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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A few months ago, I wrote for Edutopia.org about the power of focusing on a few, high-priority standards as a strategy to improve student learning. Many other elements also need to be in play in a classroom in order to produce the results that we all want to see for our students.

To name just a few: The learning environment needs to be one in which students feel respected and safe to take risks; kids need to feel that their learning has a purpose and that the curriculum is relevant to their lives; and students need feedback on their progress -- they need to know what they're trying to accomplish, where they are in relation to the goal, and what they need to do in order to get there.

It is the teacher's role to make sure this happens.

The Multi-Tasking Teacher

Although to be an effective teacher it often feels like you need to be one of those Hindu gods with a dozen arms, I believe that educators do need to hold standards and objectives in one hand and formative assessments in the other. We then need to juggle them back and forth. It's essential to break down a high-priority standard into bite size learning objectives that are measurable and then it's absolutely critical to have a way to check, every single day, on how well students mastered that objective.

Having a well-written learning objective, in student-friendly language, is not enough.

This isn't easy. In fact, there's nothing easy about teaching. But it is essential that every time students leave our classroom, we ask a number of questions:

  • How do I know that they learned what I wanted them to learn?
  • How well did they learn the objective?
  • Who mastered it and who didn't?
  • Which parts of the objective did students struggle with? What misconceptions did they have?

If we don't answer these questions, all of our careful planning and breaking down of standards and creating a positive learning environment and making curriculum relevant is useless.

As educators, we are responsible for learning, not teaching.

So how do we do assess every day how well students mastered the objectives?

The Key: Formative Assessment

A lot has been written about on-going, formative assessments, but my favorite resource is Checking for Understanding by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey This book is a quick and easy read, very accessible and full of dozens of ways to thoughtfully and systematically monitor student learning.

Fisher and Frey define a formative assessment as one that serves to improve instruction and provide student feedback and which is administered throughout instruction. Students use the results to monitor their own learning; teachers use the results to check for understanding and then to plan their next instructional moves.

In contrast, a summative assessment is administered at the end of a course or unit, and is used to measure student competency. Teachers use these results for grades.

If formative assessments are used consistently, and used well, neither a teacher nor a student should ever be surprised by his/her final grade, and I would argue that the great majority of students should be successful.

A Few Examples

Formative assessments can be:

  • Questioning strategies that are used with the whole group or individuals
  • Think-pair-share, during which the teacher circulates and listens to students sharing
  • Individual mini-white boards for ongoing assessment during a lesson
  • An "exit ticket," which is a quarter or half sheet of paper where students write about their learning for the day, or answer a brief question or two
  • Hand signals, as a quick and easy way to check for understanding

I imagine that most teachers are familiar with these strategies and many others.

Recently I observed a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher who used a variety of formative assessment techniques to ensure that students mastered their objective (to analyze characters and identify the setting in a picture book).

As the teacher read the story, she instructed students to use specific hand gestures when they heard repetitive phrases and to repeat those phrases out loud. This engaged students, assured that they were following the language patterns, and allowed the teacher to check that all students heard and understood a repeating phrase (important oral language development for English Language Learners).

Then she had students talk to each other about the characters and share their ideas with the whole group. Finally, she distributed three response cards to the children: one card said "who," another said "when," and the last said "where."

The teacher named a character or aspect of the setting, such as "sheep," and students had to hold up the card that identified the literary element. In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and to provide corrective feedback.

Planning is a Must

When I write lesson plans, I have a column in which I write the activity that students will do or where I detail my instructional moves. Next to that is another column where I identify the formative assessment strategies that I will use during those activities.

In order for my checking for understanding to be as useful as possible, I need to carefully plan and consider which strategy will be most effective with the planned activity. If I don't plan, I tend to use a few strategies over and over, or I don't get the most accurate data. This doesn't mean that I don't throw in a spontaneous strategy now and then, but it assures me that I'll get the student data I need by the end of that lesson.

What have you learned about formative assessments from using them? Do you have a strategy to check for understanding that you find effective? Please share your ideas and expertise with us!

Comments (69)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Telena Ellis's picture

You provided very helpful tools for teachers to make sure that students are actually learning. I like the hand signals when introducing a new concept. I have used thumbs up, thumbs down and thumbs sideways. The sideway thumb signal meant not sure, maybe need more information. This was a great resource for me to see if I was on track with my lesson and the students really benefitted from the signals. I was able to redirect my teaching methods immediately to ensure they understood. I think that using some of the other methods you mentioned and reflecting on what works and what doesn't will definitely make a better learning environment for the students.
Your post sparked so many great ideas that others have tried too. I really enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for sharing.

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching

Checking for Understanding is a very important responsibility of every teacher. We cannot assume that because "we taught it the students learned it." Often our sense of our own effectiveness as teachers is skewed. We look at an incomplete data set, and we tend to look at the data we want to look at. It is very imperative that we check for understanding, deep understanding of what students are supposed to have learned.

I wrote a blog entry on what is means to teach for understanding. See it at:


While not complete, it does give some insight into the current thinking about what is means and how to do it. I think this is important literature for teachers to familiarize themselves with.

Let's continue this conversation going deeper into how to achieve classrooms where students are learning deeply.

Bob Ryshke
Center for Teaching

Denise Littman's picture
Denise Littman
Student in master's degree program

The key to Checking for Understanding is planning. When designing a lesson around essential questions and assessment FOR learning (as in the Understanding by Design method), the question of checking for understanding becomes moot.

Doing research for different forms of assessment this evening, I came upon a wonderful website that described the method of;
Assessment AS Learning
Assessment FOR Learning
Assessment OF Learning


Rheunnette Haire's picture

Hello Elena , Great post, it has help me in more ways then one. I believe thatit will help other teachers that are having the same problems. I also believe that it take us as educator to us as many means necessary to teach our students. I agree that we need to break down barriers in order for learning to take place. Students need to know what they are learning each day not just at testing times. The environment has to be a place where there is freedom to learn. These are not the kind of things I am use too but I am willing to change because I believe that it will make a different in my class, with their motivation, and behavior.

Jennifer Sickels's picture
Jennifer Sickels
2nd Grade Teacher, ND

Great post Elena! I totally agree that we need to make sure our students are clearly understanding what is being taught. So many times I see educators throwing tests out and moving on just to get a score. One program I have implemented in my classroom is The Daily 5 and one area that we teach our students to practice is Check for Understanding. This is useful for them to use because it allows them to use it in the other subject areas as well. We also do think-alouds which really gets them thinking. Formative assessments are key to learning. It is very important to also develop a family-like atmosphere and really get to know your students so we know exactly where they are at and what skills they need to work on.

MariaC's picture

Checking for understanding is an essential issue in education. As educators, we need to be aware that there is no sense in teaching, unless all of our students are learning. Our school created a professional development committee designed to instill and support this practice among our teachers. We use the Fisher and Frey (2007) book as our guide. Our educators have learned many different strategies to check for their students understanding. Many of these techniques can be used all the way from PreK to 12th grade.

Rheunnette Haire's picture

Hi, I think that your Imformative assessments will target learning.It will help build self esteem. I already do some of the assessments such as, ticket out the door, whiteborard responds, respond cards, but I do Yes, No, and May be cards. I agree that we must be sure that our students are retaining each day, and informative assessment will let us know right then. Your idea will definiely be a plus

Rheunnette Haire's picture

I feel you pain. Teaching is no fun when you are fed up. I agree with scott, "we should not be judged on our teaching as much as we should be judged on students learning. I love informative assessement, it is the way to go. You can see what the student knows quickly. This will let you know if and when reteaching is necessary. Do not worry so much we are in this together. Thank for the great post everyone need to know.

Kellie's picture

These are wonderful ideas! As a kindergarten teacher with 26 students these assessments are an easy way for me to check for understanding. I already have some of these ideas in use including whiteboards, hand signals, and think-pair-share. Thanks for the helpful tips!

djrice's picture
1st grade teacher MN

Great ideas for formative assessment! I use questions strategies with the whole group or individuals, mini-white boards and hand signals, but need to get better at using think-pair-share and exit tickets. I agree with your statement: Teachers are responsible for learning, not teaching. I am going to get your book recommendation Checking for Understanding by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Fey. It sounds like it has great ways to help teachers with formative assessments. I also think your suggestion of putting what type of formative assessment I am going to use in my lesson plan will help me be a more effective teacher. I tend to like to use the same ones.

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