George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A few months ago, I wrote for about the power of focusing on a few, high-priority standards as a strategy to improve student learning. Many other elements also need to be in play in a classroom in order to produce the results that we all want to see for our students.

To name just a few: The learning environment needs to be one in which students feel respected and safe to take risks; kids need to feel that their learning has a purpose and that the curriculum is relevant to their lives; and students need feedback on their progress -- they need to know what they're trying to accomplish, where they are in relation to the goal, and what they need to do in order to get there.

It is the teacher's role to make sure this happens.

The Multi-Tasking Teacher

Although to be an effective teacher it often feels like you need to be one of those Hindu gods with a dozen arms, I believe that educators do need to hold standards and objectives in one hand and formative assessments in the other. We then need to juggle them back and forth. It's essential to break down a high-priority standard into bite size learning objectives that are measurable and then it's absolutely critical to have a way to check, every single day, on how well students mastered that objective.

Having a well-written learning objective, in student-friendly language, is not enough.

This isn't easy. In fact, there's nothing easy about teaching. But it is essential that every time students leave our classroom, we ask a number of questions:

  • How do I know that they learned what I wanted them to learn?
  • How well did they learn the objective?
  • Who mastered it and who didn't?
  • Which parts of the objective did students struggle with? What misconceptions did they have?

If we don't answer these questions, all of our careful planning and breaking down of standards and creating a positive learning environment and making curriculum relevant is useless.

As educators, we are responsible for learning, not teaching.

So how do we do assess every day how well students mastered the objectives?

The Key: Formative Assessment

A lot has been written about on-going, formative assessments, but my favorite resource is Checking for Understanding by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey This book is a quick and easy read, very accessible and full of dozens of ways to thoughtfully and systematically monitor student learning.

Fisher and Frey define a formative assessment as one that serves to improve instruction and provide student feedback and which is administered throughout instruction. Students use the results to monitor their own learning; teachers use the results to check for understanding and then to plan their next instructional moves.

In contrast, a summative assessment is administered at the end of a course or unit, and is used to measure student competency. Teachers use these results for grades.

If formative assessments are used consistently, and used well, neither a teacher nor a student should ever be surprised by his/her final grade, and I would argue that the great majority of students should be successful.

A Few Examples

Formative assessments can be:

  • Questioning strategies that are used with the whole group or individuals
  • Think-pair-share, during which the teacher circulates and listens to students sharing
  • Individual mini-white boards for ongoing assessment during a lesson
  • An "exit ticket," which is a quarter or half sheet of paper where students write about their learning for the day, or answer a brief question or two
  • Hand signals, as a quick and easy way to check for understanding

I imagine that most teachers are familiar with these strategies and many others.

Recently I observed a fantastic first grade Sheltered English teacher who used a variety of formative assessment techniques to ensure that students mastered their objective (to analyze characters and identify the setting in a picture book).

As the teacher read the story, she instructed students to use specific hand gestures when they heard repetitive phrases and to repeat those phrases out loud. This engaged students, assured that they were following the language patterns, and allowed the teacher to check that all students heard and understood a repeating phrase (important oral language development for English Language Learners).

Then she had students talk to each other about the characters and share their ideas with the whole group. Finally, she distributed three response cards to the children: one card said "who," another said "when," and the last said "where."

The teacher named a character or aspect of the setting, such as "sheep," and students had to hold up the card that identified the literary element. In this way, the teacher was able to immediately see who was struggling with the concepts and to provide corrective feedback.

Planning is a Must

When I write lesson plans, I have a column in which I write the activity that students will do or where I detail my instructional moves. Next to that is another column where I identify the formative assessment strategies that I will use during those activities.

In order for my checking for understanding to be as useful as possible, I need to carefully plan and consider which strategy will be most effective with the planned activity. If I don't plan, I tend to use a few strategies over and over, or I don't get the most accurate data. This doesn't mean that I don't throw in a spontaneous strategy now and then, but it assures me that I'll get the student data I need by the end of that lesson.

What have you learned about formative assessments from using them? Do you have a strategy to check for understanding that you find effective? Please share your ideas and expertise with us!

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Lisa's picture

After reading this blog I was reminded of how important it is for my students to know their objective and goals when learning. I feel like often times I know what those are but maybe don't communicate them to my 3rd graders as best I should. This blog also gave great reminders about formative assessments and quick, easy ways to do it. (think, pair, share/hand gestures) I enjoyed reading this blog, it was a good reminder to me.

Tina's picture

I have read a lot about formative assessment and use it in my classroom but I have never considered actually writing it into my lesson plans. What a great idea! That way I will make sure that I do it and it will force me to think more about it. Thanks for the great post!

Katie's picture

Since you continuously use formative assessments, how often do you give a summative assessment? Does your summative assessment have a "heavier "weight than your formative assessments? I am a first grade teacher and I use a variety of formative assessments in my classroom everyday but now my principal is wanting to see data, data, data; which translates to test, test, test. Another person has commented on your post saying that "educators are just throwing tests out just to get a score." Is there a point where students get so "tested out" that they just don't try anymore?

jamelle's picture

Wow - this was an excellent post. Formative assessments give teachers great information thoughout the unit to drive instruction. I liked where you said that students/teachers should not be surprised by the results of the summative assessment if good formative assessments have been given. I feel that not every formative assessment needs to be graded, but there does need to be some form of documentation, not only for your own purposes, but for your administrator, parents, etc. I loved all of your ideas for formative assessments. I want to get better at using exit slips. The idea of literary element cards was fantastic. We have just started using I Can statements for our students. This gives the students the lesson objective in a kid friendly way. I do agree with you, however, that just letting the students know the objective does not improve scores. I really feel that students need to be held accountable for their learning.

melinstaedt's picture
Kindergarten Teacher from ND

I love the idea that first grade teacher used to check student's understanding after her read aloud. Allowing the students to have the cards to hold up to show what they think/know about the story is a great way to keep kids engaged as well as it allows the teacher to do a quick check for understanding of the whole class. I also thought it was a great idea to have the students talk to one another and then with the whole class before passing out the cards because it allowed for some students that may have needed some clarification first to get it before the teacher did her questioning. The teacher was able to make observations during that share time as well, so the cards weren't her only form of assessment.

I also agree with the importance of planning ahead when do the assessments, especially in the younger grades. Students are able to stay engaged when the teacher has everything prepared and ready to go.

April's picture
2nd grade teacher from MN

I enjoyed reading this article. I can relate, as I often feel that I don't have enough "arms" to create the balancing act that is needed in education. The questions you gave is to understand whether or not your students have met the objective really leave me thinking. I realize these are important- but I often don't think about it until the day is done, when in all reality this should be ongoing daily for essential learning. I appreciated the ideas you gave for formative assessments. Though I often do hand signals in second grade, I am always looking for knew ways to check for understanding. I really like the "exit ticket" idea and hope to use that in my classroom this fall! Thanks!

Rachel Cline's picture

What a great blog! I try to incorporate formative assessments into my lessons all the time. I have never actually written them down into my lesson plans, though. That is a great idea! I teach math, so I am constantly using assessments to check for understanding. I know and the students know exactly where they are at both understanding wise and grade wise. I feel if I didn't do this, there would be so many students who are lost or confused and wouldn't do well! It takes a lot of work and it would be way easier if I had a bunch more arms (or more of me!) in the room! But like I said, the students learn a lot more and understand the material a lot better. I like the different formative assessments that you shared.

Trish's picture

First, I really enjoyed reading this article! I have a couple questions; I am a secondary science teacher and I would like to incorporate more think-pair-share activities. However, I have found that the majority of my students are reluctant or shy about sharing unless they are with their friends. Do you have any ideas for encouraging these students to talk with others? Thank you!

Melaine's picture
Second grade teacher from Minneapolis, MN

Thank you for such a great article. I use many of these formative assessments daily in my classroom, but find myself using the same assessments over and over again. I'm getting sick of them, and my students are too! I don't know why I've never thought of actually writing my assessments down and planning for them in advance! This tip is so simple, and yet it will help me provide meaningful and engaging formative assessments! Thank you! I will begin inserting a new column in my lesson plans for this!

Matt M's picture
Matt M
West Fargo

Great article with some really good ideas. I teach high school ELL students, so formative assessments are a key to knowing what is happening with the students in my classroom. I use a variety of the tools that you mentioned. Also, our school district in the last two years has placed a lot of emphasis on putting up objectives, so the students know what they are learning and how to demonstrate what they have learned. Our ELL department has added language objectives as well, so the ELL students know what how the content also relates to their language acquisition.

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