Formative assessments

I’m looking for suggestions for formative assessments.  Do you have some unique ideas to assess students quickly and adjust instruction accordingly?
—Karen, Arizona

question markFormative assessments are ongoing, classroom level assessments critical to discovering what students are learning during the instructional process so we can move on (if students have learned a topic) or revisit our instruction to correct any misconceptions or to fill in any gaps. These quick and focused check-ups can provide just-in-time information on what students know or can do prior to end-of-unit tests or yearly exams.

I’m not sure I have any “unique” ideas and you may already have many activities that could be part of a formative assessment process. These can be varied so they become an integral and enjoyable part of the learning process, not just special events. Formative assessments are usually not graded to provide a safe way for students to ask questions and reflect honestly on their learning—and not be penalized for a mistake, a misconception, a question, or an incomplete understanding during the learning process. Here are some formative assessments I like:

  • Frequent quick thumbs-up/down/sideways responses from students can give instant feedback during a discussion or activity. If you’re concerned this is a self-assessment, you can ask a thumbs-up student to explain briefly or use some probing questions with a thumbs-down student to find out the source of the confusion (which other students probably share, too).
  • Some teachers use small white boards or half sheets of paper on which students write and display short responses and hold them up. A brief scan of the room lets you see the responses and know all students are involved. This is a low-tech version of the “clicker” systems that allow students to respond electronically for an instant check of student understanding. The advantages of the electronic system are that students may be more forthcoming is they feel their answer isn’t being broadcast to the class and you have a record of the student responses to analyze.
  • In a variation of the think-pair-share strategy, students do a quick write in their notebook/journal, share their writing with a partner, and then summarize to the class. If the summaries start to sound the same after the first several ones, you can ask other teams if they have questions or anything new to add. As you listen to their summaries, you can get a feel for what students are learning, and the other students get to hear the information in different words or from a different perspective.
  • Students could work on a graphic organizer or summary as a warm-up or a ticket-out-the-door activity to give you a glimpse into their thinking.
  • When students are working in pairs or teams, you can walk around with a checklist of communications skills and lab behaviors or a notepad to record your observations to discuss with the class. Spend a little time with each group to observe their work, ask a few questions, or provide any clarification. This could also be a time to do a quick scan of some science notebooks.

Regardless of what activity you use for formative assessment, it’s important for students to get feedback beyond whether the response was correct or incorrect. Giving specific suggestions for improvement, asking probing or follow-up questions, encouraging the students to correct their mistakes, and helping students to self-assess their work authentically are part of the formative assessment process.

So what does a teacher do if the students didn’t get it? It may be tempting to assume they weren’t paying attention (which may be true) or to repeat the information in a louder or slower voice. But you need to have a few extra tricks up your sleeve to adjust your instruction: alternative explanations, extra practice activities (once any misunderstandings are cleared up), other visuals, additional examples and non-examples of a concept, graphic organizers, think-alouds, or alternative readings. Of course, if all the students get it, it’s okay to move on to the next part of the lesson. (Although I found sometimes their understanding was fragile and some additional assessment and review was necessary later.)

I would recommend the book Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction, and Learning from NSTA Press. I showed this to some of my colleagues in other subject areas, and they saw quite a few strategies that could be adapted to their subjects, too. Uncovering Student Ideas in Science, Volume 1: 25 Formative Assessment Probes (along with Volumes 2, 3, and 4), also from NSTA Press, focuses on determining what students already know about a science topic, including misconceptions.

The results of summative assessments (state tests, end-of-course exams, unit tests, or final projects) can help us make decisions about our courses and curriculum, but they don’t tell us much about which individual students are having problems or have developed misconceptions during our instruction. And by then it could be too late to go back and review or reteach.

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  1. Posted March 3, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I am a /math/science coach and my teachers recently have started a new formative assessment procedure. On test day, as students finish their test, as many as four at a time can come to the table where the teacher is sitting. There they find a colored pencil and the answer key. They check their own test and discuss with the teacher why they missed each question and clear up misconceptions immediately. Though this is after the test, misconceptions are cleared up and now I am encouraging teachers to retest for mastery whenever possible.

  2. Posted March 6, 2010 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    I may have commented on this before. The easiest formative assessment is to constantly query students as you’re teaching. Keep track of who’ve you queried on a photocopy of your seating chart. Make sure you query everyone equally EXCEPT query the least capable kids the most. This keeps them constantly accountable and lets you know that if they “get it,” probably everyone else gets it, too, and you can move on. If they stumble, you can coach them into an acceptable response, which helps them to succeed and serves as a review for others.

    Another quick assessment is a 4 question pop quiz. These are fast to check.

    Benchmark tests are terrific formative assessments if they give you breakdowns of how students responded to every question. If the majority of kids got a question wrong, it is informative to see what answers they chose, reflect on how you taught the lesson that the question addresses, figure out how they misunderstood you, and then re-teach the lesson.

  3. MaryB
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Susan. You make a valuable point about using the results of these assessments to adjust the lesson if necessary.

  4. MaryB
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    We received this comment from “Jim” via email: I want to suggest another set of resource tools for Assessing Student Learning. Please see which has been developed bridge between teacher practice and research on learning and teaching, to relate to learning goals and to students’ valuable and problematic thinking with respect to those learning goals. There is a related chapter (3) in the 2008 book on assessment for learning, published by NSTA. That book also is a great source of suggestions for formative assessment.

  5. P R Guruprasad
    Posted March 24, 2012 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    Wherever any lesson concept can be applied by children in their day to day experiences, home works are very effective as formal assessment. But the problem is that it is not easy to ascertain as to whether the child or some adult does the homework. I tried to solve this problem to some extent, by giving `weekly tests’ containing formative assessment questions, which children would write in classrooms by drawing up on their experiences back home.

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