Formative Assessment

Using Quick Check-Ins to Measure Student Understanding

Tips for building student choice into your formative assessments.

March 29, 2017

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Chris Ward’s fifth graders have been practicing long division for most of the period. While some understand it well, others are still struggling. Tomorrow, Chris wants to offer appropriate choices to enable students to practice what they need, so today she’ll use a quick check-in—a simple formative assessment—to determine those choices.

There’s a dilemma here, however. If she uses an assessment targeted at the middle of the group, she’ll miss key information. She already knows that some students can easily compute 453/7 and others will find it overwhelming. So she offers students a choice. She writes three problems on the board—453/7, 625/5, and 4,357/18—and says, “For today’s math exit ticket, you’re going to choose a division problem to help show where you’re at. There are three on the board for you to choose from, and you may also create your own. Solve a problem that feels just right for you—one that is challenging enough to give you a push and that you think you can solve successfully. This will help me plan for tomorrow.” Offering a variety of problems, she gains a broader understanding of how she can set up tomorrow’s math work to be appropriately challenging for everyone.

Across the hall, Chris’s colleague Aaron Hall is also using choice for a quick check-in. While Chris offered choice to allow students to differentiate according to challenge level, Aaron is going to use it to differentiate based on interest and background knowledge. His class has been studying the human body in science, and he wants to see how well students understand how body systems work together. He offers students the choice of four similes to complete: “The human body is like a (sports team, grocery store, jazz band, or coral reef) because _____.” Students are encouraged to pick a simile that will best help them demonstrate some of the key ideas they have been studying.

For this kind of choice to work well, there are a few key ideas teachers should keep in mind.

1. Create good choices. Choices should align with learning goals and what you want to learn from the assessment. They should resonate with students—matching their varied interests, needs, and abilities. They should also make sense logistically—involving light prep on your part and about the same amount of time for students to complete.
2. Help students choose well. Give students some guidance about which choice might be best without overly directing them. Aaron might say, “Think about which of these similes will best help you highlight your understanding of the human body. For example, if you’re into sports or music, you might choose one that matches those interests.” Chris might say, “If one of these problems seems to match up with how you’re doing on division, you might pick that one. If you think making one up will best help show your level of understanding, that might be a good choice for you.”
3. Practice, practice, practice. The first few times you offer choices like this, students may struggle. They might not know where to start, or they might pick options that aren’t great fits. That’s OK! The more often you try simple choices like this with students, the better they will get at the skills of self-assessment and effective decision-making.
4. Don’t force it. If there really is one assessment that is the best way to check in on students’ learning, don’t give a choice. When choices are forced and aren’t appropriate, they feel inauthentic and aren’t effective.

There are lots of great ideas for choices that might enhance formative check-ins. Here are a few more examples:

• Key Idea, Question, or Challenge: Students write a key idea they’ve learned, a question they have, or something they’re finding challenging.
• T or V: Students can choose to summarize information using either a T-chart or a Venn diagram, whichever will best help them communicate their understanding.
• Write or Draw: To relay key ideas, summarize information, or even ask a question, students can choose to either write a few sentences or draw a picture or diagram.
• Alone or Together: Students will list questions they have about a topic being studied. They can brainstorm questions either alone or in a small group, whichever they think best.
• Highlight an Example: If students have been working on a variety of problems or examples, at the end of the period they choose one. You decide what the focus will be: One they are proud of? One that was hard? One they aren’t sure about? Students can explain their choice, jotting a sentence or two on a sticky note and attaching it to the problem.
• Square, Triangle, or Circle: Students choose one of these shapes as a form of reflection. A square is for something that squared with their thinking (reinforced something they already knew/believed). A triangle is for three key/important ideas. And a circle indicates a question still circling around in their mind.

We know that differentiation is a key to higher engagement and more powerful learning for students. As differentiated instruction and differentiated learning tasks become more commonly used in classrooms, it may make sense to try differentiating assessments as well. Offering students choices about check-ins might be a good place to start.

To learn more about the effective use of choice, both in assessments and throughout daily teaching and learning, check out Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn.