What Are Simple Formative Assessment Strategies For Learning?
As frequently as a chef needs to check a dish for taste, teachers should check for understanding by using intentional formative assessment strategies.
These can be formal–formative or summative assessment, multiple-choice, short answer, essay, matching, and related iconic ‘test’ forms. But they can also be informal–conversations, gallery walks, sketches, and more.
We recently shared the Inconvenient Truths of Assessment, and one of the takeaways from that post by Terry Heick could be that rather than focusing on the design of assessment, we could instead focus on a climate of assessment–a classroom where snapshots of understanding are taken frequently and naturally, without the stress of performance for the student, or the burden of huge, unmanageable data results for the teachers.
So what about assessment as a matter of tone and purpose? If an assessment is non-traditional and non-threatening (or even less traditional and less threatening), how might that impact what it reveals? Does the tone of an assessment matter?
Is informal assessment a ‘lesser’ form altogether?
The Primary Benefit Of Informal Assessment
More than anything else, non-threatening, informal assessment can disarm the process of checking for understanding. The less formal the form, the less guarded or anxious the student might become. Stress and worry can quickly shut down the student’s ability to think, which yields misleading results–a poor ‘grade’ which implies that a student understands a lot less than they actually do.
Here are 50 formative assessment strategies — categorized by learning style — that can be useful to you as you collect data from all students, from the polished little academics to students for whom the classroom might be a less-than-comfortable place.
Response cards allow students to demonstrate their understanding in nonverbal ways. Teachers can design or print out pre-made response cards, laminate them, and hook them to a key ring that remains at each student’s desk, or in a designated location. Include True/False, A-B-C-D, Yes/No, or color-coded cards that can represent responses displayed on a SMARTBoard. Alternatively, a class set of miniature dry-erase boards is a less time-consuming way for teachers to give students the opportunity to show what they know.
Hand signals can be used to give a quick holistic picture of what your students know. Students can rate their level understanding from 1 to 5 fingers, or use open or closed fists to signal ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ This is another great way for students to participate in a nonverbal manner.
Give 1, get 1
Not only is this an effective way to get students to show their understanding , but it gets students moving, includes an element of competition, and has instructional value. How? Within a given time period, students move around the room to link up with as many partners as they can. With each pair, one student shares a piece of their understanding, and the other student writes that element down to their own collection. Then, they swap. As more partners meet up, each student’s list should grow with additional information.
Students of all ages love this kinesthetic demonstration of understanding, in which each corner of the room corresponds to a different item on a Likert scale (i.e. ‘Strongly Agree,’ ‘Agree,’ ‘Disagree,’ and ‘Strongly Disagree’) or multiple choice option (A, B, C, or D). The educator can issue a prompt or question, and then the students move to the corner that corresponds with their chosen answer. The teacher can then have one or more students explain their reasoning for gravitating to their area of the room.
This game will have your students pleading with you to show their understanding! Turn your classroom into a basketball court by moving desks aside and lining students up to throw crumpled-up paper balls into a trash can. Place strips of tape at close, medium, and far distances from the basket to make it more challenging to get points. About those points…students only get the opportunity to shoot the paper ball if they answer questions correctly, and teachers can give students the options to answer different ‘levels’ of questions. Students then get to decide where to shoot from — the further away from the trash bin, the more points they get if they sink the paper in it!
Beach ball questions
Only into Quarter 1 and you and your students are missing summer? If you can’t bring the students to the beach, bring the beach to the students! Inflate a large beach ball and use a dry-erase marker to write questions all over it (or, if the beach ball has different colors, have each color correspond to a different question that is displayed on a SMARTBoard). Have students pass the ball to each other and answer one of the two questions that their hands touch upon catching the ball.
For an extra-theatrical bunch, a simulation may be a great idea for giving them an opportunity to check what they know. Simulations challenge students to recreate an event, concept, phenomenon, or process. For example, students can simulate a chemical reaction by acting as molecules, demonstrate how a bill is passed by taking a mock vote in the Senate and House of Representatives, or act out different probability equations.
In a gallery walk, students (typically) display their understanding of a concept on a poster or via a created artifact. Think of your classroom as a museum — each artifact can have a blank piece of paper underneath it where others can view the work, ask questions, make comments, and discover connections. It is almost like students are being positioned as critics — this activity is also a great way to model how to give effective and specific peer feedback.
Let’s play a game! All you need are dice. And how convenient — each number (1-6) can correspond to a different level of Bloom’s taxonomy (remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, creating). Each student gets the opportunity to roll the die and answer a predetermined question OR create their own question using one of Bloom’s taxonomy power verbs.
In a pinwheel discussion, the teacher divides the class into 4 groups and moves 4 desks into a circle facing each other. Behind each of the desks in the center are two desks (or more, depending on the number of students). Thus, each group is made up of a representative in the middle and two or more members on the outside of the wheel. Each student takes on the role of provocateur, moderator, and facilitator, as the teacher poses discussion-worthy questions. Students can create their own higher-order questions, devise simulations, or provide explanations.
I have the question, who has the answer?
It’s like a matching game, but class-wide! The teacher can write questions and answers on separate index cards, mix them up, and distribute them among a class. Then, within a given time period, students must find the corresponding answer to their question. To make this task extra challenging, teachers can add extra conditions, such as not being able to use certain keywords, only being able to speak using questions, or having a limited amount of words to communicate with potential matches.
Okay, we realize that most desks aren’t equipped with temperature control, but you can create a sense of excitement and urgency with this fun formative assessment strategy! Write questions on index cards and adhere them to the underside of each desk. Have students play musical chairs to discover their question, or use different-colored index cards to correspond to a different style of question. For example, in the first round of Hot Seat, the teacher may ask someone with a blue index card to respond, while in the second round, while in the second round, they may call upon a person with a start on their card to respond.
Students can feel more empowered to show what they know when given options of how to do so — for each of the nine squares on the board, the teacher can include a different way to demonstrate their understanding. The student can choose three different ways to demonstrate their understanding (horizontal, vertical, or diagonal). In this way, the teacher can be purposeful in designating certain options as all visual, all oral, all kinesthetic, or representative of each style.
This formative assessment strategy also includes a kinesthetic element. The teacher arranges all the student desks in two circles with the same number of desks: an inner and outer circle. The teacher prompts one group to move to the left or right, and then sit down in front of a new partner. In that pair, each partner takes turns sharing their response for a full minute, and then actively listening to their partner’s response for one full minute. With each rotation, students can build upon their shared contributions by synthesizing previously received responses.
In this formative assessment strategy, students listen to a teacher-provided statement and move to a different side of the room, indicating whether they are for or against the prompt. The teacher then gives students the opportunity to collaborate in their groups in order to create a joint statement expressing their position. One (or more) students can share, and each side can have another opportunity to collaborate in order to respond to statements from different groups. The goal of the activity is to clarify understanding, with students having the ability to switch sides if their opinion changes during the discussion.
Socratic seminar is a favorite among students who prefer to share their understanding through conversation, as opposed to a multiple-choice assessment or timed essay. Teachers (or students) create questions related to a concept, then engage in student-led discussion to ask questions, agree or disagree thoughtfully, use textual evidence to support their assertions, engage individuals or the whole group in discussion, or seek clarification.
Like concentric circles, there are two even groups seated in an inner and outer circle. The students on the inside speak while the students on the outside serve as support coaches or observers. At ‘halftime,’ the circles switch so that everyone gets an opportunity to speak and coach/listen. At the end, students can write a brief summary of the discussion, sharing how their learning has become more clear or expanded.
Fishbowl has many elements in common with Socratic seminar and concentric circles, except in this case, there are only 5-7 desks in the inner circle, and most desks are situated on the outside. A teacher provides a discussion prompt or question, and students take turns moving into the inner circle to engage in a conversation. Ideally, the discussion continues seamlessly while students tap each other in and out of the inner circle. Students on the outside record insights or observations that they can then bring into the inner circle to enhance the discussion.
Ongoing conversations are a great strategy for exposing students to multiple perspectives, and can be carried out over the course of a single unit of study, or an entire semester! Students receive a single piece of paper with a 2-column chart. In the left column are enough spaces for each student in the class (the teacher can include the names or not). On the right side — which is significantly wider than the left column — is an empty box large enough for a person to write 1-3 sentences.
Each day, the teacher can ask a question or issue a prompt, and the students then have a given amount of time to discuss the question or prompt with a new partner. They summarize their partners’ responses in the right column next to that partner’s name. The challenge is for each student to talk to a brand new person in class before talking to one person twice. This is a great activity for classes where students tend to gravitate toward the same partners.
In this iteration of chat stations, the teacher creates questions or discussion prompts at set locations around the classroom. In small groups, students travel to each station and discuss each prompt. They can continue traveling together OR move separately to new stations, where they have an opportunity to discuss a new prompt with new partners. Like the ‘give 1, get 1’ strategy and ‘ongoing conversations,’ this is a great strategy for exposing students to diverse perspectives.
Save the last word for me
Here’s another formative assessment strategy where students benefit from listening and speaking. Students share their reactions to a prompt or question in triads as student A, student B, and student C. While student A reads a question, quote, or prompt, students B and C engage in discussion about the significance. After a given time period, student A explains their rationale for choosing the quote or asking the question (thus, they get the ‘last word’). The process repeats with the B students and C students getting to have the ‘last word’ in a new round.
TQE stands for thoughts, questions, and epiphanies. Similar to Socratic discussions (see here for an example of a Socratic discussion, this formative assessment strategy is also student-driven by the thoughts, questions, and epiphanies that students provide in response to a text, problem, or scenario. The class can choose the best TQEs and use them to drive their own discussion.
Ever played this electronic game that gives you a word and you have to explain it to a small group without using commonly associated words? In a classroom context, the teacher might use this game to have students demonstrate their understanding of new vocabulary terms. For example, a student might choose a card with the vocabulary word ‘loquacious,’ and view a list underneath the term that includes words they are not allowed to use in describing the term to their group members (i.e. talkative, chatty, a lot, social, outgoing).
Analogies are a quick and effective way of getting students to use higher-order thinking skills to demonstrate what they know. Simply put, the teacher can challenge students to make an analogy for a concept with which they are currently grasping. This strategy can work across all grade levels and content areas.
See also How To Teach With Analogies
Visual Strategies & Techniques
Student artists will clamor for more opportunities like Pictionary! In this formative assessment strategy, students create a drawing or other visual representation of a process, concept, or phenomenon. To take it further, they can pass their drawing to the right in a circle, where the recipient then writes what they think the previous student drew. They fold the paper so that only the written part can be seen by the next person who gets the paper. The third person then creates a new drawing for the second person’s written interpretation (without peeking at the original drawing!) The paper continues to move in one direction, with alternating drawings and written explanations, until it returns to its originator (who can laugh at how far the interpretation moved or feel confident that future interpretations matched their original drawing).
This formative assessment strategy challenges students to produce a single page of paper that illustrates their understanding of a certain concept. There are guidelines for what the one-pager must include, such as key vocabulary words, higher-order questions, images, quotations, main ideas or central themes, and symbols. Students can also use these one-pagers as artifacts in a subsequent gallery walk.
You’ve seen concepts before — graphic organizers, flow charts, and Venn diagrams are all examples in which students use diagrams to represent relationships between different concepts (i.e. cause and effect, compare and contrast, sequence, problem and solution).
Abstract to concrete
Similar to the analogy strategy, students are challenged to represent an abstract concept (like photosynthesis, eminent domain, or irony) using something concrete. Alternatively, the teacher can also flip the concept and challenge students to turn a concrete fact or event or process into an abstract concept.
Similar to concept mapping, affinity mapping is a way to organize different ideas (but this time, in a collaborative fashion). Students typically write more concrete concepts on individual Post-It notes and work together to categorize them in groups that are more abstract. Students can travel to other groups’ clusters and critique their reasoning or make changes.
We’ve previously written about the concept attainment formative assessment strategy, in which “new ideas are introduced and defined by students inductively through categorization…students see attributes, examples and non-examples, form theories, and test those theories against given data until they are able to name the concept.” Check out our post on concept attainment to view an example of this strategy in action.
In hexagonal thinking, teachers write specific concepts on hexagon-shaped cards, then move them adjacent to one another in order to reveal relationships and connections between concepts. Once the hexagons are arranged, the students then use connection arrows to show intersections between and among central ideas. The teacher can prompt them to explain their thinking in written or oral form.
This formative assessment strategy is fairly self-explanatory. A teacher presents a prompt or question, the student thinks about it, writes about it, pairs up with a partner, and shares their response. A simple strategy with potentially illuminating outcomes for students of all grade levels.
Do your students get the gist of what they’re learning? A GIST summary is not just any old summary — it stands for “generating interactions between schemata and texts” (Cunningham, 1982; Herrell, 2000). Students are challenged to write a summary using a certain number of words (typically 15 or 20) using key vocabulary related to a complex text or concept.
Chain of understanding
Don’t let your exit tickets go to waste — have students write their responses to daily exit tickets on a strip of construction paper, then glue and link the paper strips into a chain that can serve as a tangible representation of student learning at the conclusion of a unit. You can even have students read through the chain links and reflect on how their thinking has evolved. It doesn’t hurt that a colorful formative assessment chain can brighten up a dull classroom environment, either!
Similar to Bloom, Costa arranged different types of questions into a hierarchy of levels (from least to most complex). Level 1 questions prompt students to respond with literal information (such as an answer they could point to on a page). Level 2 questions prompt students to process information by combining literal and inferential knowledge. Level 3 questions challenge students to apply information in new ways. As a formative assessment strategy, teachers can challenge students to answer one of each level, or better yet, devise their own questions that they can respond to themselves and/or share with student partners.
Bloom’s sentence stems/power verbs
At TeachThought, we are big supporters of using sentence stems and question stems as a starting point for students to demonstrate their learning. The teacher can issue a specific power verb or sentence stem, to which students provide their unique responses.
In this timed formative assessment strategy, students have 60 seconds to write down everything they know about a certain concept. No need to worry about writing in complete sentences here — students can write down phrases, vocabulary words, themes, main ideas, supporting details, textual connections, examples, and related concepts.
In this collaborative formative assessment strategy, a teacher gives a prompt or a question and students write down (or type) a single word response. There are plenty of great websites that simplify this process and create visual word clouds based on student responses. More frequently shared responses display in a larger size than less common responses, which can give the teacher a good idea of how well students understand a concept.
Why is it that the simplest formative assessment strategies often yield the most insightful responses? In the 3-2-1 strategy, the teacher challenges the students with preparing 3 ___, 2 ___, and 1 ___. What goes in the blanks? Read up on some examples in our post on Using the 3-2-1 Learning Strategy for Critical Thinking.
A haiku is simply a more poetic way of summarizing a concept in a student’s own words. Haikus are Japanese poems consisting of three lines. The first line contains five syllables, the second line contains seven syllables, and the third line contains five syllables.
Comparing, contrasting, and arranging are all higher-order thinking skills. Task students with demonstrating their understanding by listing the top ten most important details related to a main idea, the top ten vocabulary words associated with a phenomenon, or the top ten events in a historical or scientific process. Challenge your students even further by having them explain the rationale behind their rankings.
A-B-C, as easy as 1-2-3! Working in collaborative groups, students take turns generating an alphabetical list of vocabulary words, phrases, or sentences that all relate to a main concept or process.
Circle – square – triangle
Each shape corresponds to a different formative assessment challenge. Students draw a circle and write down anything that is still confusing, unclear, or ‘circling’ in their minds. Next, students draw a square and write down anything they agree with (or what ‘squares’ with their thinking). Finally, students draw a triangle and write three important details from what they have learned.
Digital Strategies & Techniques
How long would it take to collect individual responses to a question, sort them into categories, and create a representation of that curation which could then be shared with students? Padlet can accomplish such a task in less than a minute! Students can type their responses (anonymously or associated with their names) to a question or prompt, which then show up on a Padlet (virtual bulletin board). The teacher can update the display in real-time and seek student input to categorize the responses or show relationships.
EdPuzzle allows educators to insert questions at any point during an imported video. Students can work at their own pace and teachers can add comments or voiceover to the video or feedback responses.
There’s a reason Kahoot! includes an exclamation point in their name — students LOVE playing this digital formative assessment game! Teachers can choose from a library of thousands of formative assessments or create their own. Students join through a laptop or mobile device and select a response for a given question. Students receive more points for answering quickly (and correctly), and a leaderboard displays the top three performers after each question.
Quizlet is like Kahoot! but more tailored to small groups. As a formative assessment strategy, teachers can divide students into small groups and engage them in a competition where they have to work together to answer responses. With each collective correct response, the team’s animal icon moves forward in a race against the other teams. Be careful, though! One wrong answer by one group member can set the group all the way back to the start of the race!
There is definitely an opportunity for social-emotional learning here — competitive students can learn how to better support group members who are struggling with a question with encouragement, as opposed to complaining or pushing them.
Create quick formative assessments and export student responses to a spreadsheet — this is a great tool for conducting item analyses in order to discover which concepts students are struggling with and which concepts they are mastering. Check out our post on How to Create Self-Grading Assessments Using Google Forms.
Appropriate for high school students (who likely have the popular app downloaded already on their mobile devices), teachers can task students with creating a 60 second or less TikTok video to demonstrate their understanding. Students can create simulations, skits, analogies, or illustrations on this versatile and user-friendly app.
FlipGrid (see also Ideas For Using Flipgrid) is a great formative strategy inside and outside of the classroom. Teachers create discussion forums where students respond in video form. They can watch fellow students’ responses and add video comments, clarifications, or questions to their peers’ responses.
Seek student understanding by creating a digital poll — Poll Everywhere aggregates students’ responses quickly and helps teachers see what concepts students understand (as a class) and which concepts require further elaboration or grappling.