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Formative Assessment Tips and Techniques

I am yet to meet a teacher or student who loves end of term testing. Exams, assignments, projects, presentations all jammed into a short period of time. I am breaking into a cold sweat just thinking about it! The good news is there is another way. I like to call it, ‘testing in disguise’, you might know it as formative assessment. Let’s look at some simple yet effective ways you can assess on-the-fly and get to know your students better, faster and avoid the mad assessment rush that is commonplace in our schools.

Mini-Whiteboards

By far my number 1 teaching tool. I would use these multiple times everyday for small group and whole class activities. Traditionally, my students would practice their spelling or number facts and simply rub out their work when finished. Instead, at the end of the activity, I would get them to write their name on their whiteboard and then we would sort them into piles depending on their level of understanding. I would note this on a check list or simply write my differentiated groupings on the whiteboard ready for the next day.

When I taught Year 6, I would ask a series of verbal questions and students would write their response on the whiteboard, then hold it up for me to see. I would quickly write down who needed more support and who was on track and use this data to inform what we did next. I much prefer this then collecting books and worksheets that would pile up on my desk. Not only was this a massive time saver, it also meant that I could further question or prompt a student on-the-spot if needed. This was something that I could not do on a Saturday night as I worked my way through piles of marking.

Post it notes

My other number 1 teaching tool. Like the mini-whiteboards, I would use these daily as a type of exit ticket or checkpoint in learning. Get your students into the habit of writing their name on the top of every post-it, so you who is who when you collect them. When I was teaching Year 1, I would give my students a simple maths equation, a multiple choice question or five spelling words to answer on their post-it. Simply have them stick it on the whiteboard when finished. After a quick review, I would move the post-its around to separate them into my differentiated groupings for our next task. Simple!

Another great use for post-its is to have your students tell you how they feel about a new topic. I would run a whole class mini lesson to introduce a new concept and then ask the students to place their named post-it note under one of three headings. You can change the language to suit your students, but mine would read something like this:

  1. I’m on to it!
  2. A little help is required!
  3. I’m confused!.

This was a great way of having my students self-assess and participate in their learning. Even though it was not always a true indicator of their level of understanding (some underestimated their ability and many were overconfident), it gave them the voice and choice to be in control of the ‘launching off’ point that best suited them.

Traffic cups

3 cups, 3 colours, many possibilities. Another quick and simple way for students to self-assess. I also loved using the cups as a tool for me to sort my students. For instance, at the end of a session or lesson, I would change a student’s cup to the colour that I thought best matched their level of understanding. This would help me to form my future groupings for that concept. I found it useful to do some training around the use of the cups so students felt comfortable using them accurately and without judgement from their peers.

Self Assessment Mode:

  • Red = I am stuck
  • Orange = I need some guidance/I’m not sure
  • Green = I’m on track

Teacher Assessment Mode:

  • Red = Let’s do this again together
  • Orange = You are getting there, let’s keep exploring the concept
  • Green = You are on track, lets extend you

Skills Checklists

I love checklists. I am yet to meet a teacher who doesn’t have 1 (or 7) checklists on their desk. I love them because they are a simple, structured way to organise tasks. When it comes to classroom assessment, I use checklists to give me a quick understanding of my students’ progress. A simple list of skills or criteria, can quickly show me that either ‘yes they can’ or ‘no they can not’. You could even get real fancy and add in a 3rd criteria, Yes, somewhat or no.

You don’t have to spend hours creating amazing checklists (I will admit, I did in my first year) because they have already been written. It is called the curriculum. Love it or hate, it lays out, in a logical (mostly) order, the skills students should show by the end of the year. If you haven’t heard of the P-10 Achievement Standards you need to take a look. If you have heard of them, you should use them, they are like gold. If you do use them, well done, you are ahead of most. Here are my 5 simple steps to amazing skills checklisting:

  1. Print out a class list and draw 3 columns (Yes/Somewhat/No)
  2. Teach amazingly (like you always do!)
  3. Tick and flick like a ninja while observing your students
  4. Highlight the results (Yes = Green, Somewhat = Orange, No = Red)
  5. Differentiate your groupings, content and delivery for your next lesson and go back to step 1.

If you are like me and want to use technology to make the life of a serial checklister a little easier, there are a number of tools and programs that can make it possible.

Software and Apps

There are many useful software and app solutions that can assist with formative assessment. When looking for a tech solution, it is important to understand exactly what you need it to do. Many programs and apps offer an all in one solution, but I have never found this to be the case. Some are great for student collaboration and others connect classroom learning with the home environment. Personally, I aim to use tools that save me time and enhance teaching and learning in the process. To figure the best product to suit my needs, I use my Tech Check process. Doing this before diving in to new tech tools is a great way to save your precious time and bring about maximum benefit to your students. Here are a couple of my must haves.

Assessly is a formative assessment tool that enables teachers to assess and collect evidence of student learning on the go. Being able to capture photo and video evidence, while at the same time, recording a student’s learning at the moment it is happening is invaluable. Many traditional formative assessment techniques are observational in nature, but lack the ability to address and assess to curriculum standards on the fly. Assessly is an intuitive software platform that allows teachers to understand their students better, faster.

Microsoft OneNote is a great tool for organising and sharing content. I like to think of it like a digital filing cabinet with some fancy extras. One such tool is the check box item. Using these in conjunction with a simple table, makes for a great way to digitize the aforementioned skills checklist. Though it is fundamentally the same process as the paper version of a checklist, it has the added benefit of keeping all you checklists safe and secure, away from those pesky homework-eating dogs. Due to its collaborative nature, OneNote also makes for a great collaboration platform for giving students feedback and making, peer and self-assessment easy.

Assessment Culture and Mindset

Our students (and probably most of us) are very familiar with summative assessment modes. I remember completing countless exams, tests, assignments and presentations at school and during my time at university (it still happens…a lot). When I became a teacher, it seemed only natural for me to assess my students in the same way that I was assessed. Even after learning about the benefits of formative assessment during my education degree, my first years as a teacher saw me default to the age old tradition, ‘teach everything then test everything’.

As I welcomed the challenge of incorporating more formative assessment into my classroom, it called for a shift in my self-belief as a professional and it meant I had to shift the thinking of my students too. I needed them to understand why we were doing this and how it would benefit them. I needed them to know that they had to be honest about their learning and feedback so I could best help them succeed. When I changed the culture of assessment in my classroom, I saw positive changes in my pedagogy, the engagement of my students and my effectiveness as a teacher.