15 Ways to Know When Your Students Aren’t “Getting” It: A Guide to Formative Assessment

Do you have a sneaking suspicion?

Picture this: It’s your first big lesson of the new school year, and you’ve spent a ton of time planning the perfect activity to engage your class. But after the lesson is over, you have a sneaking suspicion most of your students left class confused, though you’re not totally sure. Now what?

Building in ways to check for understanding during your daily lessons helps you quickly and easily gather enough information to determine whether or not your students “get it” and then make educated decisions about changes you need to make to your planning and instruction as a result. Daniel R. Venables, director of the Center for Authentic PLCs and ASCD author of How Teachers Can Turn Data Into Action, compares how teachers use formative assessment to how animals like bats use echolocation—we’re picking up pieces of information from students and using it for guidance, just as bats use sound waves to navigate their course in the dark.

Here are 15 tips to help you use formative assessment as your compass in the classroom.

1. It’s Not a Quiz

Call it information gathering, a temperature check or a quick poll, but whatever you do, don’t call it a quiz! “As soon as you call something a quiz,” says Susan Brookhart, ASCD author and education consultant, “[students’] first goal is to get everything right.” This mentality could cause anxiety in some students, which is often counterproductive to the goal of the assessment.

2. Red, Yellow, Green

Formative assessment should encourage students to tell you how they’re feeling. Try the traffic light: Give each student red, yellow and green cards or cups. Then, have students change the color based on their comfort level with the task. If they understand, the green card is up. When they get stuck, they switch to yellow or red.

Stoplight

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3. What Are We Going to Learn?

At the start, instead of “What are the kids going to do?” or “What am I going to teach?” ask, “What are they going to learn?” Then, work from there to define learning targets and identify places where you want to check for understanding.

4. Plan CFUs

Plan to “check for understanding” (CFU) at the places in your lesson that you most need to know whether or not students are on track. That could be after a brainstorming session, before they start small-group work or after writing a rough draft. At each CFU, make sure you know what you want to see so you can make the right adjustments.

5. Know What to Listen For

Formative assessment often happens in the moment—listening to student conversation or glancing at a student’s work. To make the most of these quick checks, Michael Fisher, ASCD author and founder of Digigogy.com, suggests focusing on how students are using domain-specific vocabulary or how they’re connecting to previous learning. In the lesson plan, highlighting vocabulary or marking possible connections will help you monitor those aspects.

6. Compare Apples to Apples

Make sure your assessment method reflects what you’re working on, says Andrew Miller, ASCD Faculty member and author of Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? If you’re assessing how students approach a math problem, seeing the problem written out on whiteboards may be more helpful than listening to students explain it to you.

7. Bell Ringers

The warm-up or bell ringer can provide your first piece of information. For example, have students write their answers to a question on a sticky note, then have them post their sticky notes on a continuum scale that shows how confident they are in their answers. Use that information to start the day’s lesson or discussion.

8. Fist to Five

A way to assess the entire class’s comfort level with a concept or skill is with a show of fingers. Students hold up one, two, three, four or five fingers—one if they are totally confused and five if they understand and are ready to move on. The trick is to have students put their heads down (or write a number on a whiteboard that they hold up) so they’re not looking around to compare their comfort level with their peers’.

Fist to Five Checkbbc.co.uk via Pinterest

9. Ask the Right Questions

Instead of asking “What are you doing?” ask, “What are you trying to learn?” That way, the answer “I’m doing a worksheet” or “I’m discussing the chapter” won’t cut it. Students need to know what they’re trying to learn and how they’re going to change, or they won’t recognize their learning when it happens.

10. Ask the Right Students

As teachers, says Venables, we often mistake the extent to which students have mastered the lesson. To make sure you’re not hearing only from students who “get” it, use a random questioning strategy, like pulling Popsicle sticks with names on them.

11. Use Mini-Presentations

Mini-presentations, when students are asked to quickly share what they’ve learned with the class, are an opportunity for you to gauge just what they’re taking away, while adding accountability for students.

12. Go Digital

To get whole-class information, online tools like Socrative.com or PollEverywhere.com allow you to ask questions or series of questions to check for understanding. When you choose a digital tool, says Fisher, think about what the tool does and whether it’s a cognitive match for what you want students to learn.

13. Move Around

Take the opportunity to get students up and moving. For example, suggests Miller, draw a line on the floor or chalkboard with one end indicating that they agree with a decision that a character made or with a historical decision, and one end stating that they disagree. Then, have students “stand” on the line to indicate how much they agree or disagree. The questions you ask once students are all lined up will show you how deeply students have thought about the topic.

14. Exit Tickets

Exit tickets, given at the end of a lesson, can include a content question as well as reflection questions about how comfortable students are with the material. The additional question about students’ confidence will tell you how fast to progress. You can sort the exit slips into piles by the types of mistakes students made and plan small group lessons for the next day.

Exit TicketsEducationtothecore.com via Pinterest

15. Formative Isn’t Summative

Remember, the goal of formative assessment isn’t to assess whether or not students have mastered the ultimate objective (that’s summative assessment) but to keep your finger on the pulse of students’ thinking—to make sure they’re on the right path!

Check out Action Pack on Assessment from ASCD, publisher of Educational Leadership® Magazine. This 26-page free download has fresh assessment strategies to help you jumpstart the new school year. Download Now.

Posted by Samantha Cleaver

Samantha Cleaver, PhD, teaches middle school special education and writes about her favorite thing to do, reading.

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