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Formative Assessment

Find and share ideas for checking in with students during a project, class, or semester to assess their learning and see if content or instruction needs adjusting.

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Teachers' Essential Guide to Formative Assessment

Topics:   EdTech Instruction & Assessment

How can I use formative assessment to plan instruction and help students drive their own learning?

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What is formative assessment?

What makes a good formative assessment, how should i use formative assessment results, how do i know what type of formative assessment to use, what are the benefits of using an edtech tool for formative assessment.

A formative assessment is a teaching move -- a question, an activity, or an assignment -- that a teacher performs to gain information about student learning. It is formative in that it is intentionally done for the purpose of planning or adjusting future instruction and activities. Like we consider our formative years when we draw conclusions about ourselves, a formative assessment is where we begin to draw conclusions about our students' learning.

Formative assessment moves can take many forms and generally target skills or content knowledge that is relatively narrow in scope (as opposed to summative assessments, which seek to assess broader sets of knowledge or skills). Common examples of formative assessments include exit tickets, fist-to-five check-ins, teacher-led question-and-answer sessions or games, completed graphic organizers, and practice quizzes.

In short, formative assessment is an essential part of all teaching and learning because it enables teachers to identify and target misunderstandings as they happen, and to adjust instruction to ensure that all students are keeping pace with the learning goals. As described by the NCTE position paper Formative Assessment That Truly Informs Instruction , formative assessment is a "constantly occurring process, a verb, a series of events in action, not a single tool or a static noun."

As mentioned above, formative assessments can take many forms. The most useful formative assessments share some common traits:

Formative assessments are generally used for planning future instruction and for helping students drive their own learning. In terms of future instruction, how you use assessment data most depends on what kind of results you get.

The above recommendations are general rules of thumb, but your school or district may have specific guidelines to follow around teaching and reteaching. Make sure to consult them first.

Also, it's important to remember that building differentiation into the structure of your class and unit design from the beginning is the best way to make use of formative assessment results. Whether this means a blended or flipped classroom or activity centers, structuring in small-group, student-directed learning activities from the outset will make you more willing -- and better prepared -- to use formative assessment regularly and effectively in your class.

This is perhaps the most difficult question when it comes to formative assessment. There are so many different methods -- just check out this list from Edutopia -- that it's easy to get lost in the sea of options. When it comes to choosing, the most important question is: What type of skill or content are you seeking to measure?

As mentioned above, one of the big benefits of using a tool for formative assessment is that it allows teachers to more efficiently use their time. Apps like Quizlet and Formative use a quiz format to provide real-time feedback to both students and teachers, and -- in their premium versions -- provide aggregate qualitative and quantitative assessment data. Other apps, like Kahoot! or Quizizz , provide these features with the added engagement of game-based competition. Apps like Flipgrid (video-based) and Edulastic (tracks against standards) provide assessment data with other additional perks. Check out our list of top tech tools for formative assessment to see a range of options.

Finally, if you're already regularly teaching with technology , using an edtech tool fits seamlessly into the daily activities your students already know how to do. It can be an independent activity that students do as part of a blended classroom, or an outside-of-class activity that's part of a flipped classroom. In this context, both students and teachers will get the most out of the time-saving and student-centered benefits that edtech tools provide.

As an education consultant, Jamie created curriculum and professional development content for teachers. Prior to consulting, Jamie was senior manager of educator professional learning programs at Common Sense and taught middle school English in Oakland, California. For the 2016–2017 school year, Jamie received an Excellence in Teaching award and was one of three finalists for Teacher of the Year in Oakland Unified School District. While teaching, Jamie also successfully implemented a $200,000 school-wide blended-learning program funded by the Rogers Family Foundation and led professional development on a wide range of teaching strategies. Jamie holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Eugene Lang College and a master's degree in philosophy and education from Teacher' College at Columbia University. Jamie currently lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil with his 4-year-old son, Malcolm, and his partner, Marijke.

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14 Examples of Formative Assessment [+FAQs]

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Traditional student assessment typically comes in the form of a test, pop quiz, or more thorough final exam. But as many teachers will tell you, these rarely tell the whole story or accurately determine just how well a student has learned a concept or lesson.

That’s why many teachers are utilizing formative assessments. While formative assessment is not necessarily a new tool, it is becoming increasingly popular amongst K-12 educators across all subject levels. 

Curious? Read on to learn more about types of formative assessment and where you can access additional resources to help you incorporate this new evaluation style into your classroom.

What is Formative Assessment?

Online education glossary EdGlossary defines formative assessment as “a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course.” They continue, “formative assessments help teachers identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills they are having difficulty acquiring, or learning standards they have not yet achieved so that adjustments can be made to lessons, instructional techniques, and academic support.”

The primary reason educators utilize formative assessment, and its primary goal, is to measure a student’s understanding while instruction is happening. Formative assessments allow teachers to collect lots of information about a student’s comprehension while they’re learning, which in turn allows them to make adjustments and improvements in the moment. And, the results speak for themselves — formative assessment has been proven to be highly effective in raising the level of student attainment, increasing equity of student outcomes, and improving students’ ability to learn, according to a study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

On the flipside of the assessment coin is summative assessments, which are what we typically use to evaluate student learning. Summative assessments are used after a specific instructional period, such as at the end of a unit, course, semester, or even school year. As learning and formative assessment expert Paul Black puts it, “when the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When a customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.”

formative assessment grade

14 Examples of Formative Assessment Tools & Strategies

There are many types of formative assessment tools and strategies available to teachers, and it’s even possible to come up with your own. However, here are some of the most popular and useful formative assessments being used today.

Students break out into small groups and are given a blank chart and writing utensils. In these groups, everyone answers an open-ended question about the current lesson. Beyond the question, students can also add any relevant knowledge they have about the topic to their chart. These charts then rotate from group to group, with each group adding their input. Once everyone has written on every chart, the class regroups and discusses the responses. 

This formative assessment style is quite flexible and can be used in many different settings. You can ask individuals, groups, or the whole class high-level, open-ended questions that start with “why” or “how.” These questions have a two-fold purpose — to gauge how well students are grasping the lesson at hand and to spark a discussion about the topic. 

These written summaries of a lesson or subject ask students to complete three separate write-ups of varying lengths: short (10-15 words), medium (30-50 words), and long (75-100). These different lengths test students’ ability to condense everything they’ve learned into a concise statement, or elaborate with more detail. This will demonstrate to you, the teacher, just how much they have learned, and it will also identify any learning gaps. 

Think-pair-share asks students to write down their answers to a question posed by the teacher. When they’re done, they break off into pairs and share their answers and discuss. You can then move around the room, dropping in on discussions and getting an idea of how well students are understanding.

This formative assessment tool can be written or oral and asks students to respond to three very simple prompts: Name three things you didn’t know before, name two things that surprised you about this topic, and name one you want to start doing with what you’ve learned. The exact questions are flexible and can be tailored to whatever unit or lesson you are teaching.

This is a great participation tool to use mid-lesson. At any point, pose a poll question to students and ask them to respond by raising their hand. If you have the capability, you can also use online polling platforms and let students submit their answers on their Chromebooks, tablets, or other devices.

Exit and admission tickets are quick written exercises that assess a student’s comprehension of a single day’s lesson. As the name suggests, exit tickets are short written summaries of what students learned in class that day, while admission tickets can be performed as short homework assignments that are handed in as students arrive to class.

This quick, formative assessment tool is most useful at the end of the day to get a complete picture of the classes’ learning that day. Put one minute on the clock and pose a question to students about the primary subject for the day. Typical questions might be:

These types of assessments are likely already part of your evaluation strategy and include projects like posters and collage, skit performances, dioramas, keynote presentations, and more. Formative assessments like these allow students to use more creative parts of their skillset to demonstrate their understanding and comprehension and can be an opportunity for individual or group work.

Dipsticks — named after the quick and easy tool we use to check our car’s oil levels — refer to a number of fast, formative assessment tools. These are most effective immediately after giving students feedback and allowing them to practice said skills. Many of the assessments on this list fall into the dipstick categories, but additional options include writing a letter explaining the concepts covered or drawing a sketch to visually represent the topic. 

A majority of students enjoy games of some kind, and incorporating games that test a student’s recall and subject aptitude are a great way to make formative assessment more fun. These could be Jeopardy-like games that you can tailor around a specific topic, or even an online platform that leverages your own lessons. But no matter what game you choose, these are often a big hit with students.

Interview-based assessments are a great way to get first-hand insight into student comprehension of a subject. You can break out into one-on-one sessions with students, or allow them to conduct interviews in small groups. These should be quick, casual conversations that go over the biggest takeaways from your lesson. If you want to provide structure to student conversations, let them try the TAG feedback method — tell your peer something they did well, ask a thoughtful question, and give a positive suggestion.

Allow students to take the rubric you use to perform a self assessment of their knowledge or understanding of a topic. Not only will it allow them to reflect on their own work, but it will also very clearly demonstrate the gaps they need filled in. Self assessments should also allow students to highlight where they feel their strengths are so the feedback isn’t entirely negative.

Participation cards are a great tool you can use on-the-fly in the middle of a lesson to get a quick read on the entire classes’ level of understanding. Give each student three participation cards — “I agree,” “I disagree,” and “I don’t know how to respond” — and pose questions that they can then respond to with those cards. This will give you a quick gauge of what concepts need more coverage.

List of Formative Assessment Resources

There are many, many online formative assessment resources available to teachers. Here are just a few of the most widely-used and highly recommended formative assessment sites available.

FAQs About Formative Assessment

The following frequently asked questions were sourced from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), a leading education professional organization of more than 100,000 superintendents, principals, teachers, and advocates.  

Is formative assessment something new?

No and yes. The concept of measuring a student’s comprehension during lessons has existed for centuries. However, the concept of formative assessment as we understand it didn’t appear until approximately 40 years ago, and has progressively expanded into what it is today.

What makes something a formative assessment?

ASCD characterized formative assessment as “a way for teachers and students to gather evidence of learning, engage students in assessment, and use data to improve teaching and learning.” Their definition continues, “when you use an assessment instrument— a test, a quiz, an essay, or any other kind of classroom activity—analytically and diagnostically to measure the process of learning and then, in turn, to inform yourself or your students of progress and guide further learning, you are engaging in formative assessment. If you were to use the same instrument for the sole purpose of gathering data to report to a district or state or to determine a final grade, you would be engaging in summative assessment.”

Does formative assessment work in all content areas?

Absolutely, and it works across all grade levels. Nearly any content area — language arts, math, science, humanities, and even the arts or physical education — can utilize formative assessment in a positive way.

How can formative assessment support the curriculum?

Formative assessment supports curricula by providing real-time feedback on students’ knowledge levels and comprehension of the subject at hand. When teachers regularly utilize formative assessment tools, they can find gaps in student learning and customize lessons to fill those gaps. After term is over, teachers can use this feedback to reshape their curricula.

How can formative assessment be used to establish instructional priorities?

Because formative assessment supports curriculum development and updates, it thereby influences instructional priorities. Through student feedback and formative assessment, teachers are able to gather data about which instructional methods are most (and least) successful. This “data-driven” instruction should yield more positive learning outcomes for students.

Can formative assessment close achievement gaps?

Formative assessment is ideal because it identifies gaps in student knowledge while they’re learning. This allows teachers to make adjustments to close these gaps and help students more successfully master a new skill or topic.

How can I help my students understand formative assessment?

Formative assessment should be framed as a supportive learning tool; it’s a very different tactic than summative assessment strategies. To help students understand this new evaluation style, make sure you utilize it from the first day in the classroom. Introduce a small number of strategies and use them repeatedly so students become familiar with them. Eventually, these formative assessments will become second nature to teachers and students.

Before you tackle formative assessment, or any new teaching strategy for that matter, consider taking a continuing education course. At the University of San Diego School of Professional and Continuing Education, we offer over 500 courses for educators that can be completed entirely online, and many at your own pace. So no matter what your interests are, you can surely find a course — or even a certificate — that suits your needs.

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Formative Assessment

Formative assessment refers to a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course. Formative assessments help teachers identify concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills they are having difficulty acquiring, or learning standards they have not yet achieved so that adjustments can be made to lessons, instructional techniques, and academic support .

The general goal of formative assessment is to collect detailed information that can be used to improve instruction and student learning while it’s happening . What makes an assessment “formative” is not the design of a test, technique, or self-evaluation, per se, but the way it is used—i.e., to inform in-process teaching and learning modifications.

Formative assessments are commonly contrasted with summative assessments , which are used to evaluate student learning progress and achievement at the conclusion of a specific instructional period—usually at the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program, or school year. In other words, formative assessments are for learning, while summative assessments are of learning. Or as assessment expert Paul Black put it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” It should be noted, however, that the distinction between formative and summative is often fuzzy in practice, and educators may hold divergent interpretations of and opinions on the subject.

Many educators and experts believe that formative assessment is an integral part of effective teaching. In contrast with most summative assessments, which are deliberately set apart from instruction, formative assessments are integrated into the teaching and learning process. For example, a formative-assessment technique could be as simple as a teacher asking students to raise their hands if they feel they have understood a newly introduced concept, or it could be as sophisticated as having students complete a self-assessment of their own writing (typically using a rubric outlining the criteria) that the teacher then reviews and comments on. While formative assessments help teachers identify learning needs and problems, in many cases the assessments also help students develop a stronger understanding of their own academic strengths and weaknesses. When students know what they do well and what they need to work harder on, it can help them take greater responsibility over their own learning and academic progress.

While the same assessment technique or process could, in theory, be used for either formative or summative purposes, many summative assessments are unsuitable for formative purposes because they do not provide useful feedback. For example, standardized-test scores may not be available to teachers for months after their students take the test (so the results cannot be used to modify lessons or teaching and better prepare students), or the assessments may not be specific or fine-grained enough to give teachers and students the detailed information they need to improve.

The following are a few representative examples of formative assessments:

In addition to the reasons addressed above, educators may also use formative assessment to:

While the formative-assessment concept has only existed since the 1960s, educators have arguably been using “formative assessments” in various forms since the invention of teaching. As an intentional school-improvement strategy, however, formative assessment has received growing attention from educators and researchers in recent decades. In fact, it is now widely considered to be one of the more effective instructional strategies used by teachers, and there is a growing body of literature and academic research on the topic.

Schools are now more likely to encourage or require teachers to use formative-assessment strategies in the classroom, and there are a growing number of professional-development opportunities available to educators on the subject. Formative assessments are also integral components of personalized learning and other educational strategies designed to tailor lessons and instruction to the distinct learning needs and interests of individual students.

While there is relatively little disagreement in the education community about the utility of formative assessment, debates or disagreements may stem from differing interpretations of the term. For example, some educators believe the term is loosely applied to forms of assessment that are not “truly” formative, while others believe that formative assessment is rarely used appropriately or effectively in the classroom.

Another common debate is whether formative assessments can or should be graded. Many educators contend that formative assessments can only be considered truly formative when they are ungraded and used exclusively to improve student learning. If grades are assigned to a quiz, test, project, or other work product, the reasoning goes, they become de facto summative assessments—i.e., the act of assigning a grade turns the assessment into a performance evaluation that is documented in a student’s academic record, as opposed to a diagnostic strategy used to improve student understanding and preparation before they are given a graded test or assignment.

Some educators also make a distinction between “pure” formative assessments—those that are used on a daily basis by teachers while they are instructing students—and “interim” or “benchmark” assessments, which are typically periodic or quarterly assessments used to determine where students are in their learning progress or whether they are on track to meeting expected learning standards. While some educators may argue that any assessment method that is used diagnostically could be considered formative, including interim assessments, others contend that these two forms of assessment should remain distinct, given that different strategies, techniques, and professional development may be required.

Some proponents of formative assessment also suspect that testing companies mislabel and market some interim standardized tests as “formative” to capitalize on and profit from the popularity of the idea. Some observers express skepticism that commercial or prepackaged products can be authentically formative, arguing that formative assessment is a sophisticated instructional technique, and to do it well requires both a first-hand understanding of the students being assessed and sufficient training and professional development.

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Formative vs. Summative Assessments: What's the Difference?

December 22nd, 2021 | 8 min. read

Formative vs. Summative Assessments: What's the Difference?

Chris Zook is a contributing author to the AES blog. He enjoys everything about online marketing, data science, user experience, and corgis.

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Whether you’re an administrator, supervisor, or teacher, you’ve heard of formative assessments and summative assessments . They're both essential parts of any curriculum map . But what do these terms actually mean?

In a nutshell, formative assessments are quizzes and tests that evaluate how someone is learning material throughout a course .

Summative assessments are quizzes and tests that evaluate how much someone has learned throughout a course .

In the classroom, that means formative assessments take place during a course, while summative assessments are the final evaluations at the course’s end. 

That's the simple answer, but there's actually a lot more that makes formative and summative assessments different. To fully understand formative vs. summative assessments, you'll need to understand the details of these two important forms of assessment.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at formative and summative quizzing and assessing. When you've finished reading, you'll understand how to better test student knowledge in your classroom.

Video: Formative vs. Summative Assessments

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What Are Formative Assessments?


Formative assessments are evaluations of someone’s learning progress in a classroom.

Common formative assessments include:

Formative assessments work great when they’re used on a regular basis. That regularity could be based on a calendar (every Monday, every Thursday, etc.) or your lesson plans (every unit).

They’re also more flexible than summative assessments. You don’t always have to use pencil and paper to get a feel for your students’ progress. Instead, you can use in-class games, group presentations, and hands-on activities to evaluate student progress.

Ultimately, the formative assessments you use are up to you. After all, no one knows your classes better than you. So if you’d prefer to get an overview of how well your students are learning, you can use a group-style assessment like a game. If you want to know where each student struggles, you can use an individual assessment like a quiz.

This flexibility is perfect for keeping students engaged in your class. It lets you stick to a syllabus while mixing up the exact task each student has to perform. That way, you don’t fall into a predictable routine of teach-test-teach-test. Instead, you have a varied routine of teach-game-quiz-teach-presentation-project or another interesting format.

By the time your course ends, you’ll have a full understanding of how students are learning as you teach a subject. Then, you can keep all of your grades to look for patterns among different class sections.

Is there an area where students seem to do worse than others? Could you adjust a lesson and shoot for better results?

Naturally, you’ll never get a class that’s straight A’s from top to bottom. But you can still design your classroom assessments to work for as many students as possible!

Top 3 Formative Assessment Examples


Formative assessments are excellent opportunities to let your students flex their creative muscles.

Even if a student isn’t much of a writer or artist, they can still have a little fun with these assessments.

1. Make an ad

Have your students create an advertisement for a concept they just learned. Use visuals and text to really sell an idea.

This makes students apply what they’ve learned into a creative exercise, which helps with long-term retention.

2. Idea comparisons

Instruct students to lay out the main ideas of a new concept they learned. Then, have them compare that concept to another to see where they agree and disagree.

In addition to helping students remember these concepts, this exercise makes them apply previous knowledge to a new format so they can remember it better in the future.

3. Misconceptions

After you introduce a concept to students, introduce a popular misconception about it. Have students discuss why the misconception is false and where it may have started.

This exercise makes students think critically about what they’ve just learned while showing them how to debunk misinformation.  

How Do You Track Formative Assessments?

You can track formative assessments in one of three ways.

First, you can track them by grade . This gives you a specific, concentrated view of how a student (or group of students) learns. However, graded assessments are sources of stress for many students. So if you want to make a unit fun or loose, graded assessments may not work well for you. 

Second, you can track them by feel . This is more based on your teacher instinct, allowing you to pick which students need additional support based on your observation. On the downside, you can’t “show” this information to your administrators . If you have certain standards to meet throughout a marking period, you won’t be able to prove you’ve fulfilled those standards without grades.

Finally, you can track formative assessments with  student data . This is non-graded information that may reflect how your students are learning, such as questions they've frequently answered incorrectly or subject areas where they've had trouble. After all, not everything has to be a grade!

With all of that said and done, let’s jump into summative assessments.

What Are Summative Assessments?


Summative assessments are evaluations of what someone has learned throughout a course. 

Common summative assessments include:

Summative assessments almost always take place at the end of a course unless a teacher decides to break a course into more manageable chunks. They’re often cumulative, and they’re used to evaluate a student’s long-term information retention.

In summative assessments like final exams, you can include questions from the first week or two of a course to ensure students retained introductory information. In other assessments like papers, your students can pull from a full marking period of learning to apply to a topic.

Either way, your students have to do some serious reflecting and critical thinking to bring together the information from an entire course.

This is a great way to ensure students retain essential information from one course to another. So if you teach introductory courses, summative assessments are perfect to set students up for success in their next classes.

That’s important because a student’s success in your classroom is just one step for them. When you prepare them for the next step, you make it easier for them to succeed in the future as well.

In that way, summative assessments serve two purposes:

First , they evaluate what someone learned while they’ve been in your class.

Second , they evaluate how prepared someone is to go to the next academic level.

Combined with the rest of a student’s performance in class, summative quizzing and assessments are excellent ways to gauge progress while ensuring long-term information retention.

Top 3 Summative Assessment Examples


Summative assessments are traditionally more structured and standardized than formative assessments.

Still, you have a few options to shake things up that go beyond a pen-and-paper test.

1. In-depth reports

Instruct students to choose a topic that resonated with them in class and report in-depth on it. This is a great opportunity for students to take an idea and run with it under your supervision.

These reports often showcase a student’s interest, and you’ll be able to evaluate a student’s engagement level in the class by how they approach the report.

The goal is a passionate, intelligent, and comprehensive examination of a concept that matters to a student. 

2. Cumulative, individual projects

Have your students pick a project to complete. This project should somehow reflect what they’ve learned throughout the course.

Projects are great for any practical application class from health science to physics. Creating a cross-section of the human heart, designing a diet, or creating a protective egg-drop vessel are all fun ways students can show off their knowledge of a topic.

3. Personal evaluation papers

Require students to apply principles from your class to their personal lives. These papers are excellent fits for psychology, nutrition, finance, business, and other theory-based classes.

In a nutshell, personal evaluations let students look at themselves through a different lens while exploring the nuances of the principles they learned in class.  Plus, it lets students do something everyone loves — talk about themselves!

Now that you have a few ideas on summative assessments, how can you track their success?

How Do You Track Summative Assessments?

While everyone has their own ideas on this topic, grades are the best way to evaluate someone’s success with a summative assessment.

How you grade is ultimately up to you. Presentations are great ways to grade someone based on a number of factors, including soft skills like public speaking. Written exams or project-based assessments are ideal to see a student’s full-scope understand of your class after a marking period.

Whatever you choose, stick to a consistent grading scale so you can identify your own strengths and weaknesses in the classroom as students complete your course. 

What’s More Important: Formative or Summative Assessments?


Many new teachers have this question — are formative or summative assessments more important?

In a perfect world, they’re equally important. Formative assessments let students show that they’re learning, and summative assessments let them show what they’ve learned.

But American public education values summative assessments over formative assessments. Standardized tests — like the SATs — are great examples of high-value summative assessments.

It’s rare to find the same emphasis on formative quizzing and assessments. That’s because formative assessments act like milestones while summative assessments show the bottom line.

We encourage teachers to look at these assessments as two sides of the same coin. Formative and summative assessments work together flawlessly when implemented properly.

With all of that in mind, you only have one question left to answer. How are you going to add these assessments to your curriculum ?

Use Formative and Summative Assessments and Meet Your Challenges

As a teacher, you’ll likely need to employ both summative and formative assessments in your curriculum. An effective balance of these assessments will help you understand your students’ needs while meeting your standards.

However, CTE teachers face challenges in the classroom each day that sometimes get in the way of connecting with students and preparing them for these assessments.

If you want to feel less overwhelmed and spend more time helping your students succeed, download your free guide . You’ll learn about five of the most significant challenges teachers face and how you can overcome them.

Overcome Your Teaching Challenges

Ideas, Inspiration, and Giveaways for Teachers

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25 Formative Assessment Options Your Students Will Actually Enjoy

Get them excited to show you what they know!

Meghan Mathis

Formative assessment is the piece of the teaching puzzle that allows us to quickly (and hopefully, accurately) gauge how well our students are understanding the material we’ve taught. From there, we make the important decisions about where our lesson will go next. Do we need to reteach, or are our students ready to progress? Do some students need additional practice? And which students need to be pushed to achieve the next level?

The best formative assessments will not only answer these questions but will also engage students in their own learning. With that in mind, here are 25 formative assessment techniques that will have your students looking forward to showing you what they know.

1. Doodle Notes

Female and male teens drawing on paper on a desk

Have students doodle/draw a pic of their understanding instead of writing it. Studies have shown it has numerous beneficial effects on student learning.

2. Same Idea, New Situation

Ask your students to apply the concepts they’ve learned to a completely different situation. For example, students could apply the steps of the scientific method to figuring out how to beat an opposing soccer team. They observe data (the other team’s plays), form theories (they always rely on two main players), test theories while collecting more data (block those players and see what happens), and draw conclusions (see if that worked).

3. Tripwire

Green tightrope stretched across image with woods background

Tripwires are things that catch people off guard and mess them up. Ask your students to list what they believe are the three misunderstandings about the topic that are most likely to mess up a peer. By asking students to think about the key understandings from this angle, we can get an excellent view of how well they comprehend the topic.

4. Two Truths and a Lie

No longer just a get-to-know-you game or icebreaker, this well-known activity also makes a great formative assessment. Ask students to list two things that are true or accurate about the learning and one idea that sounds like it might be accurate, but isn’t. You’ll be able to assess each student’s understanding when they turn in their responses, and going over them with your class the following day makes an excellent review activity.

5. Popsicle Sticks

Brightly colored popsicle sticks on a white background

Formative assessment doesn’t need to be complicated or time-consuming to be meaningful and engaging. Have each student put their name on a popsicle stick in a jar or box on your desk. Let them know you’ll be pulling popsicle sticks to see who will be answering questions about the lesson. Knowing their name could be pulled makes students who might let peers do the talking focus on the learning. It dispels notions of favoritism and identifies learning gaps. And, most importantly, provides real-time feedback teachers can use in their lesson planning.

6. Explain it to a Famous Person

Ask the student to explain the day’s lesson to someone famous in an analogy that would make sense to that person. For example, the Revolutionary War was fought between the colonies and Great Britain. The colonies wanted to be independent and, after winning the war, renamed themselves the United States of America, just like when Prince left his record label and had to change his name to an unpronounceable symbol in order to break contractual obligations (I’m dating myself with this example, aren’t I?).

7. Traffic Light

Traffic Light post-it note with formative assessment instructions on it

Printing on post-it notes is actually pretty simple and fun! Slap a clip-art picture of a traffic light on there and you have a perfect formative assessment tool that students can complete when time is short at the end of class.

8. 30-Second Share

Challenge students to explain what the lesson they learned was all about to a peer, a small group, or the entire class in 30 seconds. At first, you might want to start at 15-seconds and build their stamina. But by encouraging students to explain everything they can for a set and relatively short amount of time, you’ll be building their confidence and public speaking skills at the same time as you get a good grasp on how much they’ve remembered about the lesson.

9. Venn Diagrams

Basic venn diagram on a chalkboard

An oldie but a goodie. Have your student compare the topic you just introduced to a tangential topic you taught in the past. This way, you’re getting a formative assessment on how well they understand the new topic and they’re getting a review of an older topic as well!

10. Poll Them

Polls are a great way to quickly assess student understanding. You can do this in person, or you can use apps like Poll Everywhere , Socrative , or Mentimeter to make free polls students can answer using their phones or computers.

11. S.O.S. Summaries

A great, quick formative assessment idea that can be used at any point throughout a lesson is the S.O.S. summary. The teacher presents the students with a statement (S). Then, asks the students to give their opinion (O) about the statement. Finally, the students are asked to support (S) their opinion with evidence from the lesson. For example, a teacher might say to the students, “Complete an S.O.S. on this statement: The Industrial Revolution produced only positive effects on society.”

S.O.S. can be used at the start of a lesson to assess prior knowledge or at the end of a unit or lesson to determine if students’ opinions have changed or if their support has grown stronger with the new information they’ve learned.

12. FOUR-Corners

This activity can be used with questions or opinions. Before asking the question/making the statement, establish each corner of the room as a different potential opinion or answer. After giving the prompt, each student goes to the corner that best represents their answer. Based on classroom discussion, students can then move from corner to corner, adjusting their answer or opinion.

13. Jigsaw Learning

Three students in silhouette holding up large puzzle pieces

Perfect when teaching complicated subjects or topics with many different parts. In this formative assessment, teachers break a large body of information into smaller sections. Each section is then assigned to a different small group. That small group is in charge of learning about their section and becoming the class experts. Then, one by one, each section teaches the others about their part of the whole. As the teacher listens to each section being taught, they can use the lesson as a method of formative assessment.

14. Anonymous Pop-Quiz

All the formative assessment power of a pop-quiz with none of the unnecessary pressure or embarrassment. To use this tool, simply quiz your students on the essential information you want to ensure they understand. Instruct each student NOT to put their name on their paper.

Once the assessment is complete, redistribute the quizzes in a way that ensures no one knows whose quiz they have in front of them. Have the students correct the quizzes and share out which answers most students got wrong and which answers everyone seemed to understand the most. You’ll know right away how well the class as a whole understands the topic without embarrassing any students individually.

15. One-Minute Write-Up

Young Black man and young Asian woman look over a paper together

At the end of a lesson, give students one minute to write as much as they can about what they learned through the lesson or unit. If needed, provide some guiding questions to get them started.

Challenge them to write as much as they can and to write for all of the 60-seconds. To make it a bit more engaging, consider letting students do this with a partner.

16. EdPuzzle

Students love to watch videos and, because of this, we end up showing a lot of short video clips. While they’re engaging, it’s often tough to determine if our students are getting the information we hoped they would get out of watching them. EdPuzzle solves this problem. The free app allows you to link to a video and add questions that stop the video at times you determine. So you can show your students the video of the Dust Bowl, but stop at various points to ask them what they think life might have been like during this time. You can ask them to make comparisons between what they watch and the characters they’re reading about in class. All of this information is then available for you to view and use for formative assessment.

17. Historical Post Cards

Back of a blank postcard

Ask students to take on the role of one historical figure you’ve been learning about in class. Have them write a postcard/email/tweet (as long as it’s short) to another historical figure discussing and describing a political event.

18. 3x Summaries

Have students write a 75-100 word summary of a lesson independently. Then, in pairs, have them rewrite it using only 35-50 words. Finally, have them work with a small group to rewrite it one last time. This time, they may use only 10-15 words. Discuss what different groups decided was the most essential information and why they chose to omit certain information. The conversation about what they left out is just as useful as seeing what they left in.

19. Roses and Thorns

Rose bushes

Ask students to write or share out two things they really liked/understood about a topic (the roses) and something they didn’t like/didn’t understand (the thorn).

20. Thumbs Up, Down, or in the Middle

Sometimes things stick around because they just work. Asking students to give you a thumbs up if they understand, thumbs down if they don’t, or thumbs somewhere in the middle if they are so-so about it, is probably one of the fastest formative assessments around. It’s also very easy to keep track of if you’re the teacher standing in the front of the room. Just make sure that you follow up with the thumbs down or thumbs in the middle folks to help them with any confusion.

21. Word Clouds

Word cloud about high school

Ask your students to provide you with the three most essential words or ideas from a lesson and plug them into a word cloud generator . You’ll quickly have an excellent formative assessment that shows you what they thought was most worthy of remembering. If it doesn’t line up with what you think was most important, you know what you need to reteach.

22. Curation

Ask students to gather a bunch of examples that correctly demonstrate the concept you taught. So if you’re studying rhetorical strategies, have students send you screenshots of ads that demonstrate them. Not only will you be able to tell immediately who understood the lesson and who didn’t, but you’ll also have a bunch of great examples and non-examples ready to go for those students who need additional practice.

23. Dry Erase Boards

Young smiling girl standing in front of bright yellow wall holding a blank dry erase board

Another time-tested method of formative assessment that teachers often overlook is individual dry erase boards. They really are an awesome and fast way to see where each student’s level of understanding is at any given point.

24. Think-Pair-Shares

Like so many teacher tools, this one can get stale if overused. But, if used as a method to encourage all students to find their voice and share their learning, it’s perfect for formative assessment. To ensure its effectiveness, ask a question of the class. Have every student write down their own answer. Pair students up with a classmate and give them time to share and discuss their answers. After pairs have had a chance to discuss, have them share out with a larger group or the class as a whole. Circulate, listening to groups who have students you know might be more likely to struggle with the current topic. Collect the papers for extra accountability.

25. Self-Directed

Black background with the word "choice" written in the middle in white chalk font with colorful arrows pointing out in different directions from the word

This one can intimidate some students at first, but it can be incredibly powerful to let students themselves choose how they want to demonstrate learning. You can support students by giving them managed choice, but let them decide if they want to show you they understood the essential parts of your lesson by drawing a picture, writing a paragraph, creating a pop quiz, or even writing song lyrics. This shows you’re putting them in charge of their own learning.

What’s your go-to method of formative assessment? Tell us in the comments.

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25 Formative Assessment Options Your Students Will Actually Enjoy

Meghan is an Associate Editor at WeAreTeachers. She spent 18 years teaching English/Language Arts in the public school setting and holds a Master's Degree in Special Education.

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Formative assessment is not for grading

formative assessment grade

The last word on a student’s learning in a class—that last pancake off the grill—is their grade. Grades are a summative assessment, and like all summative assessments, they summarize the learning that has taken place over a given period of time. What does and doesn’t get included in this summary motivates students’ behavior and sends clear messages about how learning works and what learning is for. We tell students that their grades show how good they are at school, make them eligible for certain classes or extracurriculars, and can dictate their future course in life. It would be hard to find any single test that had more implications for students’ day-to-day lives than what gets put on their report cards. Students naturally want their grades to look like the best and most complete representation of what they know and can do.

Formative assessments are, instead, a little more like that first pancake: part of the practice that gets us from the knowledge and skills we have to the knowledge and skills we need. We wouldn’t judge an entire breakfast by the quality of that first pancake. But the breakfast can’t happen without the sometimes messy process of getting it off the grill.  Formative assessments  exist to monitor progress in the moment and motivate students to continue learning. They provide the opportunity for teachers to adjust their instruction to meet the emergent needs of their students, and for students to understand the steps that lead toward mastering a skill. When done correctly, formative assessments can empower learners by giving them the tools they need to understand their learning, engage in meaningful practice, and make decisions about their own next steps.

What grades shouldn’t be

Because of these differences in purpose, it doesn’t make sense to include formative assessments in a student’s final grade; doing so unfairly punishes students while they’re still growing. Formative assessments are incorporated directly into instruction, meaning they’re meant as opportunities to make mistakes and understand barriers to growth. For many reasons, students can come into classrooms believing that mistakes aren’t okay, or that their first try at something is a reflection of something fundamental about them. Incorporating formative assessment results directly into grades only feeds these misperceptions.

Grades often try to put learning on a timeline, punishing students for submitting late work or preventing a student from re-taking a quiz if their results were lower than anticipated. We summarize learning this way even knowing that students learn at different rates and that growth matters alongside final proficiency. It’s not hard to understand why students are unwilling to invest the time and energy necessary for long-term academic growth when the system around them rewards short-term performance.

By the same token, a student’s behaviors shouldn’t factor into their final grade, no matter how positive those behaviors are. Behavioral or participation grades can be dangerous for three reasons:

There is no question that how students participate is a central factor in how well they learn. Formative assessment practices provide opportunities to increase student participation while also learning from that participation what content and strategies can help students get to the next level. Unfortunately, building these behaviors into grades, because they are so important, makes it less likely they’ll actually happen.

What grades can be

Most teachers don’t have a lot of choice about whether or not to grade their students. But there’s nothing that makes grades by themselves wrong or suspect. Grades are meant to communicate to students, families, and others what a student has learned. All of us (especially students) need that shared understanding to ensure our classrooms and schools work to improve learning for all students. The key is ensuring grades act as a true measure of learning—instead of as a measure of behavior, engagement, or frequency of practice.

Grading for learning  is one strong approach that demonstrates what grades can be: an effective summary of what a student has learned that documents a student’s hard work, rather than driving it. Designed correctly, formative assessments and graded work can combine to bring meaning to students’ learning without precluding the practice that makes learning happen. At the end of a learning cycle, a grade can help both students and teachers celebrate what a student has accomplished and understand what it took to get there.

formative assessment grade

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