Use Formative Assessments to Better Understand Every Student


Formative assessments are a powerful tool to understand our students better if we as teachers utilize them appropriately. They can take any number of formats, but it's how we analyze them as teachers that help us better grasp our students' strengths and weaknesses in the content.

Formative Assessments and Student Learning

As teachers, we use formative assessments in our classroom all the time. However, often we don't use them deliberately as a way to better understand our students, or as a tool to assist us in developing lessons. Formative assessments are informal, ungraded assessments, which are there to help the teacher learn where the student needs assistance in the learning process. Similarly, for students, formative assessments are there to help them understand what areas of their learning they need to improve upon. Rick Stiggins, an educational consultant, puts it this way: ''the student's role is to strive to understand what success looks like and to use each assessment to try to understand how to do better the next time.'' So formative assessments are a way to meet the needs of both teachers and students in the learning process.

Observations and Conversations

Observations are a common type of formative assessment used by teachers, though often we collect data without actually using it for a purpose. For example, as a teacher, we may see a student struggling with an assignment, and we sit with them for a bit and get them going. However, often we walk away and forget the observations we just made.


Using a system to document our observations is a much more effective way to use observations to understand our students better. Montessori teachers understand this process very well because much of their assessments are conducted by watching students perform hands-on lessons or tasks, and documenting what they see students doing correctly or incorrectly. For observations to be a powerful formative assessment, we need to learn to write down our observations so we can analyze them later.

Some teachers do this by keeping a notecard for each student in their class and carrying them around on a clipboard during class writing notes as they walk. You can also keep notes in a notebook that you carry around the classroom. A notebook is handy when you are using conversations or student conferences as a formative assessment. You could keep anecdotal notes, with a page for each student. Another option is to create a checklist for each student of what you want to observe in the classroom. You could even differentiate the checklist for different students, depending on the population you teach. Again, you want to periodically reflect on your notes to see if there are patterns you need to address with either instructional or behavior interventions.

Exit/Admit Slips

Exit and admit slips are a quick way to do formative assessments in the classroom. An exit slips/admit slip is a short question that students answer either as a get started activity/admit slip or as an exit slip at the end of class. However, since this is a one-question deal the design of the exit slip is very important. You want to avoid yes/no or true/false questions because they won't provide you the type of information you need to understand your students, or where they are at in the curriculum. Design the questions to be more open ended, where students need to demonstrate their thought processes so you can identify patterns of misconceptions.

exit sign

For example, a math teacher might ask students to solve one of the types of problems they have been practicing in class. Then, while the next class is working on a get started, the teacher can sort them into piles based on correct/incorrect or even the types of errors the students have made. An English teacher might ask students to write an example from the story of a particular literary device in the poem they analyzed in class. Students might pull a variety of examples from the text, but asking students to give an example and explain it will help determine if they truly understand the literary device or not. Looking at them as a whole class helps you understand your students better because you will begin to see not only individuals who need help but patterns in misconceptions that need to be addressed.

Game your Assessment Up

Most people don't think of games as assessments, but they are an effective way of engaging students in formative assessment. As teachers, we struggle to compete with the technology that entertains students outside of the classroom. Turning formative assessments into games is a way to overcome that roadblock many teachers face in the classroom.

Not just any game is a formative assessment. However, there are many games that embed questions as part of the game to help teachers gather data on their students understanding of the content taught. For example, a math teacher could use a game such as Sumdog which gives students problems as they play the game. Students must answer the problems correctly to keep moving through the game, and the questions get more challenging the longer they play. Teachers can easily access a report on student progress, and see what types of problems they are struggling within the context of the game.


If you take a look at Steve Anderson's work, you'll find that there are a wide variety of technological resources teachers can use for formative assessments. These include options such as Pickkers, Kahoot, and Socrative. A free option for teachers to create quiz show style games are websites such as Kahoot where teachers can input their questions to play quiz style, competitive games. Teachers can design a game to gather formative assessment data about any topic they teach. Students learn about themselves by getting immediate feedback on a question, and the teacher gets a graph at the end of each question to see how many chose each answer. They can use those graphs as teachable moments during the game to address misconceptions. At the end of the game, teachers can download the data in the form of a spreadsheet where they can not only see the averages but the answer each student gave during the game. In this way, it meets both the needs of teachers and students.

By Rachel Tustin
November 2016
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