Edutopia on Facebook
Edutopia on Twitter
Edutopia on Google+
Edutopia on Pinterest Follow Me on Pinterest
WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

Why Formative Assessments Matter

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Updated 01/2014

Summative assessments, or high stakes tests and projects, are what the eagle eye of our profession is fixated on right now, so teachers often find themselves in the tough position of racing, racing, racing through curriculum.

But what about informal or formative assessments? Are we putting enough effort into these?

What Are They?

Informal, or formative assessments are about checking for understanding in an effective way in order to guide instruction. They are used during instruction rather than at the end of a unit or course of study. And if we use them correctly, and often, yes, there is a chance instruction will slow when we discover we need to re-teach or review material the students wholly "did not get" -- and that's okay. Because sometimes we have to slow down in order to go quickly.

What this means is that if we are about getting to the end, we may lose our audience, the students. If you are not routinely checking for understanding then you are not in touch with your students' learning. Perhaps they are already far, far behind.

We are all guilty of this one -- the ultimate teacher copout: "Are there any questions, students?" Pause for three seconds. Silence. "No? Okay, let's move on."

Ever assign the big project, test, or report at the end of a unit and find yourself shocked with the results, and not in a good way? I have. The reason for the crummy results is not the students, but a lack of formative assessments along the way and discovering when, where, and how certain information needed to be re-taught or reviewed.

To Inform, Not Punish

If you find yourself wanting to spring a "gotcha" quiz on your students, ask yourself if it is really meant to collect important data or to freak them out and maybe "get them more serious about paying attention"?

Believe me, I've been there: wanting to punish the lazy, the cocky, the nonchalant. Sometimes we just want to see that hint of panic as they number 1 to 10 on their half sheets of paper (afterall, many of us experienced the "gotcha" quiz as students!)

If you feel tempted to do this, just say no; it's a mistake.

When and How?

Formative assessments are not about gotcha-ing students but about guiding where instruction needs to go next. We should use them frequently, and while or after kids learn a new idea, concept, or process.

When you are on your way to the Big End Project (or summative assessment) and students have just learned a piece or a step toward the end, check to see if they've got it.

And to avoid using the tired old quiz, here's a few ways you can check for understanding:

Exit Slips

These can be fun and not daunting, for students or teacher. Give students a question to answer that targets the big idea of the lesson, and have them write a sentence or two. Stand by the door and collect them as they leave. Sit at your desk and thumb through them all, making three stacks: they get it, kind of get it, and don't get it all. The size of the stacks will tell you what to do next.

Student Checklist

Give your students a checklist and have them self-assess. Collect the checklists with each, or every other, new idea during a unit of study. Make sure they write a sentence or two explaining how they know they've got it, or why they think they are still struggling.

The Three-Minute Paper

This is more involved than the exit slip and often times, I'd give the kids more than three minutes. I don't use the word "essay" or they get too nervous. I might say, "Take out a piece of paper, and tell me what you have learned so far about ____________." Often they will basically write an essay (something they usually labor over in drafts and on their own!) I assess these the same way as the exit slip, by making the three stacks.

One-Sentence Summary

Ask students to write a summary sentence that answers the "who, what where, when, why, how" questions about the topic.

Misconception Check

Provide students with common or predictable misconceptions about a specific principle, process, or concept. Ask them whether they agree or disagree and explain why. Also, to save time, you can present a misconception check in the form of multiple-choice or true/false.

Watch, Look, Listen

Simply observing the actions, behaviors, and words of students can provide a wealth of valuable data and serve as a formative assessment. You can take notes as they conference with one another, pair and share, or engage in collaborative learning groups (lab projects, literature circles, etc.).

What to look for? If there are small group conversations happening, and they are successfully applying the new learning, not just one student is talking; they are talking over each other, and they are animated with body, hands and eyes. On the other hand, if it is quiet during this talk time, and they are watching you watch them, they are most likely lost.

Your note taking can be as easy as making a check-plus mark after each child's name who shares something of value and on-target/topic with their group. (Put a check by each child you hear share so you can see how many you heard versus how many get it.) If I have 17 names with checks after them, but only four check-plus marks, it's time to review or re-teach.

How do you check for understanding with your students? What are some formative assessments that you find fun, engaging, and effective? Please share with us your thoughts, ideas and expertise!

Comments (63)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Rachel Cline's picture

This article is very helpful. You explained very well what different assessments were and an easy way to check quickly for understanding. Students a lot of the time "panic" when they hear they have a test or a quiz..the ideas you gave are nice and quick ways to check the students for understanding without causing them to panic over a test. There are many forms of testing and I feel that both informative and formative are important. I teach math and I am continually moving around the room and checking for understanding and reteaching and redirecting when possible. If I didn't do that, there would be so many students who didn't understand and would fail because they wouldn't ask for help.

Megan's picture

I love your opinions and ideas on formative assessment. I am transitioning to the middle school next year, and I found your ideas for exit slips and the three minute paper to be very helpful. I can see myself using both of these strategies to effectively checkin with my students at the end of the day. I appreciate the time you took to compile your ideas! Thanks!

Gayle's picture

I like your list of suggestions for formative assessments and the guidance to get away from doing the "gotcha quiz". Your list is a good one to have on the edge of my desk in order to rotate through different ways to gather information from my students. I believe that students will not take the time on their responses if any one way is used too frequently. Your diverse list is a great resource for teachers.

E Bryson's picture

I especially love the exit slip and 3-minute paper ideas, though all of these ideas are great. They seem like a fast way to get a clear idea of each of your students' understanding. I appreciate that you emphasized the importance of observation, as well. Do you ever form small groups based on the "they get it, kind of get it, and don't get it all" results? I can see this being a great opportunity for differentiated instruction.

Thanks so much for sharing!

melinstaedt's picture
Kindergarten Teacher from ND

I like the idea you gave about keeping a list of your students and walking around and observing what information students share during turn and talks, group discussions and whole group discussions. If you put a simple mark beside their name, it allows you to see the participation level and who is giving answers showing that they understand the material. It allows the teacher an opportunity to see if students are truly understanding that material or if the teacher needs to review the information for the students.

I also think you are right that sometimes to go quickly we have to slow down. If we don't slow down to check for student understanding through the use of formative assessments that we won't know if students truly have a grasp on the material we are presenting or not. If students don't have an understanding of the material that we as teachers need to slow down and reteach or review the material for the students.

Alizabeth's picture

Great ideas! I especially love the exit quiz and 3-minute paper ideas and making the quick three stacks. I teach high school social studies and I can see my students enjoying these types of assessments instead of quizzes. I am often guilty of giving pop quizzes as a punishment for those who do not read. Thanks for the article and driving the readers comments.

Heather's picture

Wow. This article has motivated me to not only use formative assessments more, but I feel like a lightbulb has been turned on in regards to what to do with them once I've gotten the results. I especially liked the suggestion of how to use the exit tickets. Making three piles and using that to determine where the instuction needs to go is sensible, manageable and well worth the time. Other ideas listed are very practical and as a result I will use them. As MSK points out you have made formative assessments clear and easy to understand.

Melaine's picture
Second grade teacher from Minneapolis, MN

Thank you so much for providing examples of how you use formative assessment! There is a big push in my school to use a wider variety of formative assessments. You not only provided great ideas, but practical tips of what to do once you receive the results. I love the idea of breaking the exit slips into three piles. This will definitely guide my instruction in the future. Thank you.

Kirby VanDeWalker's picture

First off, this is a well-written blog that cuts to the chase and is a quick read. For that I applaud you. Second, the strategies you list to incorporate formative assessment seem "do-able" and seem simple. The worst thing for teachers (and students!) is to be told to do something they may not understand and that takes a considerable amount of time to research and practice. These seem quick and easy, allowing teachers to get a glimpse of student understanding. Another positive of the ideas you posted is that they will not make the students feel like they are doing more work. Convenient, but also worthwhile. Thanks for the great post and for making it an enjoyable read.

April's picture
2nd grade teacher from MN

Thank you for the article on the importance of formative assessments. You gave some great ideas, and though they may not all work for primary-aged learners, I think I can tweak them to fit the needs of my young learners. Using formative assessments is absolutely key in guiding my instruction. I appreciate your insight on slowing down and re-teaching. This is something that too often, the pressure to move on and get through subject matter arises, even when children don't grasp concepts completely. I also really like the idea of the misconception check. I have just recently learned of a teacher creating "What Went Wrong" math problems, and I love that idea. She presents the problem, gives an incorrect answer, and then has the students explain their thinking on why the solution is wrong and what needs to be changed. This would be another great way to quickly assess a student's knowledge of math skills. Again, thanks for the article.

article Resources for Assessment in Project-Based Learning

Last comment 7 months 3 weeks ago in PBL Assessment

blog Creating an Authentic Maker Education Rubric

Last comment 2 weeks 2 days ago in Maker Education

blog What's the Point of Assessment?

Last comment 1 week 3 days ago in Assessment

Discussion A Reporting System for the Future

Last comment 3 weeks 3 hours ago in Assessment

Discussion 6 Quick Assessments to Check for Understanding

Last comment 1 month 1 day ago in Assessment

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.