It’s always better to know if a student is struggling before a big test is in the rearview mirror. But students often lack the self-awareness to monitor their own learning, and may struggle to work up the courage to ask for help. Others may overestimate their mastery of important ideas and concepts, tricking their brains into thinking they’re prepared for a test when they’re not.
So when it comes to student learning, how can you tell what's sticking—and where additional instruction or review could make a difference?
Formative assessments are typically short, gradeless ways to evaluate what students know while they’re still in the process of learning it. When used early and often, they can shine a light on individual student progress, serve as general indicators of how the class is doing as a whole, and inform subsequent instruction. This process of actively checking in with students on their journey toward mastery is “especially effective when students are given tactical feedback, immediately followed by time to practice the skill,” says Todd Finley, a tenured professor of English education at East Carolina University.
Quick checks for understanding aren’t new, of course, but when time allows, occasionally injecting an element of creativity into formative assessments can deliver unexpected benefits. For example—regardless of a student's artistic talent—research suggests that drawing the information they’re learning can increase student recall by nearly double. And when kids are encouraged to tap into their imagination to show what they know, they tend to ask more innovative questions of themselves, brainstorm fresh solutions to problems, and synthesize material in original and surprising ways.
Here are 13 formative assessment strategies that lean into creativity—inspired by the work of several Edutopia contributors, and from Finley’s handy list of quick checks for understanding.
Simple Symbols: Sketchnoting—simple, hand-drawn renderings of things like facts, dates, or abstract concepts—can be a great way to help students process vocabulary. Educator Wendi Pillars has her students co-create a symbolic language library, working together to visually represent important terms from a unit. After choosing 10 terms, students develop an icon or character to correspond with each one. For example, a drawing of a sun can represent energy or a tree can represent life.
Write a Letter: On a sheet of paper or an index card, ask students to explain a new concept they've learned in the form of a short letter to a friend or family member, pretending the other person is new to the information. This process of explanation can open students' eyes to what they know and what they don't, explains Woo-Kyoung Ahn, a psychology professor at Yale University who uses a similar strategy with college students before exams.
Tweet Like a Historian: Challenge students to enter the minds of popular historical figures, tweeting about major events in the figure’s life as that person would have, suggests former educator Matthew Lynch. To get a firm grasp on how well students understand their chosen figure, ask who their figure might be following on social media, as well as topics that would be “trending” on their feed at the time. Educator Jill Fletcher prefers to use a paper template so that students can engage in the exercise without going online.
Playful Pamphlets: An effective brochure is easy and engaging to read, and offers eye-catching design. Ask students to create their own brochures that describe the key features of a concept, or to explain a historical event or scientific discovery. This can be done using paper and art materials, or digitally using applications like Canva or Google Slides.
Do It Yourself TED Talks: Most students are familiar with TED Talks, this strategy provides them with the opportunity to give their own. Educator Katy Farber describes them as "one person’s short presentation of an idea worth spreading." After showing an example that students can model, ask them to find an idea worthy of spreading from the day's lesson and create their own speeches to present the information. Those who feel comfortable can share with the class.
Comic Creators: Using digital creation tools like Canva, kids can create their own comic strips to connect new material and information from past units. The comics shouldn’t be a "regurgitation of knowledge," explains Andrew Miller, director of teaching and learning at the Singapore American School. Instead, they should have an authentic purpose, making it a fulfilling exercise where students create products that are informative and useful to peers. After a lesson on nutrition, for example, students could make comics that explain the major nutrients—as well as the role they play in how bodies function—that could be displayed in hallways for classmates to learn from.
Build-a-Billboard: Have small groups work together to create an advertisement, with visuals and text, to highlight a newly learned concept like Manifest Destiny or the scientific method. Students in San Francisco Unified School District health classrooms learn about tools advertisers use to convince people to buy their products, then create their own billboards. "If you were going to make an ad for your favorite fruit or vegetable, what techniques would you use?” asks health ed content specialist Christopher Pepper.
Sing It Out: Asking students to sing or rap about a lesson can be a fun change of pace—and rack up a few giggles. First, students identify the main concept of a lesson and list related keywords. In a rap about the order of operations, for example, educator Alex Kajitani lists “operations, order, parenthesis, exponent, multiply, divide, add, and subtract.” Using the website RhymeZone.com helps identify what words rhyme with each key term, then students can begin writing their rap, song, or even spoken word poem.
Illustrate Connections: “A student who draws as they learn considers the following: How should I represent the relationship between these parts? How large/small should I draw these parts? What shape should they be? Where do I place each part?,” explains instructional leader Shveta Miller. Invite students to draw a picture that illustrates a relationship between terms from the lesson or recreates a scene from their reading. Providing reflection questions like "How well did I recall the material after having represented it in my drawings?" or “When would drawing as I learn be useful? When is it not useful?” can be a useful add-on to the exercise.
60 Minutes: Students pair up and pretend they're a guest expert on the television program 60 Minutes or their local news broadcast. During their segment, they'll need to answer a few of their partner's interview-style questions—"What is the purpose of feudalism in a society?," for example.
Laughable Lists: At the end of a lesson or once students have finished assigned reading, ask them to enumerate what they think are the top ten most important takeaways. The twist? Students will have to try to infuse humor into their list of observations. Sharing a few examples before they begin can help students who might struggle with the exercise at first.
Cut and Paste: Encourage students—on their own, in pairs, or in groups—to make either digital or paper collages to demonstrate their understanding of the lesson's major themes and concepts: anything from matter and energy, to fractions and decimals. If time allows, have a few kids present their collages to the rest of the class and explain their thinking.
3-2-1 Action!: Choose a selection of excerpts from a recently read text—like a poem, play, or a short story—for students to dramatically interpret and perform. Without the use of props, costuming, or sets, students must not only have read the text but understood it enough to convey an insightful character analysis, as well as the mood and tone of the scene. These 5-minute performances can be recorded and submitted to the teacher to review, or shared in class for peers to see.