Frictionless Formative Assessment with Social Media

May 20, 2014         Updated May 8, 2014
Image credit: Thinkstock

In a seminal experience sampling study (EMS), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gave beepers to teenagers with instructions to write down what they were feeling and thinking whenever the devices went off. This simple technique, randomly checking in with students throughout the day, led to an epiphany about performance psychology, something Csikszentmihalyi defined as flow. Also a discovery about assessment was derived:

Quick check-ins over time can reveal an extraordinary amount about an individual or collection of individuals.

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

Experience sampling using technology, so revolutionary in the early 1990s, is pedestrian now. Instead of beepers, they use Twitter, Instagram, Wordpress, Google Plus, Tumblr, and Facebook -- though 25% fewer teens use FB now than in 2011. Even though the habit of updating a social network is organic to the Snapchat generation, this practice has only just begun to be exploited as a way of formatively assessing students.

Formative Assessment in the Age of the Common Core

According to The Marzano Center, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) make it imperative for all instructors in all content areas to make use of formative assessment:

Formative assessment [. . .] is used by teachers to adjust instructional practice. It is a process of gradual improvement that relies on strong feedback loops to drive student learning. A study by John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007) found that students engaged in a strong feedback loop showed a whopping 29-percentile gain in student achievement -- nearly double that for traditional educational interventions.

Formative assessment through social media is similar to EMS because it allows teachers to make frictionless assessments of peers' thinking and feelings about academic concept and skill mastery. Here are four examples:

  • A history teacher posts The Gettysburg Address to Google Plus. Students write about the document's historical significance, and then give a +1 to peer posts that they believe are the strongest.
  • A math teacher halts a lecture, projects incomplete math theorems on the board, and then assigns a different problem to each of several small groups. The twist is that the students post a photo of their written progress to Instagram every 90 seconds so that the instructor can monitor responses in real time.
  • An elementary teacher asks students to Tweet the most confusing part of photosynthesis.
  • A high school business teacher asks students to write down the characteristics of an effective business mission statement with links to exemplars.

In each example, the teacher assesses students' performance in real time and makes quick modifications.

Features of Social Media That Enable Formative Assessment

Social media now has functions that make sharing, reading, and collecting information one-click simple.


Perhaps the most famous platform for real-time sharing, Twitter is a perfect tool for instant assessment. Two features are important to consider: hashtags and Twitter clients.

  • Class hashtags: Twitter offers advanced search options, like hashtags (#) followed by a word or phrase. Placing a hashmark next to text makes terms searchable. For example, #oscars2014 retrieved all the tweets that discussed the 2014 Oscars. You can designate a class or assignment with a hashtag (such as #dralfonzoworldliterature or #dralfonzoannakarenina). You can also tweet out prompts to get a conversation going, such as, "What did you think of today's in-class activity? #dralfonzoamericanliterature." When someone attaches a class hashtag to an academic comment or question in class, they become easy for a group to find. For more on hashtag etiquette take a look at #HashtagEtiquette: 8 People Who Are Doing It Wrong


Screen grab of Choose Column Type in Tweedeck
Image credit: Tweetdeck

  • Chat: Tweetdeck and Hootsuite are management clients for Twitter that allow you to create and arrange custom columns in order to efficiently track and contribute to specific topics or groups. The image above illustrates how to set up columns that will track all posts using a specific hashtag. Set up as many columns as you want in Tweetdeck and it will be populated as soon as new tweets appear that fit your parameters. 
Screen grab of hashtag americanlit Tweet chat
Image credit: Tweetdeck
Facebook, Google Plus, and Edmodo Facebook and Google Plus allow you to create private groups. This could also be done using the social learning platform Edmodo. These platforms, unlike Twitter, allow students to write lengthier posts. For example, you can have students, in real time, write one-minute papers in the "comment" section of the prompt. Each of these platforms also has free polling tools. With such features, there are few formative assessment strategies that cannot be handled more efficiently using social media. One caveat: check with your institution's social media policy before using these tools.
  • Tweet Chat: Tweet Chat is a chat room on Twitter created by a moderator so that participants can discuss a specific topic. The moderator sets up the hashtag for the Tweet Chat and designates a start time. Participants log on with their Twitter credentials, submit the designated hashtag, and enter into the chat room. A record of the conversation can be captured (see above image).

Screen grab of a Facebook post
Image credit: Paige Alfonzo

To assess basic comprehension, attitudes, difficulties, and higher-order thinking, social media and formative assessment naturally compliment each other. What technology tools do you use to assist with formative assessment?