out at the end but rather instead by the tweaks made in process on the journey…
    Thank you for this thoughtful piece, and man, we’ve missed you!

  2. epdwilliams says:

    You are RIGHT…. How might we re-frame the typical classroom? I’ll write a little blog post that addresses that question. I know what that kind of teaching looks like in English, but with other classes I may be hypothesizing/guessing/imagining! 🙂 One thing I do know, however, is that when courses get more thematic and less in their individualized silos, it’s easier. More to come!

    Ps. Been loving your poetry on your blog. Mary Oliver, look out! LittleBitofLagniappe is comin’ to town.

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