The Power of Formative Checks for Understanding

The achievement gains realized by students whose teachers rely on formative assessment can range from 15-25 percentile points, or two to four grade equivalents, on commonly used standardized test score scales. In broader terms, this kind of score gain, if applied to performance on recent international assessments, would move the US rank from the middle of the pack of 42 nations tested to the top five.
— Black and William, 1998

How often do you CHECK your students understanding while they are in the process of learning?  Formative assessments done well have been shown to increase students’ achievement, especially for at-risk learners. If we wait to acquire information about what students do or not do understand until the unit is over, it’s often too late. A good gardener formatively checks his plants throughout the growing season. If he only checks at the end of the season, he shouldn’t be surprised to find dead plants!

In order to catch misunderstandings before they become cemented into a student’s mind, we should include formative CHECKs around key learning targets throughout a unit. That idea may sound daunting, but it’s easier than you might think. Here are some simple formative assessments that can help you CHECK your students’ understanding within each lesson:

  • Exit tickets:  If you start the lesson with a clear, focused target, you can end it with a one-question exit ticket for the students. If they can answer that one question, it means they’ve mastered the topic of the day. For those who did not, you can differentiate and plan additional review for those students who need it while those who’ve got it can work on an enrichment project. Some teachers like to do entrance tickets the following day to serve as a reminder or a jumping off point for class discussions. (Click resource folder below for ideas and examples of Exit Tickets.)
  • Heads Down – Hands up:  Teach your students the first 3 letters of the American Sign Language alphabet (or any simple signal that you choose). Have them put their heads down on their desks with their eyes closed. Ask a few multiple-choice questions that will determine if they have understood the concept you have taught today. You can quickly scan the room to see who chose correctly and who needs extra help. Write down a list (or highlight names on your roster) of students who will need additional support. While you review with those who need it, the rest of the class can push their learning a little deeper on the topic with a thoughtful follow-up activity. (To view a sample of the chart  click the resource folder below.)
  • Thumbs up/down/side:  Now that your students have become so proficient at self-assessment, ask them to tell you how comfortable they are with the topics covered. Thumbs up means they understand it so well that they could teach it to someone else. A thumb to the side means they understand some, but still have some questions. A thumb down means they are struggling with this concept and need extra help. Depending on your class’ comfort-level, you may want to have the students close their eyes before answering this question too.  
  • Think- Pair- Share:  Ask a question that gets at the heart of the lesson’s objective. Give students a little time to think about their response. Have them pair up with another classmate and share their answers. Circulate the room and listen to students’ discussions noting and addressing any misconceptions. Then do a whole class share to make sure everyone’s heard the essential information.
  • Smartboard Quizzes:  If you’re lucky enough to have a Smartboard in your classroom and individual remotes for the students, you can prepare a mini quiz at the end (or middle) of a lesson. Each student is affiliated with one remote, so his or her answers will be recorded. You can even create graphs to show where any widely accepted misconceptions lie and make a plan to address them.  (Check out ideas from other teachers on this site.
  • Individual Whiteboards:  Students love using whiteboards! A quick, simple way to check for understanding is to ask a question in the middle of the lesson, have the students write down the answer on their whiteboard, and then hold up the boards so you can check them.

You can make a class set of white boards really inexpensively by buying shower board at a home supply store. They will cut it to your specifications for free. Or you can laminate sheets of paper or, even better, put paper (either blank or with organizers on it, inside of page protectors. Keep the markers (from the Dollar Stores) in black socks that can be used as erasers.