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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

betzold's picture
Eighth grade math teacher from Jamestown, ND

Thanks for the great information! I really enjoyed reading the various ways to assess a student's knowledge over the lesson(s)taught. I know in the past when I was in school and even a few teachers that I have observed, most math teachers assessed students short-term by giving quizzes. With the research done over the past 10-15 years, I have noticed that more educators believe students learn better using frequent formative assessments.

Are there any teachers on this site that have used any of the formative assessments mentioned above and if so, which one(s) do you like the best?


Jen's picture
Curriculum Coordinator - Southwest MN

I really appreciated reading and learned from your blog! I work with schools that aren't making AYP as well as a shared curriculum coordinator. Every time I work with a Leadership Team on their AYP Improvement Plan, effective use of formative assessments come up. Typically, there is a lot of confusion with simply defining what it is, and sometimes that is followed-up with resistance to using it because..."I can't assign a grade to that." This blog summed up in a 5 minute read everything that formative assessment encapsulates. Your tips throughout the blog are great, and I'm working hard to find a way to bridge teachers' curriculum maps to formative assessments. Currently, formative assessments are not evident in the maps, but that is our ultimate goal: to develop strong, standards-driven curriculum that allows for differentiation based on formative assessments. Is there a clean or organized way to approach that? Have you come across curriculum maps that include formative assessments for a unit? Is that even possible?

djrice's picture
1st grade teacher MN

I really enjoyed your article on formative assessments. The longer I am in education the faster I feel my students are being pushed and raced through the curriculum. Our math curriculum says if they don't get it move on to the next chapter. It will come up again! I have a very hard time with this!
I know that I am guilty of asking, "Are there any questions?" Pause for three seconds no one says anything and I move on. I have never used exit slips but have heard about them when I took Responsive Classroom training last summer. I had forgotten about them, so this article was a good reminder on something I wanted to try. I have never heard of the student checklist before and found that interesting for self-assessing too. Thank you also for sharing the other blog Assessment Blog Carnival: More Than Quizzes and Tests. It looks like another good blog to checkout.

Julie B's picture
Julie B
Third Grade Teacher

I've used exit slips successfully in math. I have used it vaguely, where students record one thing they learned or found helpful for using the strategy the class worked on, such as ungrouping with subtraction. Other times I've given a specific question on which students were responsible for recording their thinking on that particular thought. It's a great culminating activity for students to review and think about what they've learned, as well as self-assess, to see where they are at on a particular skill or a given day. Exit slips encourage students to take ownership for their learning. I'd like to use exit slips more often, as it seems motivating for students when they know they are expected to record their thinking and learning at the end of a lesson.

Derek's picture

I really liked some of the ideas you gave in terms of these formative assessments. I liked the 3 minute paper idea, the checklist, and the one-sentence summary. The checklist really allows the students to see what they need to accomplish and direct them in the correct direction. The 3 minute paper and 1 sentence summary allows the stduents to reflect at different points along the unit to check for understanding. I completely agree sometimes teachers and even students are just interested in the end results or completion. Most of the time, understanding is lost because of the end results which is often times a final test, final score, final grade type thing. Having formative checks along the way is really important to put the ownership on the understanding part.

Lisa's picture

This blog made a lot of really good points. It made me really stop and think about how do I know if my students are learning if I don't take the time to use formative assessments. This is how so many students get left behind. I remember being in 4th grade myself and in math I really struggled. Being a shy student I never asked for help and each day I felt like my teacher left me further and further behind. I really liked the ideas that this blog provided as ways to do quick formative assessments on your students, for example: exit slips, student checklists, misconceptions checks,three minute paper, one sentence summary. I will for sure be giving a few of these a try with my students in the future.

Tina's picture

Thanks for the great blog! I enjoy reading blogs written by actual teachers! You gave information and then gave useful helpful ideas to go along with it. So many times people tell you that something is important but don't give you any ideas on how to use it. I couldn't agree more how important formative assessment is and how it is so often overlooked. To me it is common sense! I know that summative assessment is important but you don't get good results to those tests without some formative assessment. It is frustrating being a teacher and being forced to rush through many things to make sure that we get it in. Teaching is much more effective if we stop and check for understanding. I plan on using some of your ideas in my classroom!

Linda Aragoni's picture
Linda Aragoni
Publisher of internet educational materials

This post in February got me thinking about formative assessments. I recently began a series in my ezine, Writing Points, in which I give examples of using informal writing to teach and to provide formative assessment. The July 2011 issue, for example, has an article "3 ELA topics in 1-sentence mini-lesson for struggling students".

The examples I use in the lessons typically use sentences I pull from newspapers I see on my online news editor job. That means they are both current and accessible via internet. I think it's valuable for students to see that the kinds of issues they have to wrestle with in their writing are common to all writers. It's also good for students to know their teacher reads.

Douglas Green's picture

Another big key for valuable formative assessment is that results are not used to generate grades. As soon as you use it for grading the games will begin. It will also reduce motivation. Better yet, scrap grades altogether. The fall into the category of extrinsic motivation. Research shows that it doesn't work and can even have a negative impact. See the summary of "Drive" by Daniel Pick for details at http://bit.ly/jl7ara.

Jen's picture
High School Math Teacher, Minnesota

I love this 3 minute paper idea.
I think my students may spend more time thinking up examples of how to show what they know than actually writing down their thoughts, but I think it will provide useful information none the less. Thank you!

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