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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

Mike Kolitsky's picture
Mike Kolitsky
retired online University Biology professor

Hi all, I read with great interest all comments and Rebecca's blog and as one who is finding a formative assessment strategy very helpful in my online and face-to-face college classes, I want to pass on what I just presented at the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at Virginia Tech several weeks ago. My presentation titled "Linking Online Formative Assessment With Study Time and Student Learning" can be seen at http://www.nextgenemedia.com/VTpres.html and give it 30 - 60 seconds to download as it is a large Flash file. I am finding some very interesting results using what I call online Quizlets which are small practice tests composed of 10 questions randomly chosen from larger pools of questions for each chapter in a General Biology, Cell Biology and Developmental Biology course taught at Washington College in Chestertown MD. The Quizlets can be taken as many times as students wish but they do not count toward their grade. In short, students who do the Quizlets more have been found to get better scores on the lecture exams that do count toward their grade. I can see as students do the Quizlets more that learning is occurring as better scores appear the more times they take the Quizlets. And, what has been eye-catching for me has been that if I take the average score for the last five Quizlets taken and compare that to the lecture exam score (summative assessment), I find high to strong correlation using R-squared (correlation coefficient conveniently calculated in Excel when the best line fit is produced). This means that it is possible to make good predictions about student performance on summative assessments by looking at their performance on formative assessments. I find that by mining the data in the Blackboard grade book, I can better advise students who do poorly on exams by giving them a way to improve their performance by doing more Quizlets. This works well at the college/university level but I do not know if or how this might be designed to work at the high school level. There has also been an important paper published in Science toward the end of January by Kropickne and Blunt which shows that retrieval practice is better than concept mapping or elaborate studying (cramming) for learning. The Quizlet method of formative assessment is very much, I believe, a form of retrieval practice so I am now wondering how Quizlets can fit within a science curriculum especially when there is such a strong focus in STEM education on methods that are not retrieval practice. If anyone has any ideas about how to integrate the idea of retrieval practice or Quizlets into science education at the high school or even middle school level, I would be delighted to hear them as I am not trained in teaching methods. Thanks to all for your comments and especially to Rebecca for her in depth analysis of formative assessment.


Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

[quote][quote]I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of formative assessments and the need to deliver them in a non-threatening manner. One way to do this not mentioned in your post is by using remote response devices like those created by eInstruction, Turning Technologies, and Renaissance Learning, among others. (I have no current affiliation with any of these firms). When each student has a response device the teacher gets a sample set of 25 out of 25 (in a class of 25) of what students know and don't know -- allowing the teacher to make better instructional decisions in real time.[/quote]

I fully agree with technology being able to help with formative assessments. Not only do students find technology engaging but technology can make the teacher more efficient. Technology can be used to provide content, assess, collect data, and report on student performance.

As an English Language Arts teacher, I found AcademicMerit and fell in love with the tools. So much so, that I actually work for the company.

There are two web-based assessment tools. One is a library of formative assessments based on a library of the 27 most popular titles taught in middle and high school literature classes. The other is a passage-based collection of summative assessment. You can tell that the content is developed by teachers.[/quote]


Thanks for the comments on using technology like handheld response devices where student select a letter for a multiple choice question the teacher presents to them. I've used Quizdom for test prep and it's a fantastic formative assessment for gathering quantitative data.

The startegies/activities I shared in my post largely yield qualitatative data. There's nothing like reading a bit of student writing or hearing them engaged in a conversation. No number or percentage data gives the same deep insights to a teacher as to whether a student understands the process or concept being studied.

Thanks again for your comments,

J Recchio's picture

Formative assessment is crucial in gauging where your students at any given point in a lesson or unit. Just this year I have been fortunate enough to have Senteo Smart Response system clickers in my classroom for use with my Smartboard. They have been a great teaching tool and have allowed me to get immediate feedback on how my students were understanding the content. It has created an opportunity to adjust my teaching to better serve my students. However, how do we move away from the idea in education in which we need to cover a certain amount of information or get through a certain chapter in our text. I feel that at times I feel rushed to get in the material rather than making sure that my students are understanding it. At this feeling often comes from the top down.

Amy Straus's picture

I'm so pleased that you wrote on formative assessment. This is something that I introduce to my grade five students during the first week of school, explaining to them the importance of both them and I understanding what they comprehend at all times during a lesson and unit. I really like to use 'fingers of understanding' -- I'll say "fingers" at several points during a lesson and students show me 1-5 fingers. 1 being "I understand very little of what you've just taught - reteach, please" and 5 being "I've got it -- move on!." Students become very open after awhile with sharing their understanding because they can then look to student experts in the room. They also come to realize that their 'fingers' are not a grade in the grade book, but rather a way for me to help teach them better. Easy and really helps me find those teachable moments in a lesson.

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

Hi Mike, you asked about high school, so I'll tell you. In jr high and high school we deal with unmotivated students. Your quizlets are assignments that are motivating because the title makes them more of a challenge (in a game-like way) to the students. If you called them mini assignments you would not get the same reaction. Some of my students put in very little effort unless the piece of paper in front of them says 'quiz' or 'test'. If I stopped teaching the subject during the quiz or test, these students would miss the only lesson they were motivated to listen to.

Most people say formative assessment means the teacher evaluates what the students learned and can adjust their teaching. I say formative assessment is a chance for the student to evaluate what he or she has learned and can adjust their learning. Formative assessment also may force the student to evaluate their study habits, commitment to their education, and life goals.

The textbook publishers should make more quizzes, one for each section rather than one for every two or three sections. We can then use them in a formative, educational way. The way you and I use quizzes is formative, educational, and student-centered. For more, see my guest blog post: Student Centered Learning Activities

Mike Kolitsky's picture
Mike Kolitsky
retired online University Biology professor

Thanks for your comments on using formative assessment in a high school setting. I liked very much your giving students more responsibility to adjust their learning to the feedback from quizzes, that's been my approach in my college course. I always felt that teaching ought to be a two-way street. They learn something and I do too and if I don't, I feel a little cheated so it's good to expect students to participate in the process of learning. I am slowly being drawn to focusing on the types of questions contained in the Quizlets and the balance of those questions which can be learned through memorization versus those that test analytical and conceptual learning. There is so much focus these days in science education on inquiry-based methods and learning how to do science that learning necessary terms, what can be described as memorization or even retrieval practice, is given little emphasis. I think there ought to be some balance which is determined by the level of course being taught as well as whether the course is a majors course or a non-majors course. I teach a number of courses online with virtual labs, for example, and see a role for both understanding concepts and learning how science is done that is satisfied by simulated learning. Thanks again for your comments.

Mark Heifner's picture

How correct you are! It is not the summative but formative (little) assessments that guide teachers along the way of modifying / tweaking daily lessons and instruction that truly grants us significant progress. Using flexible groups and flexible schedules will grant us more success as we work response to instruction.

Cdettlaff's picture
Reading and math specialist

I thought there was a lot of great ideas on formative assessment.If we use this type of assessment often and correctly, our instruction will tend to slow down but we will discover when we need to re-teach or review materials with our students. I agree with the quote "sometimes we have to slow down in order to go quickly." Why rush through material if your students do not understand it. It is better to make sure they comprehend what you are teaching them before moving on, it will pay off in the long run. I have been doing exit slips with my students. These have been quick effective ways for me to see what they understand and don't understand about the lesson just taught. This really helps me look at what I need to re-teach before moving on.I have also used the activotes with my students. Does anyone else have any other ideas on how to use technology to assess your students?

Brandon's picture

I am a special education teacher at the high school level whose main focus is currently on math. I appreciate the different strategies presented in Rebecca's blog, and have used "exit slips" to check my students' understanding of the concept for the day. Has anyone used other strategies to do a quick check in a math class? I do get to know my students fairly well because I have smaller class sizes than most typical high school classes, but I'm always looking for new, creative ways to check for understanding besides the traditional quizzes.

Karla Valenti's picture
Karla Valenti
Empowering parents to empower their children (www.totthoughts.com)

I think Paul raises an excellent point regarding self-evaluations. It is critical that children feel that they are equal contributors in their own knowledge-acquisition and enabling them to assess their own performance, to identify their mistakes and rectify them is a positive and constructive approach to learning.

I actually use a similar technique with my kids when we give them time-outs. Similarly to what was referenced in the article, we are not using time-outs to show them who's in charge or teach them to pay attention next time but rather to give our kids an opportunity to sit in their room and think about the situation that gave rise to the time-out, their behavior and how to manage it in a more productive way. This approach empowers them to learn how to handle conflicting situations and people on their own. Ultimately, if we are able to empower our children to learn, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

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