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Why Formative Assessments Matter

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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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 (65)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Andy's picture

Great article, I like the idea of the misconception check and also the 1 sentence summary of a concept. I also agree with you that the goal of formative assessments is to inform, not punish. Students initially struggle with the idea of how a poor quiz score can be used as information to guide their thinking and my teaching. However, I feel that students are becoming more comfortable with formative assessments as the year progresses.

Kristi B.'s picture
Kristi B.
7th Grade Science Teacher St. Paul, MN

With the massive amounts of grading and high class sizes, I am always looking for a quicker way to see where my students are in their understanding of the goal for the day. The days are so busy that often I forget to allow time at the end for doing a formative assessment because I'm finishing giving them directions for whats due the next day etc.

I really want to use exit slips more often, but I want to mix it up a bit more. You mentioned the misconception check which is a great idea. I find this is a great way to direct the next steps of teaching. Another great idea you mentioned was :"Also, to save time, you can present a misconception check in the form of multiple-choice or true/false." It is a simple and easy way for me to check a class response in less than 2 minutes for a simple True/False answer on a piece of paper.

IVA's picture

Your article was very insightful! As a "future teacher in training" and as a parent, I agree that formative or informal assessments are just as important, if not, more so than summative assesments. With informal and formative assessments, teachers will get first hand information of students understanding of the lessons taught in class. Hands on performance with in class projects pertaining to the lesson plan are not only a teacher's way of seeing how much the student understands, but also gives the student insight on just how much they know and they tend to keep the information embedded when they have to explain or present to others.

Jenna's picture

Are their specific subjects you feel that formative assessments are used more or less often. I see myself using them daily in math but rarely in social studies. Do you find any subjects where formative assessments give teachers more information than others or are they just as important all across the curriculum?

MSK's picture
I am a student, Grand Canyon University, Science K-8

I am excite! I enjoyed your article it has truly given me a greater understand of what formative assessments are and how I can use them in my classroom. As a student it also gave me an understanding of what instructors are doing as they constantly test with essays and quizes. Thanks for making it clear and easy to understand.

Jim Britton's picture
Jim Britton
Principal @ Hoffman Estates High School

I agree that formative assessment matters a great deal. In John Hattie's summary of research on "what works" in education, he says, "the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement is feedback." As I read your entry, I was struck by the many ways teachers can adapt your suggestions for formative assessment by using technology. Actual Exit Slips can be converted to a Wiki or GoogleDocs. Student Checklist or Misperception Checks can be done through GoogleForms. Each student's One Sentence Summary can be tweeted to the whole class. The Student's Three Minute Papers can be converted to a Wordle to summarize the collective knowledge of the class. Through these formative assessment strategies, students can guide their own learning. Not only can teachers gain immediate feedback from students, but they can more quickly gather data that informs their instruction. What other ways have teachers found to use technology for formative assessment?

Jordan Johnson's picture
Jordan Johnson
4th grade teacher from Ada, MN

I agree that formative assessments are meant to guide instruction and check student understanding as the unit is progressing. Would an assessment at the end the unit then be summative? I was thinking that summative was the high-stakes testing that we do for the state. Either way, I love the ideas and really like the exit slips!

Stacey's picture
Middle School Social Studies teacher, Bismarck, ND

Formative assessments are an integral piece in any teacher's repertoire. I believe if teachers are continuously checking for student understanding with formative assessments like exit slips and three-minute papers, students will become accustomed to the emphasis of learning concepts and not just getting a test grade. Students may feel more comfortable asking for assistance if they are not feeling the pressure of cramming all of the content into one test and they recognize these daily "check-ins" are meant to help them in the learning process and not hinder or penalize them for forgetting a miniscule detail. Personally, I am going to try to incorporate formative assessments into my daily routine this upcoming school year.

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!

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