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Formative Assessment

28 Ways to Quickly Check for Understanding

From sketching comics to drafting tweets, these fun—and fast—ways to check for understanding are creative and flexible.

April 19, 2024

Quick learning “pulse checks” during and after lessons can be a powerful way to “improve and enhance student learning,” says veteran teacher and author Jay McTighe. Designed to assess students’ understanding of concepts or their ability to apply new skills, formative assessments can also inform next instructional steps.

Importantly, they’re generally not graded, since the point of these in-process checks is to “obtain feedback to use in improving teaching and learning, not to evaluate learning,” McTighe clarifies. “It’s important that students understand the purpose of these techniques, that mistakes are OK—and even expected—and that they will not be graded on their responses.”

Drawing from our archives and hundreds of comments on the topic from educators across our social media channels, we compiled a list of quick, low-stakes—and fun!—formative assessments designed to offer a variety of low-lift, flexible options in your classroom.

Write a Headline: Following a lesson, ask students to write a headline about it. Teacher Sarah Cook caps her students’ headlines at six words: “They really have to think about what is most crucial to say,” she writes on our Facebook feed.

Sit Down/Stand Up: Midway through a lesson, or at the end, ask the class several true/false questions related to what you just covered and have them stand up if they agree, stay seated if they don’t, or squat if they’re uncertain, suggests educator Celeste Kirsh. To make kids comfortable, educator Jess Mark asks students to keep their eyes shut during this quick check for understanding.

Draw a Comic: After a lesson, “ask students to draw the lesson in a comic strip—max five frames,” proposes educator Kim Allsup, then have them explain the comic to classmates. It’s a helpful review strategy, and kids gain insights into what their peers found important about the lesson, says Allsup.

Color Cards: Periodically, stop the lesson and have students hold up color cards. Green means “Keep going, I understand”; yellow means “I’m a little confused”; red means “Stop, I need help.” We heard several variations: Bobin Manchanda has students write their names on Post-it notes and stick them in green, yellow, or red zones on the board. Sarah Marlatt Petrie’s students place a green or red dot on their desk to show their understanding, an approach that helps “other students identify an ‘expert’ when working in groups or pairs,” Petrie writes.

Mini Debate: In class, select a few student “experts” to debate or discuss a topic you’ve just covered while the rest of the class listens, suggests Todd Finley, a professor of English education at East Carolina University. If you record it, you can even have students turn the discussion into a mini podcast using free audio editing software like Audacity.

Connect to Your Life: Educator Sarah Nawras Sandouk uses a strategy that she calls Connect to Life Objective. “Whether it’s a poem, a text, a history fact, or even a grammar rule,” she asks students to explain how they’ll use something they’ve learned in their day-to-day lives.

Create a Quiz: Students can write a set of test questions related to the lesson they’ve just had, then pick two of them to answer in a paragraph, Finley suggests. For a twist, consider having students trade papers to answer each other’s questions.

Quick Check-In: At the end of class, ask students to “take a selfie, or use an emoji, that represents how you felt about today’s lesson,” proposes teacher Tarita Reeves. “Include a caption that tells what you learned that made you feel this way.”

Compose an Acrostic: Have students pick a vocabulary word or key term from the day’s lesson and write an acrostic poem—a short poem where each line begins with the next letter in the chosen word—suggests Kristin Shapiro.

Knowledge Walk: On the whiteboard or on sticky notes hung around the class, students can write a single sentence summarizing something new they learned, says educator Greg Evans on our thread on X. Then the class strolls around the classroom reading what their peers have written.

Have a Chat: If you have the time, quick one-on-one conversations with students—scheduled or off the cuff—can reveal what they understand and what they’re struggling with. “Five minutes per student would take quite a bit of time,” says educator and education researcher Laura Thomas, “but you don’t have to talk to every student about every project or lesson.”

Tweet It: Have students write a 280-character tweet summarizing a central takeaway from the lesson, suggests Finley. And if there’s time, have students write responses to each other’s tweets, says educator Jackie Ferguson. Consider having students generate related keywords or hashtags, too.

Use Your Hands: McTighe recommends hand signals to quickly gauge kids’ understanding:

  • Thumbs up: I understand _____ and can explain it in my own words.
  • Wave hand: I’m not completely sure about _____ and doubt I could explain it.
  • Thumbs down: I don’t yet understand _____ and cannot explain it.

Holding up fingers also works, says Sherri Rockstad Simpson, who asks students to hold up fingers from one to five to quickly show their level of understanding. 

Note It: Ask students to write one takeaway from the lesson on a sticky note, then affix the notes to a poster or whiteboard so classmates can browse and learn from their peers, suggests educator Kim Roberts.

Misconception Check: Give students a common misconception about the topic they’re studying. Their first challenge is to identify the flaw or error in the statement, says McTighe. The bigger challenge: correct the error with an accurate explanation.

Assess Yourself: The ability to assess their own learning is an important metacognitive skill for students. “You can give your rubric to your students and have them spot their strengths and weaknesses,” says Thomas. For a lighter lift, write three or four topics on the board that you think the whole class should work on, then have students write their names under the topic they need the most help with.

Just One Word: Have students provide a single word to describe a person, event, or concept they learned about. “I’m always amazed at the creative, thought-provoking words the kids come up with,” writes Meredith Adelman.

Summary Poem: Ask students to list 10 useful vocabulary words from an assigned text, then write a free-verse poem using those words, says Finley. Or have them write a quick summary of the reading that incorporates their 10 chosen vocab words.

Concept Maps: Many teachers use graphic organizers and concept maps to support learning—but they can also work as formative assessments, writes McTighe. For example, students might draw a visual web of factors affecting plant growth or develop a concept map to illustrate how a bill becomes a law.

Help Me Plan: At the end of a lesson, educator Mark Hansen breaks his class into small groups at separate tables to discuss how their learning went. Groups report back to Hansen to share “what we should review or clarify tomorrow, and where we should go deeper.”

3-2-1: Many teachers in our audience check for understanding via 3-2-1 prompts—with some interesting variations. Meghan Mannarino asks for three things students learned, two things they found interesting, and one question they have. Jessica Case-Martinez, meanwhile, starts her 3-2-1 by asking for three words to describe the day; Lorraine says on Instagram that she ends with one connection they can make about the class material.

A $2 Summary: Tell students that they have a $2.00 budget to summarize the day’s lesson or a recent reading, and each word costs 10 cents. Besides quickly showing students’ grasp of the lesson’s key idea, this activity gets elementary-age students engaging in mathematical thinking, says educator Sunaina Sharma.

What Are Others Wondering?: To avoid the sea of blank stares after he prompts his class to ask questions, educator Paul Holimon suggests a different approach: Ask students to “think of a question you think someone else in the class might have about today’s lesson. This solves the problem of a student thinking, ‘I don’t have any questions.’”

Vote With Your Feet: Hang four signs in the corners of your classroom: “Agree,” “Mostly Agree,” “Mostly Disagree,” and “Disagree.” Then read statements related to the day’s lesson—for example, “Orwell was trying to call attention to animal rights with Old Major’s speech”—and ask students to agree or disagree by migrating to the appropriate corner of the room, writes an educator from Rhode Island on Instagram. 

One Minute Jot: Teacher Angie Huels gives students 60 seconds to write a reflection on the day’s lesson, answering the following prompts: Name the most important thing you learned in class today; what questions do you still have?; and offer a suggestion about our class.

Help a Classmate: At the end of a lesson, students with questions can write them on the whiteboard, and classmates who think they know the answer can write a response below the question—or volunteer to discuss the topic one-on-one, writes educator Heather Brown.

Get Creative: “Whether students draw, create a collage, or sculpt,” a creative formative assessment can help students “synthesize their learning,” writes Thomas. “They can create a dance to model cell mitosis or act out stories like Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ to explore the subtext,” she adds.

Teach Someone: To expose gaps in students’ understanding, ask them to “teach a new concept or skill to someone else—a new student, a student who has just returned from absence, or a younger child,” writes McTighe. Or have students write a letter explaining a new concept to a friend, Finley suggests.


What are your favorite ways to check for understanding? Please share your strategies and ideas in the comments so other teachers can try them out in their classrooms.

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