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Four Types of Formative Assessment, and the Best Digital Tools to Implement Them

The Four Types of Formative Assessment

The Four Types of Formative Assessment

Before unpacking the various types of formative assessment, we examined a variety of definitions for “formative assessment” (check out our analysis here), and came up with the following definition to contextualize our thinking:

“Formative assessment is every purposeful exchange between teacher and student that checks for understanding, and that is used to adjust and enhance learning.”

With that definition in mind, we were able to categorize strategies into four types of formative assessment.  In this article, be taking a surface-level look at each of these categories before pairing practices with digital tools — but, for a deeper dive into each, check out The Best Formative Assessment Strategies and Formative Assessment Examples To Inspire Your Practice.

So, without further adieu, let’s jump right in.

Types of Formative Assessment That Rely On Student Signals.

The Four Types of Formative AssessmentThe first of four types of formative assessment that we’ll be considering is those that prompt students to somehow signal their understanding to the teacher.  In a traditional, non-technology infused environment, this can look as straightforward as having three different colors of construction paper (red, yellow, green) in a stack on students’ desks and asking students to keep the color that’s indicative of their understanding at the top.

How can technology be infused to enhance this type of formative assessment?

  • Many software platforms that are designed to monitor one-to-one device initiatives (i.e. that allow teachers to monitor students’ screens) also include features that enable students to signal their understanding.  DyKnow is one of many such platforms that you may already have access to if you’re teaching in a one-to-one environment!
  • A simple Google Form can be used and recycled multiple times per period to prompt students to respond to a single question, e.g. “On a scale from 1 to 3, how well do you understand this concept?”  Form responses can be kept anonymous if you’re trying to monitor whole-class understandings — but this is far less beneficial than the kind of formative assessment data you’ll get by linking responses to individual kiddos.  This Google Form option is awesome if you’re trying to respect student privacy — whereas the option that follows is a far more public strategy for accomplishing a similar end.
  • Prepare a Google Doc or a Google Sheet with all over your students’ names on it.  This doc can be a running list, or a grid in a table. Then, give students editing access to that sheet and prompt them to highlight their name (or, if you used Google Sheets, the cell that contains their name) with the color that indicates their level of understanding.  In order to keep the color-codes from being too evaluative, consider a system such as: green mean “keep it coming,” yellow means “slow it down,” and red means “give us more time / more examples.” This can diffuse some of the judgmental associations students might feel when showcasing their color-codes in a shared document.  

Types of Formative Assessment That Rely On Quick Student Responses.

The second of four types of formative assessment that we’ll be discussing are those that rely on quick student responses.  These are typically considered “quick-writes,” but they can often take the form of short quizzes, too. In a traditional classroom, this might look like prompting students to jot down a short idea, or to answer a question, on an index card — and then to submit those index cards to you for review.  The tricky part of all of this is that you’ll have to actually review those index cards, wrap you mind around the “data,” and adjust your instruction accordingly in order to feel the benefit of formative instruction. Fortunately, there are plenty of digital tools that really shine in this area.

How can technology be infused to enhance this type of formative assessment?

  • Although it comes up often, Google Forms shines here more-so than in other types of formative assessment.  Why? Well, it’s a free tool that enables you to deploy targeted “pop quizzes” to your students in any variety of formats — from short answers to paragraph replies, from multiple choice to checklists.  You can even set your Google Form to function as a quiz so as to automatically score students’ submissions, giving you INSTANT insight into their understandings, and immediately enabling you to adjust instruction accordingly.  When we talk about highly effective formative assessment and 21st century instructional practices, this hits the nail on the head. It’s easy to take this kind of analytical power for granted, but a hundred years ago, this would be science fiction!
  • A wide variety of digital tools that accomplish a similar purpose as described above, but that may be equipped with additional features, include Flubaroo (Google AddOn), Quizizz, and Padlet.  Flubaroo provides automatic grading and automatic student feedback on assessments administered via Google Forms, Quizzizz enables students to assess their own understandings, and Padlet prompts students to utilize a digital bulletin board as a place to jot their ideas — visible to you for formative assessment purposes.


Types of Formative Assessment That Rely On Student Reflections.

Student reflection is one of the most powerful types of formative assessment, and is likely the most underutilized.  Simply put, when students receive timely and relevant feedback, and when they have the time and space to reflect on that feedback, significant learning occurs.  Likewise, when students are simply prompted to reflect on their growth, their learning, their strengths and weaknesses, and/or their own journey as“learners — you guessed it.  Significant learning occurs. Simultaneously, these reflective moments provide a powerful insight into student understanding that can be utilized to adjust instruction. Hence, the reflective formative assessment.

How can technology be infused to enhance this type of formative assessment?

The greatest obstacle regarding the implementation of this kind of regular reflective practice is the time it takes to manage all of the reading and writing, as well as the associated organization.  If students are keeping weekly reflective journals in marble notebooks, you’re likely to end up with over 500 journal entries to read across 100 marble notebooks that won’t be fun to lug to and from your car.  Fortunately, Google offers a variety of tools that come to our rescue.

  • Google Docs is the most straightforward way for us to alleviate the heap-of-marble-notebooks concern, simply because it digitizes those entries.  It’s definitely worth taking the time to create a structure of folders in Google Drive for your students that can organize and streamline the organizational process.  Google Classroom automates some of this, but Doctopus is a great Google AddOn to Google Sheets that accomplishes a similar end; simply upload your class rosters and it will generate a series of Google Folders that are shared only between you and your individual students — ideal for submitting work and for maintaining a yearlong reflective journal in a contained, digital space!
  • Blogs are another wonderful way to create digital spaces that function just like marble-notebooks, but that offer additional opportunities for collaboration, organization, and more.  The biggest difference between encouraging students to reflect on Google Docs versus blogs is exactly that — blogs tend to open things up publicly in a manner that Docs are less able or likely to do.  (And yes, blogs do offer settings that will enable you or your students to prevent “outsiders” from looking in.) Google’s blogging tool, Blogger, is a great solution that also “plays nice” with other tools in the Google Suite (good to know if you’re a one-to-one Chromebook school).  WordPress is another widely used blogging tool that fits the bill!


Types of Formative Assessment That Rely On Questions & Discussions.

Classroom discussions of all sorts and sizes can provide great insight into students’ understandings.  As such, this may be among the most flexible of the types of formative assessment that we’re considering in this article.  So, how can technology enhance classroom discussions?

How can technology be infused to enhance this type of formative assessment?

  • Chatting applications are a powerful addition to your repertoire, but the availability of these apps will vary widely from school to school based on students’ ages, district policies, and so on.  I’ve had great success using Discord to facilitate class discussions (whole discussions in the “full group” mode, and small group discussions in separate “channels” we set up), but Discord is primarily used by video gamers and as such, as of this writing, is a bit more of the “wild, wild west” of online chats.  (Read: not as secure as chat options that your school can monitor.) That said, Discord offers audio chat, video chat, document uploads, saved transcripts of all discussions… and, of course, invite-only chat spaces that you can leverage to get your kiddos in.
  • Backchannel discussions are a powerful tool to heighten student engagement, but for the same reason that chat applications provide great formative insights into student understanding, these backchannel chats are an awesome multi-purpose tool.  While students are engaged in any kind of a learning task (watching a clip, reading a story, even having an in-class discussion), ask them to simultaneously participate in a digital “chat.” Google’s in-document chat-windows are generally too small to accomplish this task, but related tools such as BackChannelChat and Twitter using a classroom hashtag (if Twitter is allowed in your school, and if your students are at an appropriate age).
  • Take advantage of multimodal means for communicating!  Not only is this a great way to heighten engagement (it’s fun) and participation (it creates more opportunities for access), it’s also supported by neuroscience research that suggests that multiple representations enhance memory, learning, and recall.  Turn text-based classroom chats into audio-based chats using Voxer — an asynchronous walkie-talkie smart phone app that can be a true game-changer for the way you communicate with your students. Or, consider using video posts via FlipGrid — an app that enables students to post videos (i.e. a video reflection), and depending on the permissions you set up, to view and respond to their peers.  FlipGrid includes some embedded rubric functionality, too!


Other Types of Formative Assessment

Although the four types of formative assessment we’ve discussed are among the quickest in terms of implementation and turn-around, they are certainly not an exhaustive list.  Quizzes, practice tests, pre-tests, and rough drafts of student writing are probably the most common examples of classroom strategies that lend themselves to the principles of formative assessment (“…purposeful exchanges between teacher and student that check for understanding, and that are used to adjust and enhance learning”).  In these cases, some of the greatest benefits that technology brings to the table come from (#1) faster data analytics, and (#2) faster turnaround for feedback.  Here’s a quick list of a few digital tools that nail it in these areas:


  • ActivelyLearn.  ActivelyLearn enables teachers to upload any kinds of texts or documents (articles, PDFs, websites) that can ultimately be assigned to students.  Then, teachers can intersperse questions throughout the readings that students must respond to during the reading process. The result? Students literally make their thinking visible as they engage with the assigned texts — which teachers can view responses and analytics in real-time.  ActivelyLearn is a formative assessment power house.
  • Kaizena.  Kaizena is a Google AddOn that makes it easy to create a bank of reusable comments for student work — so adding that same old “thesis” comment doesn’t have to take you ten minutes to write out every single time.  What’s more — you can add links to resources in these comments, so rather than just calling students out on their errors, you can provide meaningful resources for learning. Kaezena also boasts a voice-comment feature that can streamline the feedback process for you and your students.
  • TurnItIn.  While TurnItIn rose to popularity because of its plagiarism detection tools, it seems to have stayed at the top thanks to its full suite of assessment tools.  PeerMark makes digital peer-review a piece of cake (you can even make student work anonymous with the click of a checkbox).  GradeMark includes the same speedy-feedback features offered by Kaizena.  And TurnItIn’s acquisition of GradeScope leverages artificial intelligence to enhance the grading and feedback process across all subject areas.  (GradeScope literally lets you scan and upload your students’ handwritten exams for nearly instantaneous grading.  It’s unreal!)


If you’re looking to take a much deeper dive, we’ve developed an AWESOME online course that promises to bring you to the “cutting edge” with regard to student engagement and pedagogy.  Our course, Modern Mastery PD, hones in on student centered learning, the neuroscience of student engagement and motivation, gamification and game-based learning, gold standard educational technology integration, and more.  You can learn more here, or enter your email address below for more information and special offers!