Formative Check

7 Smart, Fast Ways to Do Formative Assessment

When it comes to formative assessment, it can be difficult to figure out what students know while they are still in the process of learning it. Teachers, not students, may experience high stakes when creating the perfect assessment because we’re using it to figure out what comes next in the learning process. Are we prepared to move forward? Is it possible that our students require a different approach to understanding the concepts? Or, perhaps more importantly, which students are ready to move forward and which require a different path?

It takes more than one type of information to determine what our students truly know when attempting to determine what they truly know. A single data point, no matter how well designed the quiz, presentation, or problem that prompted it, is insufficient information to assist us in planning the next step in our instructional process.

In addition, we must consider the fact that different learning tasks are best measured in different ways, which highlights the need for a variety of formative assessment tools that can be deployed quickly and seamlessly, with low stakes, and without creating an unmanageable amount of work. That is why it is critical to keep things as simple as possible: Formative assessments are generally only checked, not graded, because the goal is to get a general sense of how individuals or the class as a whole are progressing.


1. Slips for entry and exit: Those few minutes at the beginning and end of class can provide some excellent opportunities to discover what students remember. Students can get settled at the beginning of class by asking a quick question about the previous day’s work on chart paper or projected on the board. You can ask differentiated questions written out on chart paper or projected on the board, for example.

Exit slips can take on a variety of shapes and sizes in addition to the traditional pencil and scrap paper. No matter where you are on Bloom’s taxonomy, you can use tools like Padlet or Poll Everywhere to assess students’ knowledge. You can also measure progress toward attainment or retention of essential content or standards using tools like Google Classroom’s Question tool, Google Forms with Flubaroo, and Edulastic, all of which make seeing what students know a snap.

If you are using paper exit tickets, sorting the papers into three piles will allow you to see the big picture much more quickly: Students got the point; they sort of got the point, and they completely missed the point. The size of the stacks provides a hint as to what you should do next.

When it comes to formative assessment, whether students have just walked through the door or are about to walk out, questions are the most important tool for keeping them engaged. Instruct students to write for one minute about the most important thing they learned in class. You can experiment with prompts such as:

In your opinion, what are three things you’ve learned, two things you’re still curious about, and one thing you’re not sure about?
If you had the opportunity to do things over again today, what would you have done differently?
What I found interesting about this piece of work was… I’m currently experiencing…
Today was difficult because… Alternatively, skip the words entirely and have students draw or circle emojis to represent their level of understanding.

2. Use of low-stakes polls and quizzes: If you want to find out if your students understand what you think they know, polls and quizzes created with Socrative or Quizlet, as well as in-class games and tools such as Quizalize, Kahoot, FlipQuiz, Gimkit, Plickers, and Flippity, can help you get a better sense of how much they truly understand. (Grading quizzes but assigning low point values is an excellent way to ensure that students put forth their best effort: the quizzes are important, but a single low score will not affect a student’s overall grade.) Because many students in many classes are constantly logged into these tools, formative assessments can be completed in a short amount of time. Teachers can see each student’s response and determine how well they are doing both individually and collectively.

Because you can design your questions, you have complete control over the level of difficulty. You can gain insight into what facts, vocabulary terms, or processes kids remember by asking questions at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy. You’ll get more sophisticated answers if you ask more complicated questions (for example, “What advice do you think Katniss Everdeen would give Scout Finch if the two of them were talking at the end of chapter 3?”).

3. Dipsticks: Because so-called alternative formative assessments are intended to be as simple and quick to administer as checking the oil in your car, they are sometimes referred to as dipsticks in the industry. These can include things such as requiring students to:

Write a letter to a friend explaining a key concept, sketch to visually represent new knowledge, or participate in a think, pair, and share the exercise with a partner to demonstrate understanding.
Your observations of students at work in class can also be a valuable source of information, but they can be difficult to keep track of and organize. One approach is to take quick notes on a tablet or smartphone or to use a copy of your roster as a reference. A focused observation form is more formal, and it can assist you in narrowing your note-taking focus as you observe students at their respective tasks.

Using interview assessments to probe students’ understanding of content is a good idea if you want to dig a little deeper into their understanding of the subject matter. While having casual conversations with students in the classroom can help them feel more at ease while also gaining an understanding of what they know, you may find that five-minute interview assessments work exceptionally well. While spending five minutes with each student would consume a significant amount of time, you are not required to speak with every student about every project or lesson.

A peer-feedback process known as TAG feedback can also be used to delegate some of this responsibility to students (Tell your peer something they did well, Ask a thoughtful question, Give a positive suggestion). When you ask students to share feedback they have for a peer, you gain valuable insight into the learning of both students involved.

Use Flipgrid, Explain Everything, or Seesaw to have students record their responses to prompts and demonstrate what they can do. This is especially useful for more introverted students or more private assessments.

5. Methods that incorporate art: Visual art, photography, or videography as an assessment tool are all possibilities. Students can use the assessment to help them synthesize their learning whether they are drawing, making a collage, or sculpting, for example. Alternatively, go beyond the visual and have the children perform their understanding of the content. They can dance model cell mitosis or act out stories such as Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” to explore the subtext of the story.

It can be useful to check whether students understand why something is incorrect or why a concept is difficult. 6. Misconceptions and errors: Inquire students about the “muddiest point” in the lesson—the point at which things became confusing or particularly difficult, or where they are still unclear about something. Alternatively, perform a misunderstanding check: Students are presented with a common misunderstanding and asked to apply previous knowledge to correct the mistake, or they are asked to determine whether a statement contains any mistakes at all, and then they are asked to discuss their responses.

Do not forget to consult the experts—the children—when assessing your performance. Often, you can hand out your rubric to your students and ask them to identify their strengths and weaknesses on the sheet.

You can use sticky notes to gain a quick understanding of the areas in which your children believe they need to improve. Ask them to choose a trouble spot from three or four areas where you believe the class as a whole needs improvement, and then write those areas in separate columns on a whiteboard to make it easier to see. You can see the results at a glance if you have your students write their answers on a sticky note and then place the sticky note in the appropriate column.

A series of self-assessments allows the teacher to quickly determine what each student believes. Using colored stacking cups, for example, you can allow children to indicate whether they are prepared (green cup), working through some confusion (yellow cup), or truly confused and in need of assistance (red cup) (red).

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Using participation cards for discussions (each student has three cards—”I agree,” “I disagree,” and “I don’t know how to respond”) is a strategy that is similar to the previous one. alternatively, students can respond by raising their fist at the belly button and putting their thumb up when they’re ready to contribute instead of raising their hand. Instead, students can use six hand gestures to silently signal that they agree, disagree, have something to add, and other emotions, among other things. All of these strategies provide teachers with an unobtrusive means of observing what students are thinking in the classroom.

Whatever tools you choose, make sure to set aside some quality reflective time to ensure that you are only evaluating the content and not getting lost in the assessment fog. If a tool is overly complicated, is not reliable or accessible, or requires an excessive amount of time, it is acceptable to put it aside and try something else.