What strategy can double student learning gains? According to 250 empirical studies, the answer is formative assessment, defined by Bill Younglove as “the frequent, interactive checking of student progress and understanding in order to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately.”
Unlike summative assessment, which evaluates student learning according to a benchmark, formative assessment monitors student understanding so that kids are always aware of their academic strengths and learning gaps. It also helps teachers improve the effectiveness of their instruction. “When the cook tastes the soup,” writes Robert E. Stake, “that's formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.” Formative assessment can be administered as an exam. But if the assessment is not a traditional quiz, it falls within the category of alternative assessment.
Alternative formative assessment (AFA) strategies can be as simple (and important) as checking the oil in your car—hence the name “dipsticks.” They’re especially effective when students are given tactical feedback, immediately followed by time to practice the skill. My favorite techniques are those with simple directions, like The 60 Second Paper, which asks students to describe the most important thing they learned and identify any areas of confusion in one minute.
You can find another 53 ways to check for understanding toward the end of this post and as a downloadable document.
Observation: A Key Practice in Alternative Formative Assessment
A fundamental element of most AFAs is observation. Rebecca Alber writes there is much to learn by taking observational notes as students work in groups. “However,” she clarifies, “if it is quiet during this talk time, and they are watching you watch them, they are most likely lost.” Elena Aguilar has witnessed “a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher” who directed his students to respond to a story by making hand gestures and holding up picture cards: “In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and provide corrective feedback.”
By methodically watching and recording student performance with a focused observation form, you can learn a lot about students’ levels of understanding in just a few moments. For example, math teacher Taryn Pritchard uses an observation sheet to assess students’ mastery levels in only 10 seconds. Pre-planning methodical observations allow instructors to efficiently and effectively intervene when it counts most—in the instant students start down the wrong path.
New to Alternative Formative Assessment? Start Slow
The National Capital Language Resource Center recommends the following when introducing alternative assessment for the first time:
- Integrate alternative assessments gradually, while still using the traditional assessments.
- Walk students through the rubrics and discuss expectations when you introduce assignments.
- Learn to score alternative assessments yourself, and then gradually introduce students to self-evaluation.
- Teach students how to thoughtfully give each other feedback as you introduce them to peer-response.
A Simple Way to Gain Information From Your Students: Ask Them
When preservice teachers are confused as to why their students perform poorly on an assignment, I gently say, “Did you ask them why?” Having learners articulate why they’re stuck can be profoundly useful for identifying where to target support.
According to the American Institute of Nondestructive Testing, the simplest tool to encourage student self-assessment is evaluative prompts:
- How much time and effort did you put into this?
- What do you think your strengths and weaknesses were in this assignment?
- How could you improve your assignment?
- What are the most valuable things you learned from this assignment?
Learners can respond to those prompts using Padlet, a virtual corkboard where many computer users can simultaneously post their responses; follow up with a focused whole-class discussion of those answers. The instructor doesn’t always have to develop prompts—students can invent and submit one or more potential exam questions and answers on relevant content. Tell them that you’ll include the best contributions on a forthcoming quiz.
Portfolios are a more complex form of ongoing self-assessment, one that can feature in student-led conferences. James Mule, principal of St. Amelia Elementary School in New York, describes how children benefit from the student-led conferences that occur at his institution: “With the student in charge and the teacher acting as a facilitator, the authentic assessment gives students practice in self-evaluation and boosts accountability, self-confidence, and self-esteem.”
The biggest benefit of integrating AFAs into your practice is that students will internalize the habit of monitoring their understanding and adjusting accordingly.
53 Ways to Check for Understanding
- Summary Poem Activity
- Invent the Quiz
- The 411
- Opinion Chart
- So What? Journal
- Rate Understanding
- Clickers (Response System)
- Teacher Observation Checklist
- Compare and Contrast
- Question Stems
- Mind Map
- Intrigue Journal
- 5 Words
- Muddy Moment
- Talk Show Panel
- Study Guide
- KWL Chart
- Sticky Notes Annotation
- Anticipation Guide
- The Minute Paper
- Interview You
- Create a two-column table. Use the left column to write down 5-8 important quotations. Use the right column to record reactions to the quotations.
- Use a comic book creation tool like Bitstrips to represent understanding.
- What are key words that express the main ideas? Be ready to discuss and explain.
- Play the part of a content expert and discuss content-related issues on a podcast, using the free Easypodcast.
- Define _______ in under 140 characters.
- Describe how you solved an academic problem, step by step.
- Dramatize a critical scene from a complex narrative.
- Summarize a narrative that employs a poem or song structure using short stanzas.
- Describe the key features of _______ in a visually and textually compelling pamphlet.
- Each student writes a question about a topic on the front of an envelope; the answer is included inside. Questions are then “mailed” around the room. Each learner writes her answer on a slip of scratch paper and confirms its correctness by reading the “official answer” before she places her own response in the envelope. After several series of mailings and a class discussion about the subject, the envelopes are deposited in the teacher’s letterbox.
- To describe a character or person, write a poem that includes:
- (Line 1) First name
- (Line 2) 3-4 adjectives that describe the person
- (Line 3) Important relationship
- (Line 4) 2-3 things, people, or ideas the person loved
- (Line 5) Three feelings the person experienced
- (Line 6) Three fears the person experienced
- (Line 7) Accomplishments
- (Line 8) 2-3 things the person wanted to see happen or wanted to experience
- (Line 9) His or her residence
- (Line 10) Last name
- Visually represent new knowledge.
- What are the most important takeaways, written with humor?
- Red = "Stop, I need help."
- Green = "Keep going, I understand."
- Yellow = "I'm a little confused."
- Without stopping, write what most confuses you.
- A short, focused discussion between the teacher and student.
- Reflect immediately after an activity.
- Have students reflect on lessons learned during class.
- Given a common misconception about a topic, students explain why they agree or disagree with it.
Other Assessment Resources
In Edutopia’s “The Power of Comprehensive Assessment,” Bob Lenz describes how to create a balanced assessment system.
The Assessment and Rubrics page of Kathy Schrock’s Guide to Everything website hosts many excellent assessment rubrics.
More Rubrics for Assessment are provided by the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
Jon Mueller’s Authentic Tasks and Rubrics is a must see-resource in his Authentic Assessment Toolbox website.