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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

What strategy can double student learning gains? According to 250 empirical studies, the answer is formative assessment, defined by Bill Younglove as "the frequent, interactive checking of student progress and understanding in order to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately."

Unlike summative assessment, which evaluates student learning according to a benchmark, formative assessment monitors student understanding so that kids are always aware of their academic strengths and learning gaps. Meanwhile, teachers can improve the effectiveness of their instruction, re-teaching if necessary. "When the cook tastes the soup," writes Robert E. Stake, "that's formative; when the guests taste the soup, that's summative." Formative assessment can be administered as an exam. But if the assessment is not a traditional quiz, it falls within the category of alternative assessment.

Alternative formative assessment (AFA) strategies can be as simple (and important) as checking the oil in your car -- hence the name "dipsticks." They're especially effective when students are given tactical feedback, immediately followed by time to practice the skill. My favorite techniques are those with simple directions, like The 60 Second Paper, which asks students to describe the most important thing they learned and identify any areas of confusion in under a minute. You can find another 53 ways to check for understanding toward the end of this post, also available as a downloadable document.

In the sections below, we'll discuss things to consider when implementing AFAs.

Observation: A Key Practice in Alternative Formative Assessment

A fundamental element of most AFAs is observation. In her Edutopia post, Rebecca Alber says there is much to learn by taking observational notes as students work in groups. "However," she clarifies, "if it is quiet during this talk time, and they are watching you watch them, they are most likely lost." Another Edutopia blogger, Elena Aguilar witnessed "a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher" who directed his students to respond to a story by making hand gestures and holding up picture cards. "In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and provide corrective feedback."

By methodically watching and recording student performance with a focused observation form, you can learn a lot about students' levels of understanding in just a few moments. For example, on the Teach Like a Champion blog, watch how math teacher Taryn Pritchard uses an observation sheet, and note her description of how she pre-plans to assess students' mastery levels in only ten seconds. Pre-planning methodical observations allow instructors to efficiently and effectively intervene when it counts most -- the instant students start down the wrong path.

New to Alternative Formative Assessment? Start Slow

The National Capital Language Resource Center recommends the following when introducing alternative assessment for the first time:

  • Integrate alternative assessments gradually, while still using the traditional assessments.
  • Walk students through the rubrics and discuss expectations when you introduce assignments.
  • Learn to score alternative assessments yourself, and then gradually introduce students to self-evaluation.
  • Teach students how to thoughtfully give each other feedback as you introduce them to peer-response.

A Simple Way to Gain Information from Your Students: Ask Them

When preservice teachers are confused as to why their students performed poorly on an assignment, I gently say, "Did you ask them why?" After all, having learners use their own vernacular to articulate why they are stuck can be profoundly useful for identifying where to target support.

According to the American Institute of Nondestructive Testing, the simplest tool to encourage student self-assessment is evaluative prompts:

  • How much time and effort did you put into this?
  • What do you think your strengths and weaknesses were in this assignment?
  • How could you improve your assignment?
  • What are the most valuable things you learned from this assignment?

Learners can respond to those prompts using Padlet, a virtual corkboard where many computer users can simultaneously post their responses, followed by a focused whole-class discussion of students' answers. The instructor doesn't always have to develop prompts -- students can invent and submit one or more potential exam questions and answers on relevant content. Tell them that you'll include the best contributions on a forthcoming quiz.

Portfolios are a more complex form of ongoing self-assessment that can be featured during student-led conferences. James Mule, principal of St. Amelia Elementary School in New York, describes how children benefit from the student-led conferences that occur at his institution: "With the student in charge and the teacher acting as a facilitator, the authentic assessment gives students practice in self-evaluation and boosts accountability, self-confidence, and self-esteem." Pernille Ripp's Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension provides all the handouts needed.

The biggest benefit of integrating AFAs into your practice is that students will internalize the habit of monitoring their understanding and adjusting accordingly.

We created the following list as a downloadable reminder to post by your computer. In the comments section of this post, tell us which of these 53 ways you've used for checking on students’ understanding -- or recommend other AFAs we should know about.

53 Ways to Check for Understanding

  1. Summary Poem Activity
    • List ten key words from an assigned text.
    • Do a free verse poem with the words you highlighted.
    • Write a summary of the reading based on these words.
  2. Invent the Quiz
    • Write ten higher-order text questions related to the content. Pick two and answer one of them in half a page.
  3. The 411
    • Describe the author’s objective.
  4. Opinion Chart
    • List opinions about the content in the left column of a T-chart, and support your opinions in the right column.
  5. So What? Journal
    • Identify the main idea of the lesson. Why is it important?
  6. Rate Understanding
  7. Clickers (Response System)
  8. Teacher Observation Checklist
  9. Explaining
    • Explain the main idea using an analogy.
  10. Evaluate
    • What is the author's main point? What are the arguments for and against this idea?
  11. Describe
    • What are the important characteristics or features of the main concept or idea of the reading?
  12. Define
    • Pick out an important word or phrase that the author of a text introduces. What does it mean?
  13. Compare and Contrast
    • Identify the theory or idea the author is advancing. Then identify an opposite theory. What are the similarities and differences between these ideas?
  14. Question Stems
    • I believe that ________ because _______.
    • I was most confused by _______.
  15. Mind Map
    • Create a mind map that represents a concept using a diagram-making tool (like Gliffy). Provide your teacher/classmates with the link to your mind map.
  16. Intrigue Journal
    • List the five most interesting, controversial, or resonant ideas you found in the readings. Include page numbers and a short rationale (100 words) for your selection.
  17. Advertisement
    • Create an ad, with visuals and text, for the newly learned concept.
  18. 5 Words
    • What five words would you use to describe ______? Explain and justify your choices.
  19. Muddy Moment
    • What frustrates and confuses you about the text? Why?
  20. Collage
    • Create a collage around the lesson's themes. Explain your choices in one paragraph.
  21. Letter
    • Explain _______ in a letter to your best friend.
  22. Talk Show Panel
    • Have a cast of experts debate the finer points of _______.
  23. Study Guide
    • What are the main topics, supporting details, important person's contributions, terms, and definitions?
  24. Illustration
    • Draw a picture that illustrates a relationship between terms in the text. Explain in one paragraph your visual representation.
  25. KWL Chart
    • What do you know, what do you want to know, and what have you learned?
  26. Sticky Notes Annotation
    • Use sticky notes to describe key passages that are notable or that you have questions about.
  27. 3-2-1
    • Three things you found out.
    • Two interesting things.
    • One question you still have.
  28. Outline
    • Represent the organization of _______ by outlining it.
  29. Anticipation Guide
    • Establish a purpose for reading and create post-reading reflections and discussion.
  30. Simile
    • What we learned today is like _______.
  31. The Minute Paper
    • In one minute, describe the most meaningful thing you've learned.
  32. Interview You
    • You’re the guest expert on 60 Minutes. Answer:
      1. What are component parts of _______?
      2. Why does this topic matter?
  33. Double Entry Notebook
    • Create a two-column table. Use the left column to write down 5-8 important quotations. Use the right column to record reactions to the quotations.
  34. Comic Book
    • Use a comic book creation tool like Bitstrips to represent understanding.
  35. Tagxedo
    • What are key words that express the main ideas? Be ready to discuss and explain.
  36. Classroom TED Talk
  37. Podcast
    • Play the part of a content expert and discuss content-related issues on a podcast, using the free Easypodcast.
  38. Create a Multimedia Poster with Glogster
  39. Twitter Post
    • Define _______ in under 140 characters.
  40. Explain Your Solution
    • Describe how you solved an academic problem, step by step.
  41. Dramatic Interpretation
    • Dramatize a critical scene from a complex narrative.
  42. Ballad
    • Summarize a narrative that employs a poem or song structure using short stanzas.
  43. Pamphlet
    • Describe the key features of _______ in a visually and textually compelling pamphlet.
  44. Study Guide
    • Create a study guide that outlines main ideas.
  45. Bio Poem
    • To describe a character or person, write a poem that includes:
      • (Line 1) First name
      • (Line 2) 3-4 adjectives that describe the person
      • (Line 3) Important relationship
      • (Line 4) 2-3 things, people, or ideas the person loved
      • (Line 5) Three feelings the person experienced
      • (Line 6) Three fears the person experienced
      • (Line 7) Accomplishments
      • (Line 8) 2-3 things the person wanted to see happen or wanted to experience
      • (Line 9) His or her residence
      • (Line 10) Last name
  46. Sketch
    • Visually represent new knowledge.
  47. Top Ten List
    • What are the most important takeaways, written with humor?
  48. Color Cards
    • Red = "Stop, I need help."
    • Green = "Keep going, I understand."
    • Yellow = "I'm a little confused."
  49. Quickwrite
    • Without stopping, write what most confuses you.
  50. Conference
    • A short, focused discussion between the teacher and student.
  51. Debrief
    • Reflect immediately after an activity.
  52. Exit Slip
    • Have students reflect on lessons learned during class.
  53. Misconception Check
    • Given a common misconception about a topic, students explain why they agree or disagree with it.

Other Assessment Resources

In Edutopia's The Power of Comprehensive Assessment, Bob Lenz describes how to create a balanced assessment system.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) describes dozens of Formative Assessment Strategies.

The Assessment and Rubrics page of Kathy Schrock's Guide to Everything website hosts many excellent assessment rubrics.

More Rubrics for Assessment are provided by the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Jon Mueller's Authentic Tasks and Rubrics is a must see-resource in his Authentic Assessment Toolbox website.

Become a Transformational Teacher

Comments (36)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer

I came across this great quote from twitter from educator Christina O'Hara that talks about the difference between the two types of assessment:

"When the cook tastes the soup," writes Robert E. Stake, "that's formative; when the guests taste the soup, that's summative."

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

What a great quote, Elana! It makes me think about authentic audiences (the "guests") -- how can we bring more authentic audiences to our students? Because, really, the teacher is usually the guest tasting the soup, right? I guess the kids are the cooks, tasting their own soup as they work toward a final product, but it would be nice if we had more guests tasting the soup.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

If there was only some way Laura and Elana, to make the analogy involve chocolate cake. . .

Savanna Flakes, Inclusion For a Better Future's picture

I also use Socrative.com & Padlet to gather quick data and make students thinking visible. Both of these technology resources are quick and free alternatives to gathering student data. I have found that using systems like this in inclusive classrooms provide co-teachers real time data that they can sort quickly and then use to adjust instruction with a specific co-teaching model.

Brian's picture

Just recently in my School Curriculum Design class we were discussing the importance of connecting knowledge and the doing of the skill with understanding. The list of ideas in order to follow-up with understanding and making sure the students can link it to their experience is awesome. Thanks for the list of ideas!

Anton Tolman's picture

There are some good methods listed here, so thanks, Todd. KWL can be useful, I have found, not just for FA but also as a way for students to take notes and focus on the parts of the material that they are struggling with. The "L" part promotes metacognition in students. In Team-Based Learning we also use individual quizzes followed by team quizzes. You could have either or both be FA, but in college students, I have both of them count. While the teams are taking the same quiz as a team, you can review the individual quiz results to see what areas were confusing, and then evaluate whether the teams are addressing those issues or if further discussion is needed. It works quite well. If you use the IFAT forms for the team quizzes, a lot of fun is interjected into the process (scratch off answer sheets from Epstein Education). Of course, paper drafts and feedback is also formative. Having students help to create the rubric is formative in the sense that they participate in thinking through the requirements of the assignment, how it will be graded, and how it fits with course objectives. You can even ask students to rate themselves on the rubric when they turn in a written assignment -- I do this when they revise their papers so I can see how they evaluated their own performance.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Having students score their own rubrics makes a lot of sense to me, particularly because kids learning to self-evaluate has a lifelong benefit. Thanks for taking the time to share these ideas, Anton.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Formative Assessment is so important for supporting students. It should happen daily, and this article gives lots of tools to pick from. What's nice is that the list gives affirmation for good tools that teachers use, and variation of tools that adds to a teacher's collection for collecting data. Nice timely article.

KayLynn Govoni's picture

I have used KWL ( but I tweek it- KTQ) what you know (100%), What you think you know, and questions . Middle schoolers are so afraid of making mistakes, this format allows for some self evaluation in what they really know about a topic while allowing that space to write down what they think they know without feeling that they need to be right all the time. we draw arrows over to the K side when they are correct. I have also used, 3-2-1 (3-4-5 and 4-5-6) these are great when you want students to provide data in more than one area. I call my color cards-traffic lights- these have been an excellent way to increase class participation-esp. w/ the shy or hesitant kids...they don't have to say anything, they just put out a card and I can adjust my teaching to their needs without any embarrassment. Exit slips are very helpful in adjusting the next lesson, or knowing what points to revisit. I use journals ( learning logs) for homework tasks- you have given me some great additions to use which will definitely mix things up for my students, as well as, provide me with key data for improving my lessons. ThankYou!

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

Thank you, Laura. I enjoy your super-useful tweets on @LAMBRADLEY.

mrsgoe's picture

Thank you for your post and for your wonderful "dipsticks". As we embark on a new school year, I am excited to bring these ideas back to my colleagues and fellow PLC members. I love the idea of the cook tasting the soup before the guests. What a great analogy!

Carla Placidi's picture

Thank you for your great ideas on checking for understanding. I plan on incorporating them into my classroom this year. I especially like how you included so many different activities to try.

Kathi001's picture

Thank you for your ideas on assessments. I look forward to trying some different ideas with my students.

Cheryl Ann's picture

Thank you for sharing! Incorporating some of these different activities into the classroom after a lesson will make it more engaging for the students. It allows teachers to use different forms of assessing their students.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

What a great quote, Elana! It makes me think about authentic audiences (the "guests") -- how can we bring more authentic audiences to our students? Because, really, the teacher is usually the guest tasting the soup, right? I guess the kids are the cooks, tasting their own soup as they work toward a final product, but it would be nice if we had more guests tasting the soup.

Melody Quiroz Cruz's picture

Thank you for this list of AFAs. I have used KWL Charts, Explain your Solution, Quickwrites, Conferences, and Exit Slips. I have used something similar to #48, the color cards. Thumbs up is like a green card. Thumbs down is like a red card. Thumbs sideways is like a yellow card. This is a quick method to help gauge student understanding. I agree that it is valuable to find student misconceptions before they head down the wrong path for too long. I am an Intervention Specialist, and I teach 5th and 6th grade math. It seems to be easier to help guide students to construct correct processes for solving math problems, than having to guide students to change a process they have been using incorrectly for a long period of time. Having these AFA options handy will allow me to bring more variety to my assessment of student learning, instead of using the same methods all the time. My assessment in turn will help guide my instruction and ultimately lead to greater student learning.


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