Formative Assessment: The Key to Pandemic Teaching

Now more than ever, it’s easy for students to fade into the background of a Zoom call as their engagement seems to be just as muted as their mics and videos. It has become more difficult to gauge how they are faring in our classes, as we can’t quietly walk around the room to glance at their activity progress or read their slouchy or tense body language in their moments of frustration. As we do all we can to be more than just a stranger on the other side of the screen, we continue to feel out of touch with each students’ learning progress. So how do we gain that constant view into a student’s learning from the other side of a screen? How do we quickly see who’s falling through the cracks and where it went wrong? Formative assessments, though we’ve used them for years, hold a new power in the era of virtual pandemic teaching. When varied in style but consistent in implementation, they can serve as our flashlight as we attempt to guide our students down an uncharted path in the dark.

Formative assessments are quick, ungraded assessments that teachers use to inform their curriculum decisions in a given teaching unit. They can be formal or informal in nature, though when it comes to virtual teaching, they are often formal activities due to our inability to observe students in their entirety. In the past, we may have given out a poll at the start of a unit to assess prior knowledge or passed out the occasional exit ticket at the end of a lesson. Now that students are accessing our classes digitally, we have the ability to share multiple formative assessments within a single block. Not only does this provide us with quick, informative data, but it also helps break up the lengthy hours of our virtual classes.

So, let’s check out different types of formative assessments and examples of those that work in both face-to-face and virtual environments.

Types of Formative Assessment

The Dipstick

Edutopia uses the somewhat comical term “dipstick” to describe those extremely quick and easy activities that students complete at the end of a new lesson–as quick as an oil check on your car. These are activities that are seemingly fun for students and relatively low pressure.

  • Students draw a sketch of what they’ve learned on paper and take a webcam photo of their paper to submit in their LMS for review.
  • Students record a less-than-two-minute video in FlipGrid to share the most fascinating thing they learned that day.
  • Students create a pretend text message to a friend to tell them what they learned about that day.
  • Students use Jamboard or Canvas-style Padlet to create a web or mind map of what they’ve learned that day.

The Conference

Conferences with students about their learning can be formal or informal–from a breakout room session to a quick, “Hey, how are you feeling about that lesson on prepositional phrases?” These conversations allow you to quickly judge their level of confidence with the current material. Make the conference a one-on-one to allow students to comfortably discuss failure, and ask general questions that give students space to elaborate versus answer with a simple “yes” or “no.”

  • Place each student in his or her own breakout room while doing individual work. Pop into each one for a quick conference.
  • Send a check-in email to a student to ask how they feel they’re doing in your class

The Misconception

Sometimes, asking students what they don’t understand or why something is wrong can be more telling than asking students to point out what is right. It removes students’ ability to guess and really pushes them to think about the process. In addition, when the same misconception reappears amongst our students, we can reflect on what we can improve to clear up that information for them and future students.

  • Ask students to respond on a Mentimeter poll or Padlet to the open-ended question stem: “What is the most confusing or challenging part of [topic]?”
  • Provide students with a problem and incorrect answer on a Google Slide or Jamboard. While you may ask them to correct it, have an area where they provide a narrative about why the answer is wrong.

The Entry/Exit Slip

In the face-to-face classroom, these are typically small sheets of paper that we pass out, take back up shortly after, and thumb through for a quick check of our students’ understanding. Entry tickets are also referred to as warm-ups or bellringers. Exit tickets are often completed at the end of class or before moving on to a new subject area. These tickets typically ask students to summarize their learning.

  • Ask students to respond to a 3-2-1 Flipgrid topic: three fascinating facts they learned, two questions they still have, and what they hope to learn moving forward.
  • Create a whole-class Jamboard where each student fills out a sticky note to answer “What stuck with you today?”
  • Give students a single concept in a Doc or virtual whiteboard and have them list as many facts as they can remember about the topic in the first few minutes of class. Then, review lists to create a whole-class master list.

The Mini Quiz

The mini quiz is exactly what it sounds like: a short quiz (think three to five questions) that is just long enough to get an idea of where students stand. These quizzes should be ungraded and should be done relatively quickly. Unlike normal summative quizzes, they don’t need review time or a study guide. The following platforms are great for delivering quick, autograded mini quizzes: Google Forms, Mentimeter, Kahoot, GimKit, Quizlet Live, Pear Deck, Nearpod, and your LMS quiz tool.

The Poll

Sending out a quick poll about how students feel is one of the quickest ways to gauge whole-class understanding. This mostly serves as a tool for teacher reflection. If most of our students aren’t feeling great about the lesson, we have to consider how we can reroute to change that. While polls with text work, step up the fun factor by using emojis or GIFs to represent student feelings. For a quick poll that allows for images and GIFs, try Mentimeter or PollEverywhere.

The Self-Assessment

One of the most overlooked steps in the learning process is reflection. By asking students to reflect on their learning and growth, we give them time to consider steps they can take to improve the process. This also gives students agency over their learning as they create implicit or explicit goals for themselves.

  • At the introduction of a new project, provide students with the rubric and ask them to score themselves where they stand now, so they know the points of improvement on which to focus their energy.
  • Provide students with a Google Form where they identify strengths and weaknesses. Ask them to elaborate on why they chose them, and, most importantly, ask them to create a goal for improving a key weakness.
  • Have students complete a written reflection or video narrative where they freely discuss their current level of performance in class. Reply with tips and advice on how they can make positive changes.

Not only will you find yourself with plenty of data to right your path and guide your students toward success, but your students will be engaged as they respond to formative assessments that provide structure and pace to their learning day.

To learn more about formative assessment, check out these great resources:

Authorship Information

Colleen Hirn (@mrshirn_edtech) is an Instructional Technology Integration Specialist for Colonial Heights Public Schools. This is her first year as a secondary tech coach; prior to this year, she was a high school English teacher for seven years. Colleen also raises her family and coaches the varsity girls soccer team in Colonial Heights. She has presented at previous EdTechRVA conferences and currently serves on two committees for GRAETC.

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