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The Best Formative Assessment Strategies and Formative Assessment Examples To Inspire Your Practice

Formative Assessment Strategies and Formative Assessment Examples To Inspire Your Practice

If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly itching for some new formative assessment examples to add to your repertoire.  We’ve taken a close look at a variety of definitions for “formative assessment” (check out our analysis here), and ultimately landed on the following definition to guide our understandings:

“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 foundation in mind, let’s consider what this looks like when the rubber meets the road.  There are heaps of formative assessment strategies with all sorts of cutesy names that, if we’d listed them all, would easily get us to a compilation of 100+ formative assessment examples.  Instead, we’ve categorized them into four major groups of formative assessment strategies and have included the best corresponding formative assessment examples in each category.

Keep in mind that the purpose of this list of formative assessment examples is to equip you with practical strategies you can implement immediately, and to inspire you to consider how you might apply similar practices that are already in your repertoire.  Otherwise, this compilation of formative assessment strategies strives to cut the fluff. So, let’s get to it.


Formative Assessment Strategy #1: Signals

Formative Assessment Strategies and Formative Assessment ExamplesWhat it is:  Signals are as straightforward as they sound.  Take the time to share a predetermined set of signals with your students (which could be as obvious as a “thumbs up” for “I get it” and “thumbs down” for “I’m still not sure”), or, better yet, co-create a set of signals with your students.  

Related Formative Assessment Examples:

  • Hand Gestures.  Any kind of hand gesture, which could be as straightforward as a thumbs up, or as holding up a certain number of fingers (one through five) in the style of a “likert scale” (e.g. “On a scale from 1 to 5, how confident do you feel in X?”).
  • Traffic Light.  This protocol may seem strictly elementary at first, but I’ve had great success implementing it at the high school and college level.  In short, find any kind of object or marker that can be used to indicate the colors red and green — or, red, yellow, and green.  Straightforward examples of this include a double-sided piece of construction paper (red on one side, green on the other), or a stack of three cups (one red, one yellow, one green).  Then, ask students to continuously monitor and report their level of understanding using those colors.
  • Subtle Symbols.  Often times, students will be shy about declaring that they don’t entirely grasp a subject — or, after expressing a need for clarification, will be hesitant to continue voicing their confusion.  To combat this, you might develop a system of subtle symbols — for the entire class, or even for use with individual students. For instance, if a student knows that placing a pencil on the upper-right-hand corner of her desk is her secret signal to you that she’s confused, she’ll be likely to take advantage of it!

What makes this awesome: Symbols are first on our list of formative assessment strategies because they’re so easy to implement, because they provide immediate information to the teacher, and because they come with a host of related benefits.  For example, the simple act of sharing whether a student understands the lesson requires that student to (1) reflect on the lesson, (2) formatively assess his or her own understandings, and (3) contribute to the classroom culture of learning, safety, and trust as they report out.  

What are the pitfalls: With great power comes great responsibility!  Whatever you do, don’t ignore your students’ requests for help — and never call a student out for voicing confusion.  Signals are almost entirely dependent on trust, and once that trust is broken, students won’t be nearly as likely to share their honest self-assessed levels of understanding with you.  Keep in mind that good formative assessment is ongoing, and is used to adjust instruction in real-time.


Formative Assessment Strategy #2: Quick-Writes

What it is: This section alone could contain upwards of a hundred differently named formative assessment examples — but, at their core, they would all be doing the same thing: asking students to briefly commit some idea to paper (or, to a screen).  We call these formative assessment strategies “quick-writes.” The idea here is that students will have to share their level of understanding in a manner that is visible to you — and writing is one of the fastest ways to get this done. (*Note that any of the formative assessment examples that follow can be translated into their audio and/or video-based counterparts with ease.  If you practice UDL, or if you’re designing your lesson with accessibility in mind, you might consider asking students to speak and/or record rather than write — but the same principles hold true. “Quick-writes” simply become “Quick-speaks.”)

Related Formative Assessment Examples:

  • Do Now / Warm Up.  I know, I know, this seems so straightforward that you’re wondering why it’s even on this list.  Here’s the thing. “Do Nows” and “Warm Ups” are not inherently formative assessments! By nature, a “Do Now” only requires that students engage with the assigned learning task “now” — typically at the start of the period.  The timing is optimal for a formative assessment, but it’s absolutely essential that the activity itself be formative in nature.  “Do Now: Take this unit test” is not a formative assessment. Conversely, “Do Now: In one sentence, summarize Gatsby’s motives in last night’s reading” fits the bill.
  • Exit slip.  The same ideas mentioned above (for “Do Now / Warm Up”) apply here.  What matters is not that the activity is called an “exit slip,” but rather, that students have the opportunity to showcase their learning to you.  Likewise, it’s incredibly important that you use the exit slips that students turn in to hone your instruction the following day. (This is the biggest pitfall associated with exit slips as formative assessments!  Because they’re turned in at the end of the period, the opportunity to impact instruction shifts from *immediate* to *tomorrow* or *next week*.)
  • Index card summary.  Index cards are a great way to quickly collect and review student responses.  As is the case with the aforementioned formative assessment strategies, the timing and the medium matter less than the questions and responses — but, if you’re looking for a protocol, index cards are a great way to go.  Similarly, you can implement a digital version of this using any number of digital tools that take formative assessment to an entirely new level. You can check out our list of digital formative assessment strategies here!
  • One-question-quiz.  That’s about as straightforward as it gets.  And, for the sake of stirring up your inspiration, let’s brainstorm a few more formative assessment examples that take a minute or less to commit to paper.  Sixty-second-pictionary! Explain what-matters-most! What’s the big idea? Sketch a quick Venn diagram! Jot down what confuses you! These are all nifty little formative assessment strategies that are easy to roll out, quick to review, and powerful to inform your instruction.

What makes this awesome: A growing body of research is showing that asking students to commit pen to paper comes with a variety of benefits, including better recall.  In formatively assessing students using quick-writes, you’re also helping them to build stronger, longer-lasting memories. What’s more, these quick check-ins are easy to implement, and require little to no preparation.  Hence why they’re great for implementation “on the fly” and continuously throughout any lesson.

What are the pitfalls: It’s important to keep your eye on the prize.  “Do Nows” and “Exit Slips” offer the allure of timing-based activities with cute-sounding names, but (#1) the actually stuff that students are writing matters most, and (#2) you must review the assessments and act on the results in order to truly harness the power of formative assessment.  Otherwise, a significant portion of the benefit is lost.


Formative Assessment Strategy #3: Reflection

What it is: Unlike “symbols,” which only take seconds, and “quick-writes,” which can take about a minute or two, reflections are typically longer assignments.  Reflections prompt students to take a closer look at what they’ve learned, and to showcase those understandings in writing. Additionally, reflections can prompt students to engage in a number of higher-level, meta-level, and social-emotional skills.  (Higher-level reflective prompts shift away from the “what” and toward the “how” and “why.” Meta-level ask students to consider what they’ve learned about the learning process, and what they’ve learned about themselves. SEL-related questions prompt students to reflect on how their work has impacted their own social-emotional wellness, how it has been influenced by their growth-mindset, and so on.)  The power of this formative assessment strategy is ultimately derived from the reflective question that is posed, but the activity itself can take many forms.

Related Formative Assessment Examples:

  • Journal Entries.  Students might be asked to maintain a reflective journal.  This is something students can keep in class and complete on paper (a marble notebook will do the trick).  Or, consider how a digital blog might accomplish the same ends — except, with the option to extend the writing process beyond the class period.  A variety of digital writing tools and blogging tools can make this process a piece of cake for your and your students — or, you might even consider shifting these reflective entries off of “the page” and into the multimedia realm (audio reflections, video reflections, etc.).  For more on that, check out our list of digital formative assessment strategies here!
  • One Pager.  If a regular journaling experience feels like more than you (or your students) have bargained for, consider implementing the “one-pager.”  This is literally the same process (engaging in a written reflection), only it’s assigned by the teacher in a targeted manner, rather than on a regular (daily/weekly) basis.  At the high school level, one typed, double-spaced page can be just right. For middle and elementary grades, just scale down as appropriate for your kiddos.
  • KWL.  The “KWL” chart is a popular graphic organizer that prompts students to indicate what they Know and what they Want to know prior to engaging in a learning task… and then, afterward, indicating what they’ve Learned.  This makes for an optimal formative assessment tool, as the information that students indicate prior to the learning task (in K and W) can be used to adjust the lesson accordingly — and, subsequently, what students indicate in L can drive instruction for the following day.  You might even consider making the L column a running-list that is updated throughout the course of the learning activity (ideal for longer tasks or labs) so as to continuously monitor students’ understandings.  Perfect for Google Docs!

What makes this awesome: Formative assessment aside, reflection is a powerful learning tool.  It provides learners an opportunity to consolidate their learning, to consider the learning process itself, and to take a good introspective look at themselves.  As a teacher, these kinds of reflective tasks can really enable you to peer into students’ minds. And, what’s more, students generally enjoy writing reflections.

What are the pitfalls: Be sure to clarify the ground rules for your students.  Should written reflections be just as formal as academic writing?  Should they be informal? Or, somewhere in between? How often will you read them?  Will you provide feedback on every single reflection? How on earth would you manage that?  Putting a system in place that clarifies the role of reflection for your students in a manner that gives you formative insight while allowing you to keep your sanity is a must.  Consider issuing a participation grade for completed reflections and adopting timely reading practices to ensure that reflections are actually used for formative practices.


Formative Assessment Strategy #4: Discussion

What it is: The fourth and final category on our list of formative assessment strategies is “discussion.”  This strategy entails any activity during which you prompt students to speak to each other. The key to making any kind of discussion task formative is to ensure you’re overhearing, considering, and acting on the quality of the conversations that are taking place.  At its core, formative assessment through discussion functions in exactly the same way as quick-writes — but, rather than extracting information through writing, you’re extracting it through discourse. It helps to listen carefully, to keep notes on a notepad, and even to utilize a rubric, depending on the discussion task.

Related Formative Assessment Examples:

  • Think-Pair-Share.  Tried and true!  The “Think-Pair-Share” technique can actually span multiple formative assessment strategies, because it first requires students to work independently (“Think”), which could take the form of a written reflection or a quick-write.  That’s already one great entry-point for you in terms of formatively assessing your students — but once students turn and talk with a partner (“Pair”), you’ll have a flurry of activity and an avalanche of formative assessment data to consider.  Pay careful attention to what you overhear, and be sure to adjust your instruction accordingly! The third stage, “Share,” prompts students to share their ideas with the whole class — which is a much slower, and potentially more intentional, version of the formative assessment practice that’s occurring during “Pair.”
  • Small Group Discussion.  Small group discussions are not limited to “Think-Pair-Shares,” and we could likely list a number of nifty sounding discussion protocols that ultimately accomplish this end via slightly nuanced implementations.  Students might be in pairs, in trios, or in quads. Students might have guiding questions handed to them by the teacher, or might be prompted to generate questions on their own. Groups might have specific roles and protocols, or they might simply be allotted a block of time to discuss.  In every scenario, the same fundamental formative assessment strategies and practices apply.
  • Large Group Discussion.  Although there is less activity (in a whole group setting, students will have far fewer chances to speak than when discussing in pairs or small groups), it’s easier for the teacher to listen to and assess student understanding in larger-group discussions.  Popular examples include Socratic circles, four-corner discussions, and discussion-ball style protocols.  (We LOVE Socratic Circles: Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School — consider checking it out for some wonderful inspiration!)
  • Chalk-Talk.  “Chalk-Talk” is a discussion strategy that essentially prompts students to engage in a class discussion, but in a manner that (1) is entirely silent, and (2) occurs on the chalkboard.  This is a great practice of encouraging students to be more purposeful in their responses (this happens when students are asked to write, rather than to speak off-the-cuff) — and a byproduct of this strategy is that it’s much easier (for our purposes, as teachers) to track and assess student understanding.  This is a lovely avenue into formative assessment!
  • Chatroom.  Take the benefits associated with formative assessment that are gained from a Chalk-Talk, and consider how they transfer perfectly into a chatroom environment.  Use a chatroom to (1) create a back-channel during a class discussion, (2) assign a discussion for homework, or even (3) facilitate an entire “silent” class discussion.  The chat transcript will provide you with all of the insights you need to formatively assess your students.
  • Oral Questioning.  This is as old-school as it gets.  Think Socrates, in ancient Greece, grilling his students.  Well, as long as you’re being purposeful in your questioning, actually listening to students’ responses, and adjusting your instruction accordingly — this is formative assessment in its most essential form.

What makes this is this awesome: Discussion protocols can be integrated into any subject area, at any grade level, at just about any time.  They can be planned, or they can be implemented on the fly. They can be fun and welcome by students, as long as the stakes are appropriate.  And the research shows that discussions can be hugely effective in fostering critical thinking skills and in building more durable understandings of content and concepts.

What are the pitfalls: The first major pitfall of discussion-based formative assessment is the sheer quantity of data that’s missed.  In other words, when all of your students are talking in pairs, it’s impossible to assess every one of those conversations.  Circulating helps, and often times, that’s just to formatively assess all of your kiddos… but, other strategies (such as chalk-talks… and, such as recording discussions and/or generating transcripts of discussions) can also alleviate this concern.  The second major pitfall is associated with students who may be averse to speaking in front of their peers — students who would rather accept a “0” for a discussion grade than to speak up. In these instances, that “0” would almost always be an inaccurate reflection of that child’s true understanding, so it’s important for us to consider alternative avenues of formative assessment.  (Could this child be asked to complete a one-pager, or a written reflection, in place of the discussion?)

The Formative Assessment Strategies We Haven’t Discussed…

Of course, this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list of formative assessment strategies — but rather, a smorgasbord of inspirational springboards to fuel and empower your practice!

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!

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