Formative Assessment

Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding

Through alternative formative assessment, teachers can check for student understanding without falling back on the tedious or intimidating pop quiz.

July 30, 2014

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

53 Ways to Check for Understanding
This big, printable list of assessment strategies will help you identify new ways to check for understanding and verify what students have learned.
pdf 43.44 KB
    • List 10 key words from an assigned text.
    • Do a free verse poem with the words you highlighted.
    • Write a summary of the reading based on these words.
    • Write ten higher-order text questions related to the content. Pick two and answer one of them in half a page.
    • Describe the author’s objective.
    • List opinions about the content in the left column of a T-chart, and support your opinions in the right column.
    • Identify the main idea of the lesson. Why is it important?
    • Explain the main idea using an analogy.
    • What is the author's main point? What are the arguments for and against this idea?
    • What are the important characteristics or features of the main concept or idea of the reading?
    • Pick out an important word or phrase that the author of a text introduces. What does it mean?
    • Identify the theory or idea the author is advancing. Then identify an opposite theory. What are the similarities and differences between these ideas?
    • I believe that ________ because _______.
    • I was most confused by X.
    • Create a mind map that represents a concept using a diagram-making tool (like Gliffy). Provide your teacher/classmates with the link to your mind map.
    • List the five most interesting, controversial, or resonant ideas you found in the readings. Include page numbers and a short rationale (100 words) for your selection.
    • Create an ad, with visuals and text, for the newly learned concept.
    • What five words would you use to describe ______? Explain and justify your choices.
    • What frustrates and confuses you about the text? Why?
    • Create a collage around the lesson's themes. Explain your choices in one paragraph.
    • Explain _______ in a letter to your best friend.
    • Have a cast of experts debate the finer points of X.
    • What are the main topics, supporting details, important person's contributions, terms, and definitions?
    • Draw a picture that illustrates a relationship between terms in the text. Explain in one paragraph your visual representation.
    • What do you know, what do you want to know, and what have you learned?
    • Use sticky notes to describe key passages that are notable or that you have questions about.
    • Three things you found out.
    • Two interesting things.
    • One question you still have.
    • Represent the organization of X by outlining it.
    • Establish a purpose for reading and create post-reading reflections and discussion.
    • What we learned today is like X.
    • In one minute, describe the most meaningful thing you've learned.
    • You’re the guest expert on 60 Minutes. Answer:
      1. What are component parts of _______?
      2. Why does this topic matter?
  • Double Entry Notebook
    • 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.
  • Comic Book
    • Use a comic book creation tool like Bitstrips to represent understanding.
  • Tagxedo
    • What are key words that express the main ideas? Be ready to discuss and explain.
  • Classroom TED Talk
  • Podcast
    • Play the part of a content expert and discuss content-related issues on a podcast, using the free Easypodcast.
  • Create a Multimedia Poster with Glogster
  • Twitter Post
    • Define _______ in under 140 characters.
  • Explain Your Solution
    • Describe how you solved an academic problem, step by step.
  • Dramatic Interpretation
    • Dramatize a critical scene from a complex narrative.
  • Ballad
    • Summarize a narrative that employs a poem or song structure using short stanzas.
  • Pamphlet
    • Describe the key features of _______ in a visually and textually compelling pamphlet.
  • You've Got Mail
    • 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.
  • Bio Poem
    • 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
  • Sketch
    • Visually represent new knowledge.
  • Top Ten List
    • What are the most important takeaways, written with humor?
  • Color Cards
    • Red = "Stop, I need help."
    • Green = "Keep going, I understand."
    • Yellow = "I'm a little confused."
  • Quickwrite
    • Without stopping, write what most confuses you.
  • Conference
    • A short, focused discussion between the teacher and student.
  • Debrief
    • Reflect immediately after an activity.
  • Exit Slip
    • Have students reflect on lessons learned during class.
  • Misconception Check
    • 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.

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    • Differentiated Instruction

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