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5 formative assessment ideas for teachers

Emily HammNovember 28, 2018

child writting on a blackboard

It’s a safe bet that if you graduated with an education-related degree, you’ve been expected to know the difference between formative and summative assessments. But upon entering the classroom, teachers need to know how to actually apply these procedures. In this article, we’ll focus on formative assessments and the role they play in students’ education.

The benefits of formative assessment for students

Summative assessments measure how much learning takes place in a certain period of time by focusing on the outcome rather than the process. Examples include chapter quizzes, midterm tests, course projects, research papers, etc. Usually performed after a learning activity has been completed, summative assessments use grades as a measure of student learning. This creates an atmosphere of pressure for students because the stakes are high.

Conversely, formative assessments are assessments FOR learning. Unlike summative assessments, they place less emphasis on grades and more on the learning process itself. This type of assessment supports the learning process and gives the educator immediate and valuable feedback on what students are (or aren’t) understanding.

While a list of examples of summative assessments is short, there are numerous ways to formatively assess students. Let’s take a look at a few popular options.

5 formative assessment ideas

person holding a piece of paper and a magnifying glass

1. Stoplight

In this strategy, students have access to a red, yellow, and green card — or, in some variations, stacked colored cups. During group instruction, students show the green card if they’re ready to continue learning. They show yellow if they’re confused at any point or need some additional practice. Red is reserved for when students need the instructor to stop completely because the material is unclear and they’re lost.

Best used:

  • In an elementary setting
  • When an instructor wants immediate, visual feedback

2. Entry or exit slips

Use these formative assessment tools during transition periods, such as when students are entering the classroom or preparing to leave. Typically, students use small slips of paper or index cards to record specific information about the lesson. These slips can include a one-sentence summary, a 3-2-1 (e.g., three things learned, two interesting facts, and one question), or a reflective check-in about how confident the students feel/felt about the lesson.

Best used:

  • When immediate feedback is necessary to tailor instruction
  • If a class is hesitant to verbally ask or answer questions aloud

3. Classroom corners

In this formative assessment strategy, physical locations around the classroom represent selected answers. Typically, the four corners are used to represent A, B, C, or D. Additional spaces in the room could work to represent other feedback ratings, such as “strongly agree” down to “strongly disagree.” Teachers ask or post questions and observe where students physically move around the room to know how to tailor instruction.

Best used:

  • With students who prefer to get up and be active (such as kinesthetic learners)
  • For closed-ended responses instead of open-ended ones

4. Step by step

This formative strategy asks students to complete a task in a partner or group setting, with each member taking a certain step toward completion of the overall objective. For example, if you’re working on a math problem with multiple steps, each group member could have a different color. Student A could take red and complete the first step; student B could take blue and complete the second step, and so on. If a student is doing a step incorrectly, the group members can help correct the error, but the original student must do the actual work by writing it in their own color. This could also be used in writing or composition exercises, where one student writes the first sentence of a paragraph, the second is written by the next student, etc. The instructor could add in twists, like “No talking for one minute,” or “Now, we switch. Grays will do step one, oranges will do step two.”

Best used:

  • When individual steps are necessary to understand for overall success
  • When work can easily be split among group members

5. Pop-up debate

The teacher writes or displays a statement on the board that’s an opinion related to the topic at hand. Students are required to stand and respond a specified number of times. Once their responses are completed, students are out of the discussion.

Example: The teacher posted the statement, “The experiment, as it is now, is unable to achieve the results we desire.” Students will all be allowed two opportunities to share their thoughts — to either agree or disagree with others — and apply the information they have learned previously.

The teacher remains silent and simply records tallies each time a student responds, so everyone in the room knows how many remaining opportunities each student has to speak. Additionally, teachers could include words that must be used in a response or words that cannot be used. Referencing the example above, students may be required to use “hypothesis,” “control,” “materials,” “experiment,” or “results” in their response.

Best used:

  • When the application of various concepts or ideas is necessary
  • When one or a few students tend to dominate class discussions

school day planner with pens and glasses

The value of formative assessments

Summative assessments are still necessary in the classroom, but you shouldn’t overlook the inherent value that formative assessments provide. Utilizing these quick checks for understanding can provide valuable feedback and give you a better idea of what instruction or practice is necessary. And at the end of the day, both students and teachers benefit from the frequent use of formative assessments to guide classroom instruction.

Photo credit: markusspiske; SaadiaAMYii; mohamed_hassan/

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