4 Strategies for Informal Formative Assessment

One of the most important things I’ve learned through graduate education classes and my time as a student teacher is that formative assessments are crucial to developing effective instruction. Unlike summative assessments, such as tests and other graded assignments that are used to evaluate student learning, formative assessments are low stakes and often carry little or no graded point value.

Teachers use various formative assessments to gather feedback on student learning. They can then use this feedback to adjust their instruction appropriately to ensure that students are meeting their summative goals.

Whiteboard work

Individual whiteboards are a little larger than a piece of paper and allow students to record answers and/or do work that can be held up for a quick review. As you scan the boards, you can “check students out” by having those who have completed the work correctly erase their boards and move on to additional work, while you check in individually or in small groups with those who need more guidance.

Whiteboards are particularly useful for checking a student’s understanding of a mathematical procedure. For example, if you’re teaching long division, students can complete problems on their boards and check to see if they got the correct answer and if they set the problem up correctly.

Hand signals

Another quick and easy visual for checking student understanding are hand signals. Students who are comfortable with their understanding of a concept can give a thumbs-up, students who do not understand a concept can give a thumbs-down, and those who are somewhat confident but still need some guidance can hold their thumbs to the side.

I’ve found that hand signals can be really effective when students seem disinterested. It can be difficult to tell whether a quiet classroom is the result of confusion or boredom. By having students give hand signals, you are not only gauging their understanding, but also getting each student’s attention since everyone needs to participate.

Observations and classroom discussions

Student participation in classroom discussions and your observations of students working can also be used to adjust instruction. The key is to create a system to collect data based on these discussions and observations. The data could then be used to help plan future lessons.

One easy way to quickly record data on individual students is to carry around a clipboard with a table that lists each student in the classroom. As you walk around and observe students and ask questions throughout a lesson, you can write comments next to each name or do something as simple as underline students who need additional support and check off students who appear to have mastered a concept.

You could also make the table more detailed by adding the various standards being addressed in a lesson and indicating which students are struggling with which standards and which students need more of a challenge. This is particularly effective when teaching a lesson that combines multiple concepts.

Individual written reflections

While whole class formative assessments can be faster, I think it’s important to include written reflections throughout the day for those students who might not feel comfortable admitting their confusion out loud. These types of reflections should be structured to make sure students aren’t only writing about what they know.

I prefer to assign brief written reflections at the end of a lesson as an exit ticket so I can collect them and read them to inform my instruction. Some examples include:

  • 3-2-1: For example, I’ve had students write three things they learned, two things they found interesting, and one thing they still have a question about. This strategy can easily be altered based on the lesson and assessment needs.
  • Quick Write: Give students 2-3 minutes to reflect on and summarize what they have just learned. This serves as an easy formative assessment and also helps students clarify what they’ve been learning in their heads.
  • Graphic organizers: Venn diagrams, word webs/clusters, and tables are good ways for students to demonstrate how different ideas are related to one another. As a bonus, graphic organizers not only indicate student learning, but also can be used as a way for students to organize their ideas before completing a summative assessment, such as a piece of writing.

Regardless of what strategies you use, formative assessments are necessary to ensure that your instruction is effective, and that students are on the right track to achieving their summative goals.

Lisandra I. Flynn spent 2012 to 2014 working toward a master’s degree in elementary education while working full time as an editor. After seven years in publishing, she recently transitioned from corporate life to student teach fifth grade in an elementary school. Flynn shares her journey from the office to the classroom and offers insight and advice to those seeking their own career change.