Formative Assessments: Help Me Help You

From time to time, educators will confuse formative and summative assessments. While a summative assessment measures the level of proficiency after a unit has been completed, formative assessments occur throughout the duration of a unit and are not graded. One way I always remember the difference is formative = feedback. The feedback helps guide instruction, allowing the teacher to adjust the curriculum pathway. The formative assessments I used throughout can be broken into three categories: being nosy, old-school strategies, and new-school technologies.

Being nosy

Being a big believer of student interaction, my students moved from their seats at least twice a class period and worked with a group or partner at least once a class period. Students need to interact and listen to how others learn and solve problems. These situations are a perfect time for formative assessments. You can learn a great deal about a student by watching and listening. You can watch their body language while you are teaching or while they are working with their peers. You can listen to the conversations taking place as you circulate the room. You can pretend to sit at your desk and grade papers but eavesdrop as they discuss their strategies for solving problems. It’s amazing what a teacher can learn when no one thinks they are listening.

Old-school strategies

With technology taking over the world, it is hard to not have it take over the classroom. However, there is a lot to be said for face-to-face interaction. Here are some of my top go-to, old-school formative assessments:

  • Quick, mid-lesson formative assessments:
    • Thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs middle: to get a quick assessment of your students’ comfort level on a concept, have them hold their thumbs up for “I got it”; thumbs down for “No clue”; and thumbs sideways for “I’m getting there”—it’s not as obvious as raising their hands, so students who feel like they have “no clue” are more comfortable admitting it.
  • Mini white boards: Whether students are working alone or with a partner, they can hold up their answers on a white board—allowing me to assess which content needs further instruction.
  • Ticket-in or ticket-out; also referred to as an entrance/exit slip: Some days your lesson rocks the house, and some days you walk away not feeling up to par. On the latter of the two, students might answer only 2 of the 4 questions on an index card about the lesson. Some days the questions were content related, other days they involved the students’ comfort level. This provides instant feedback while the lesson is fresh in their minds. It also allows teachers to tweak lessons for the next class: formative = feedback.
  • Red card or green card: Provide cards with one red side and one green side. When the student or partner-duo feels comfortable with their work, the card should be green, but when help is needed, it is turned to red. This way, the teacher can easily circulate and help the students with red cards. For classroom management purposes, establish a rule that if a card is showing red, students cannot just sit and wait for assistance, instead, have them move on to the next problem.
  • Think–Pair–Share: After solving a problem, students choose a partner and share their answer and strategy. Then they try to agree on a correct answer to share with the class. Sometimes, if partners cannot agree, both students get to defend their reasoning to the class to help them decide which answer is correct. This can create great discussions and “ah-ha” moments!
  • Tally charts: When unsure about how the previous lesson went or when homework has been challenging, write the problem numbers on the board. As students enter the classroom, the homework answers are posted. Students self-check their homework and then place a tally mark on the board under each of their incorrect problems. This allowed teachers see where the majority of the class struggled as well as which students struggled on the assignment.

As a side bar, when I used tally charts in my own classrooms, I combined them with Think–Pair–Share and red/green cards. After students filled out the tally charts, they worked with a partner to discuss incorrect answers. Most of the time this cleared up any questions about a mistake, but if they could not figure it out together, they would turn their card to red and I would assist.

New-school technologies

Technology can be both a blessing and a curse. If used correctly in the classroom, it is a blessing that makes your life easier as the teacher, and makes formative assessment less work!

  • Classroom Response Systems or “Clickers”: If you do not have a set of laptops or tablets in your classroom, then clickers are great alternative. There are a variety of clickers available, and are inexpensive enough to apply for a PTO or other local grants. They give you instant feedback allowing this to be an alternative for a ticket out.
  • Poll Everywhere is a free site and an alternative to clickers: The idea behind the site is the same as clickers but students can text their answers to you instead of needing the clickers. If they do not have phones, they can also use computers to send their answers.
  • Google Forms: You can create a Google Form for just about anything. If you are a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) or a 1:1 school, students can answer the Google Doc questions before leaving the classroom. You can assess the material the same as you would a ticket-in/ticket-out.

When it comes to formative assessments, there is something out there for every educator’s budget, teaching style, and classroom need. Regardless of which formative assessment you use, the feedback should benefit your students and drive instruction to best fit their needs.

Insights Dashboard Formative Assessment Tip: The Activity tab on the DreamBox Learning Insights Dashboard shows the lessons your students are choosing to play. Each lesson is accompanied by a play demo lesson button, which allows you to see an example of those lessons. If you have a student who is repeatedly logging in and out of the same lesson, you can use the demo lesson as a formative assessment. Ask the student to walk you through the lesson on your computer. This allows you to assess the student’s area of struggle (i.e., the directions, the manipulative, the content, or lack of perseverance). You can then play the demo lesson with the student and explain any misconceptions.

The feedback should benefit your students and drive instruction to best fit their needs.

Summary: Formative assessments allow a teacher to receive feedback from their students on curricular content. Teachers then use the feedback to drive instruction. This article contains a variety of formative assessment strategies that can be used in any classroom.

Lori Carson

Lori Carson

Lori Carson graduated from High Point University in 1997 with a degree in Middle Grades Education.She taught in High Point, NC for three years before moving to Raleigh, NC where she taught for another 14 years. She earned her NBPTS certification in 2003 and renewed the certification in 2013.Lori is currently working as a Professional Development Consultant and writer for DreamBox Learning.
Lori Carson