What is a formative assessment?

By Guest Author Shai McGowan

I am a firm believer that formative assessments must be part of the teaching and learning process. I tell my students that an FA (formative assessment) allows me to get a pulse on their learning and their understanding, and gives me a direction in the path of teaching. Consider this situation: You are on a path of teaching, and you reach a fork in the road. What path you choose should be based on students’ understanding.  Through administering a formative assessment, you have information that helps you decide the right path that is best for the students. In this blog post, I hope to touch on what a formative assessment is, what a formative assessment is not, different types/methods of formative assessments, and different programs/internet sites one might use to administer a formative assessment.

What exactly is a formative assessment?

A formative assessment is a quick assessment that allows a teacher to get a pulse on the students’ learning. To me, what is important is that it’s quick. FAs can be planned, but the most powerful ones are those that come about by observing the students, and listening for the students’ understanding. FAs can also be used to check for common mistakes and used to discern those mistakes. It is not an assessment that checks for mastery of an objective or learning target. Mastery is usually associated with summative assessments. Furthermore, a formative assessment is not a graded assessment. In my opinion, as soon as you grade a formative assessment, the learning stops. Students view it as a one and done type of assessment. Students also tend to get anxious when grades are assigned, and anxiety often times prevents a teacher from seeing the true understanding. Because you aren’t checking for mastery, it is important to allow the students to try and try again if needed. The students are more willing to take risks in their own learning, when they are not being graded.However, formative assessments do require feedback. It makes no sense to give a formative assessment, if you do nothing with it. As a teacher, after administering a formative assessment, regardless of type, I need to provide feedback to students. Sometimes, the feedback is simply a “High-five, you are on the right track!” but other times, the feedback needs to be a private face to face conversation with the student. This provides for a very powerful teaching opportunity. Those face to face chats can help you learn so much about the confusions a student has.

What are different types of formative assessments?

A formative assessment can be done at the start of the class, some points in the middle, and/or at the end of class. It should be done often.  It can be done gesturally, on paper/pencil, or digitally. All three have pros and cons, and all three can be employed rather quickly. Some ideas for each include the following:

Gesturally– Extremely quick, but hard to give feedback. This also requires trust that the student is being honest with their learning since no work can be seen.
Thumbs up/down for understanding
Cards that indicate where a student is understanding (Got it! Almost Got it! Need Help! Not sure at all!)
Fist to five (5 fingers = Understand completely, 4 fingers = Understand mostly, 3 = Understand pretty well, 2 = more practice, please, 1 = need help, fist = No understanding)

Paper/Pencil– Not the quickest way to get information, but is important if technology isn’t available.
Homework practice- since a teacher doesn’t expect mastery on every single homework problem, one might look at homework practice as a type of formative assessment. I know that I do when my students have practice problems for homework.
Entrance Tickets or a “Do Now” problem. This can help you decide differentiated groups.

Get the Goof- Teacher solves a problem, but makes an error. The students need to find that error and explain why it is wrong.

Quick Pulse- What can the student do at this point, and what needs to be stressed. This can been done a poll, a quick discussion using a back channel, or simply a problem to solve.

Exit Ticket- What are students’ take away from the class (summarize what they learn, give a quick example of what was taught) what thoughts might a student have, what needs further discussion

Digitally – These are software/internet sites that help you “see” the learning and engage using technology. (These are just a few options!)

goFormative– My favorite. Only one (that I know of) that gives you live results as your students work. Many different ways to make a FA easily.

Today’s Meet– A back channel that allows you to gather information/discussion with your students. Can be used as a way to do virtual office hours as well.

Kahoot– a site that can create competition with your students

Poll Everywhere– allows you ask questions or a series of questions to check for understanding

Socrative – a site that allows you to establish a virtual room (no logins needed) with different types of FA (multiple choice, open ended, space races)

Regardless of what you teach and how you teach it (traditional vs flipped classroom), formative assessments have to be an integral part of the teaching process. They show you what your students are learning, and where on the learning path they stand. They are not meant to be used to penalize a student for lack of understanding.  Formative assessments are simply meant to inform you of your teaching, and help you determine what the next best step is for the students.