Formative Assessment Ideas for History

Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

Formative assessments allow teachers to make those crucial professional decisions to adapt their instruction to best meet the learning needs of their students. This lesson offers ideas for how to do this in history classes.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessments are given mid-lesson to determine how much students have learned, and how ready they are to move on to the next concept. These should be quick and easy to analyze. History lessons often come packed with content that builds on previous material, so it's important for history teachers to know what needs more focus. The assessment ideas in this lesson are designed to help quickly collect the data you need.

Hand Signals

One of the easiest ways to assess understanding is by having your students give you a signal. You could call out the concepts from the lesson and ask them for thumbs up or thumbs down. Another technique is called 'fist-to-five': students hold up five fingers if they feel fully confident about the material or a fist to show complete confusion. Any number of fingers in between indicates their degree of understanding.

Quick Write

Give students index cards or sticky notes and a time limit of 2-3 minutes. Have them write everything they've learned from the lesson so far. You might focus their writing by giving them a topic such as ''The Magna Carta'' or ''The Louisiana Purchase.''


If you have classroom computers or a policy that allows students to bring electronic devices to class, create an online backchannel discussion for the purposes of formative assessment. This can allow you to poll your class and gauge their level of comfort with the presented material. The anonymity in these polls will give you more precise data than hand signals because students won't have to worry about being embarrassed in front of their peers. Several of the online backchannel platforms also allow you to push out quiz questions. A single multiple-choice question sent out mid-lesson can net good data that's easy to interpret, so you can make changes to your lesson on the fly.


Many schools have purchased classroom sets of remote clickers - electronic classroom polling devices that can be used to collect answers on objective questions from the entire class in seconds. If you have a set of these, add some objective questions to your history lesson. Quiz questions provide solid formative assessment data, but when you wait until after class ends to grade them, you don't get the information when you need it - clickers are so fast you can collect quiz data mid-lesson. If you're teaching a lesson that contains many facts or dates, this type of assessment can be particularly useful, so you'll know which facts need more focus and review and which ones the class has memorized. The clicker software will compile the answers and present the information to you in an easy-to-read graph or table. If you don't have clickers, there are apps that let you use QR codes scanned by a single device, so as long as you have one tablet or smart phone, you can replicate clickers in your classroom.

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