If you’ve participated in any educational professional development training in the last couple of years, then there’s a good chance you’ve heard the term “formative assessment.” I can personally attest that it’s easy to forget the actual definition of such a term. The lexicon of educational strategies is ripe with “buzz” words rattled off in conversations between educators, the true understanding of their meaning often hazy. Sometimes its hard to dissect the efficacy of new teaching strategies. After all, the weekly cycle of planning, instructing, and assessing provides little time for casual experimentation with every “pedagogical technique du jour.” So, you may find yourself asking, “What is formative assessment?”
At some point, I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, the term “formative assessment” began to solidify in my mind as something that merited my full attention. The idea seemed to weave its way in to every conversation I had with other educators. From full day, district wide professional development, to brief, early morning department meetings, formative assessment seemed to be morphing from a novel trick to a foundational principal. In other words, the culture in which I worked was buying into the idea and it was high time I performed a full evaluation of the concept.
If you want a crash course in the practice, or a brief refresher, then you can simply look up the Wikipedia page on Formative Assessment. The article, with 29 references to scholarly works, offers a good summary of the evidences in support of and the outcomes of the use of formative assessment in the classroom.
For a working definition of formative assessment, take a look at the quote by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, as found in the Wikipedia article:
All those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or by students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. (Black and Wiliam 1998)
With this understanding of formative assessment in hand, I offer the following ideas for implementing formative assessments in your classroom:
I enjoy writing things down. I champion the use of the pencil; it’s simple, proven, and reliable. However, your students probably feel more comfortable using a keyboard or keypad rather than a pencil to respond to a question. In fact, most of your students carry around little keypads with them at all times, a.k.a. their cell phones. It only makes sense to investigate ways to use students’ inclination toward typing and texting to collect immediate feedback to assess learning.
There are many websites that allow teachers to conduct a poll or design a survey and collect students’ responses via the internet. These web-based responses can be collected immediately in class (provided that the students have access to the internet in a class or computer lab) or outside of class. The best part is that you can use many of these sites for free. Gauging student understanding in real time can certainly help keep your lesson effective and relevant. Here are some examples of formative assessments based off of web-based responding:
I have discussed the merits of polleverywhere.com before in my article Using iPads in the Classroom, which reviews some of the best free science apps. Poll Everywhere is easy to use and free. Sign up for an account and you can have your first poll up an running in no time. The polls you design can allow for either multiple choice responses or open ended responses. Teachers can have a class view the poll using a projector or have students visit the poll at a computer. The responses are tabulated instantly and you can view a real-time graph of your results. The best part is that students can use any internet connected device (e.g. computer, iPad, smart phone) or even use their cell phones in the classroom to send a text message response! With your free Poll Everywhere account you are allowed up to 40 responses per poll. However, you can create copies of your poll to administer to multiple classes or reset the poll between classes to start the response counter back to zero. Below are screen shots showing results of a poll I have conducted and the screen for collecting student responses.
Another feature of Poll Everywhere that I’ve found valuable is the ability to collect responses to open ended questions. This type of polling experience can offer a very engaging student experience. The responses roll in with the feel of an instant message conversation. My students thoroughly enjoy this style of responding. One word of caution though. With the free plan, you can’t screen the responses before they’re displayed. Therefore, you may want to reserve this activity for your most mature audiences.
Let’s say you want to check for understanding by having students answer a series of multiple choice questions or have a class rate a lab on a scale of 1 to 10. If so, then you should check out surveymonkey.com. The website allows you to create custom surveys with lots of options. Setting up a survey takes very little time. Decide on a theme, write some questions (using over 15 different questions types), and then send your survey. Your students can follow a simple web link to view the survey or you can email or embed your survey in a web or Facebook page. You can view the results of your survey the second the responses start rolling in.
The free account at Survey Monkey gives you the ability to design surveys with up to 10 questions and 100 responses. While these surveys are limited in length, you can create as many as you want, and use them frequently to check for understanding during a particular unit.
Below is an example of a survey I created with Survey Monkey. Please Take a second to fill it out.
Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.
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