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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

Paul Bogdan's picture
Paul Bogdan
Student-Centered Secondary Math Teacher

Most teachers seem to think that formative assessment is going to fix their teacher-centered lecture-based classrooms. It won't. Whenever we give the kids a chance to think, or reflect, or some responsibility, we get smarter more responsible children. Why are we surprised? The answer to how I can teach better is to be more student-centered. Formative assessment is so the kids know what questions they need answered, not to figure out what the teacher did wrong.

I read that the MIT Physics department is giving up their big lectures and is going to smaller classes that are 'interactive, collaborative, and student-centered' (MIT article). A response to my blog article was from a math teacher who uses podcasts to replace her lectures. What a great idea! I feel so stupid for not thinking of it myself.

Have a good week.

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

As a writing teacher, I find formative evaluations have a strong motivational effect. Students feel more secure trying to write if they know somebody is watching and will intervene so they don't have to suffer a really bad grade. That's especially important in short courses where students may get only three or four chances to master difficult skills.

Sometimes I give students an A for doing X-percent of the evaluations, F for falling short. (I've never had to give an F.) Students put in a bit more thought when a grade is involved, even though they aren't being graded on the content of their posts. They watch their attendance, too.

Junaid Ahmad's picture
Junaid Ahmad
Want to be a successful educator in the subject of Chemistry

Definitely, using words like "quiz" or "test" is a good idea. This way students will make a good, strong effort. The questions asked in these quizzes should, however, give students the freedom of expressing themselves. I believe something as a short written response by the students will be best so the students can express how much of the material he or she has learned during the lesson.

retzerk's picture

I teach 6th grade LA. I keep hearing about formative and summative assessments that are taking place in classrooms. What is done with the assessment data? I know how I use the data in my classroom but I am curious how other teachers use the data? I sure hope that data the data that is collected on each students is not just written down in a portfolio. All the data collected from each student is a great tool for developing individual lessons based on needs.

kaseyrae's picture

I agree that formative assessments are a crucial component in the teaching and learning process because it informs teachers of student progress. I really like the examples you provided about different ways to check for understanding especially student checklists, exit slips, and one sentence summaries. In previous internships, I used exit slips often because they are a quick and simple, but effective way to check for student learning. Exit slips and other types of formative assessment would help me know how to accommodate and modify instruction to meet the needs of all students in my class. I also like what was stated about the power of observation and how formative assessment can be as simple as "watch, look, and listen." Checklists are a practical tool that I see myself using often to monitor progress and understanding. Thank you for sharing the related resources links.

sryan's picture

I completely agree with your watch, look, and listen section. I have found observational, anecdotal notes to be some of the most beneficial informal assessment information I collect. It took several years for me to realize the value of these notes. I had a pre-conceived idea that for an assessment to "real" (formative or summative) it had to pre-created, administered in a structured manner, and scored. Over the years, I developed a system for taking, recording, and organizing observational notes. They have been key in informing my instruction, keeping me tuned in to student needs, and helping me communicate student development to parents. A further benefit is that they keep me from overlooking students because I use color coded stickies to indicate when I last checked in with a student. I was surprised to see that there were a few students that continually slipped through the cracks, for a variety of reasons. Observational notes remind me to check in consistently with every child.

eadouglas's picture

I agree completely! I think the day to day formative assessments are what should be guiding our teaching. I think that you can get useful information from summative assessments, but too much emphasis is being placed on them. Exactly what you stated, 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. If you discover a students hasn't grasped a concept on the big test, then it is too late! Thank you for your ideas on how to check for understanding. I especially like the exit ticket idea! One that has worked well for me is using a clip board with index cards for anecdotal notes.

SKteacher's picture

I have really enjoyed reading all of the posts. Formative assessment is so important. I know that I feel like I have to fly through my curriculum to get everything covered, and often I lose some of my students along the way. So, I have slowed down and used a lot of informal assessments. I teach third grade, so I use a lot of observation. After each skill, I try to assess whether or not my students have understood a concept, and it guides my future instruction. Using small reading and math groups really helps me to see where my students are. I also use sticky notes to quickly assess if students have grasped a skill. It is similar to exit slips. They love using sticky notes, and I can quickly flip through them to see who needs more help.

Tina's picture
Grade 10 and 11 Developmental English teacher

Thanks for sharing this idea for observational notes. I like the idea of using the sticky notes so students don't slip through the cracks. I teach developmental English classes. With large class sizes and students with many varying needs, it is easy to overlook some of them. Do you keep the same observational notes during the entire unit or during the entire semester?

katiek's picture

As a music teacher, I see a lot of kids for short periods of time. I like some of the quick formative assessment ideas like the exit slip or the 3 minute paper. One sentence summary may work well too. I have in the past lined kids up by if Billy could answer quick review question, all the kids in his row could line up too. If Billy does not, shows me what I need to reteach and lets kids in row help to teach each other.

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