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Formative Assessment Strategies

Quick checks for understanding that any teacher can use to improve outcomes

The Power of Formative Assessment

We educators have all heard it a million times before: assessment is important. I know that all awesome teachers believe this, too! If there’s one thing that exhausts us more than anything else, it’s picking up on all the clues that tell us: “ARE MY STUDENTS GETTING IT?” Their body language, their facial expressions, their behavior, and their actual work – these all tell stories about how well students are comprehending.

To make assessment easy and productive, each of us educators is always looking for quick formative assessment strategies. That’s because where all students are in relation to the learning target is very complex business! It’s only when we know if students “get it” that we can truly know where to go from here…leaving no one behind.

Formative vs. Summative Assessment

As a school administrator, I have seen a ton of awesome strategies for assessing student learning. I can just feel it when I spend time in classrooms, watching students and watching the incredible work of masterful teachers.

In any given classroom across the world, formative assessment strategies are in full force. Teachers assessing students, students assessing themselves! These teachers invariably have shared the day’s learning target with their students, and most students know where they’re going. The group has a steady bead on whether or not they’re getting where they were headed. When that happens, we all witness the magic of dynamic, deeper learning before our eyes!

I’ve also witnessed classrooms where assessment seems mainly embedded in summative assessment. Let’s explore the differences.

I distinguish assessment into two categories: Formative and Summative.

Formative assessment strategies are done often, if not constantly, by teachers and students. When I see the following, I feel as though I’m witnessing formative assessment strategies in action: private think time and self-evaluations, turn-and-talks, teachers circulating the classroom and listening in to student discourse, warm ups and exit slips. These are “with it” teachers who are super engaged in the minor to major events of the class period. They allow students to give them feedback through their behavior, body language, and actual work.

I want to give a shout-out to all teachers who are exhausted at the end of a lesson and especially the end of the typical day. Formative assessment can be EXHAUSTING. Being “on” for 8 hours per day (or longer if you’re a coach or club advisor) – it takes mountains of mental stamina and focus. I see you and appreciate you!

Summative assessment strategies are also very important, although sometimes they get a bad rap. These are the assessments at the end of something: a unit, a chapter, a topic of study. They tell me, “Well, how did we do?” as a unit comes to a close, or even a class, or high school, for that matter! (Think ACT, college entrance exams, Smarter Balanced, etc.) Regardless of which type of assessment teachers use most, one thing is certain: Assessment is a process, not an event.

Low Prep, High-Yield Checks for Understanding

As an instructional leader for my teachers, I partner with them to ensure their teaching toolboxes is filled with lots of low-prep, high-yield formative assessment strategies to check for understanding. These strategies are easy to implement and super helpful for the active teacher.

The deeper a teacher’s toolbox is with these quick, effective checks for understanding, the better students perform. Teachers can also save energy and effort – and have a laser-like focus on growing students.

Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:

No Supplies Needed

  • Thumbs Up/Down/Sideways. A colleague and parent once told me their theory on adolescence: “Teens are on a personal mission to never be embarrassed: in class, with their families, with friends, PERIOD.” If that’s true, then this strategy is awesome for having them give you a personal reflection without having to call attention to themselves. An example question might be: “If I were to give you a mole conversion problem right now, how likely are you to know exactly what steps to take to solve it without your notes? Show me thumbs up, I got this! Thumbs down, HELP! Or thumbs sideways, we’ll see. Go.” As students hold up their thumbs, I’m truly reading the room, noticing those who have aced it and those who are emerging. The feedback I gather helps formulate next steps.

  • Whip Arounds: This is a great engagement and assessment strategy for middle and high school students. Whip arounds allow students to anticipate that they will be called on, so it provides them some private reasoning time to prepare their answer, hopefully decreasing anxiety of sharing out to the whole group. Whip Arounds are quick opportunities for all students (or groups) to share out something related to what you’re learning. Tricky though… students can easily slip into surface-level replies (there’s that fear of being embarrassed again). Whip arounds can be very effective at identifying what we’re not hearing. What we hear during a whip-around can help us identify what to reteach, clarify, or consider mastered.

Some Supplies Needed

  • Exit Slips — LEVELED! I’d be insulting your intelligence if I took time to explain exit slips, you teaching rockstar, you! But one strategy I saw in a math class this year was truly next level. Have students self-assess their exit slips on the way out the door, by providing them three folder options to put them into: “Nailed it!” “I’m getting there!” or “LOST”. Then, it’s powerful to compare what students did accomplish to how they think they did. This reveals misconceptions and those who need extra help getting back on track with the content.

  • Letter to the Teacher: All of our students have tech devices; we’ve been 1:1 for several years. I like to have students drop me a quick email: “How challenging was last night’s assignment? Tell me what you feel totally comfortable with, and with what you’re struggling.” This is also a great time (no matter what subject you teach) to instruct students on email etiquette. Ex. Formatting emails, the subject line, appropriate greetings for those they respect, and closings. Don’t have devices? Give students a few minutes to write this reply on paper and hand it to you on the way out the door.

  • Color-Coded Cards on the Table: In my middle school classroom, I laminated two colors of cardstock together: green and red. These resided in the supply basket on student tables. When we’d launch into an activity or independent work, I’d ask students to put these on their desks and use the colors to “tell me” if the work was too challenging or if they comprehended. They could silently, privately flip this over on their desk and from my standing position, I had an eagle’s eye view of students’ experience.

  • Roll the Die: This is a high energy tool, great for right after lunch or at the end of the day. Students get so excited to roll the die they don’t mind putting int the brain work! I’ll project 5 questions for students (and pick one number that is a “wild card, you choose”). Which ever number they roll, that’s what they have to answer/do and share their answer with me. I strategically design the questions (usually around two main themes) to give me feedback about whether I need to reteach or could move forward.

Thank You, Teachers!

If there’s one thing I know, the teachers who are yielding the greatest gains for student learning are those who are constantly “on,” assessing students every moment they’re together. NOT EASY, I know! That’s why I’m a huge fan of low-prep strategies such as these (and there are hundreds more out there!).

Please share your FAVORITE low-prep, high yield strategies in the Comments below!

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