PD Anywhere Professional Development Blog

Want to Improve Teaching? Use Formative Assessments

November 16, 2018

Educators understand that formative assessments evaluate students’ learning during instruction. An equally important purpose of formative assessments, though, is to improve teaching. As teachers move through the teaching/learning cycle, formative assessments allow for individualizing, re-grouping, re-teaching, enrichment, differentiating, and providing specific interventions if needed. When teachers measure students’ progress before, during, and after a lesson or chunk of instruction, they can identify students who are having difficulty or who already know the information. This allows teachers to intervene immediately to prevent student failure or provide more challenging and enriching learning opportunities.

Where Formatives Fit in the Teaching/Learning Cycle

The graphic below shows one model for a PCL-RTI cycle. While not all campus teams will design or implement this exact process, it represents an approach that includes a backwards design model and the basic questions about instruction that many professional learning teams use. In this process, frequent formative assessments provide information that guides enrichment or re-teaching activities for students who are not “getting it” or who “already know it.” Without that information and without attention to students who are not learning what the teacher is teaching, students might end up at the summative assessment without mastering required content. Teachers might end up frustrated after working hard in planning and then teaching lessons that did not get positive results. Both the students and the teachers could be surprised and disappointed with summative assessment results.

Quick and Easy Formatives

In the complimentary Strategy in Action guide provided on the PD Anywhere website, we emphasize quick, easy, and user-friendly methods of formative assessment. (https://pdanywhere.com/wp-content/uploads/PDA-SIA-001.pdf)

Some formative assessment tools are familiar to most teachers. Others may not be as familiar but can be very effective, especially when used to measure daily learning targets. Here are some of our favorite quick checks for understanding. If you haven’t tried these or if it has been a while since you have used them, consider giving them a try. Anyone can use these tools—all of which are inexpensive and easy. There are also lots of tech tools that are great for formative assessment as well, so don’t hesitate to use your tech resources for quick checks for understanding. Here are three ways of doing formative assessment quickly and easily:

Fist to Five

This quick formative allows students to tell teachers their level of understanding about content that has just been taught. The teacher asks students to quickly assess their level of knowledge or understanding, using a 1-5 scale. Students respond by holding up a fist (meaning 0: “I don’t get it at all”) or any number of fingers on one hand (with 1 meaning: “I only understand a little;” up to 5: “I’ve totally got this.”)

Fist to Five is quick, silent, and provides immediate feedback on teaching. We also found an Edutopia blog post that has more information on using hand signals in the classroom. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/hand-signals-bring-learning-to-life-ellie-cowen

Signal Cards

Cards with “yes” or “no” or red/green cards are just the beginning when using signal cards. Teachers can use white boards, numbered cards, or cards with letters. After asking a question, the teacher scans the room and can quickly determine which students have a grasp of the material and which students don’t. This link has free downloadable forms for these and other Comprehension Quick Checks, including Tell Me What You Don’t Know and the 1-2-3 form. https://pdanywhere.com/wp-content/uploads/PDA-Comprehension-Quick-Checks.pdf

Use a Single-Point Rubric

While rubrics are commonly used for evaluations of student performance, we find many of them to be unnecessarily wordy and complicated. Instead, consider trying a single-point rubric as a formative assessment. The concept is simple: Decide on two or three indicators or standards you believe are crucial when measuring performance (e.g., coherence, unity, organization in a writing assignment). Write a one-sentence description of how each should be represented (“The topic sentence and supporting sentences all hang together and present a single idea.”).

This information can go into a center column on a three-column form. Finally, just add a column to the left with space for concerns, issues, or improvements that are necessary and a column to the right where you can write ideas for enrichment or call attention to exemplary performance. For more information, you might want to read a blog post on the Cult of Pedagogy website about single point rubrics that has excellent information and an example: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/single-point-rubric/

Using Information from Formatives to Improve Teaching

Regardless of which formative assessment techniques you use in the classroom, remember that the assessment won’t mean anything if you fail to act on the information. After the assessment, carefully consider the results and decide which students are not learning and which ones already know the information.

Next, take the most important step: Change your teaching when the formative assessment information tells you that you should. If none of the students understood what was taught, that might mean a whole new plan and a re-teach. If just a few students didn’t understand, then maybe a small group review will be needed. The information from the formative assessment should provide guidance for how to change instruction if a change is needed. Decide how you will plan and deliver instruction to meet students’ needs, including possible re-grouping, quick re-teach segments, extension activities, and enrichment for students who need it. By adjusting your instruction in small ways but more often, your students won’t get left behind or become bored. Formative assessment is as much about teacher learning as it is about student learning.

Check Out Our Formative Assessment Micro-credential

PD Anywhere offers a micro-credential called Easy and Effective Formative Assessment that has more information for learners, including videos, blog posts, book excerpts, and research articles. After accessing this content, educators submit examples of formative assessments, explain how the information will be used, and provide videos of the process. More information can be found on the PD Anywhere website: https://pdanywhere.com/programs/

Resources for This Post

Ainsworth, L. & Viegut, D. (2006). Common formative assessments: How to connect standards-based instruction and assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Heritage, M. (2007). Formative assessment: What do teachers need to know and do? Phi Delta Kappan, 89 (2), 140-145.

National Research Council. (2003). Assessment in support of instruction and learning. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.