5 Formative Assessment Strategies: Promises and Pitfalls

By Evthokia Stephanie Saclarides and Juan Manuel Gerardo
SUMMER 2021

As a new teacher, you need ways to formatively assess students’ understanding effectively and efficiently so you can modify instruction to meet all students’ needs, while providing them with evidence about their learning.

Here we’ll describe five formative assessment strategies that are frequently implemented in K–8 classrooms. We discuss their promises and pitfalls, and provide suggestions for how to address the pitfalls.

1. Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

While exploring a concept, the teacher may gauge student understanding by asking students to show thumbs up or thumbs down.

Promises: You can quickly identify which students self-report that they did or didn’t understand the concept.

Pitfalls: Students may be embarrassed about not understanding a concept, and therefore give a thumbs-up, so you may have a false sense of how many students understood the concept. This also doesn’t give you a sense of what students did or did not understand. If you do use this strategy, follow up by asking students to turn to their shoulder partner and describe what they did or didn’t understand. Next, bring students together, ask them to share what they discussed, record their responses on the board, and plan your instruction accordingly.

2. Exit Ticket

Typically given at the end of class, an exit ticket consists of several questions that students independently answer to help you gauge their understanding.

Promises: A well-designed exit ticket, with a variety of questions aligned with the lesson’s objective(s), can help you determine what students understand.

Pitfalls: The end of class can often feel rushed, and students may hurry through their exit ticket. As a result, it may not truly reflect what they understand. Additionally, an exit ticket that is too long or doesn’t focus on how students made sense of the lesson’s objective(s) will not yield helpful data. Keep the exit ticket short and focused on the lesson’s big ideas.

3. Quick Write

At the beginning, middle, or end of class, students respond in writing to open-ended questions that prompt them to reflect about the lesson’s big ideas.

Promises: As the quick write is open-ended, it does not constrain students and promotes creative thinking. If you use it at the beginning of class, the quick write can also help launch a rich discussion.

Pitfalls: Students who dislike or struggle with writing may not like the quick write. To provide all students with an entry point, allow them to explain their ideas to a shoulder partner before writing, or provide students with sentence starters and/or frames. For younger children, allow them to draw first.  

4. Individual White Boards

Teachers may present students with several questions and ask them to respond on individual white boards. Students hold up their white boards, and the teacher looks at their responses and uses that information to guide instruction.

Promises: As students tend to enjoy using individual white boards, this can help increase their motivation and engagement.

Pitfalls: Pacing may be an issue as the teacher cannot wait for all students to respond before asking students to hold up their white boards. Hence, some students may feel rushed, and others may get bored. Furthermore, due to this strategy’s fast-paced nature, it may be difficult for the teacher to take note of each student’s responses and adequately respond. Create no more than three to five thoughtful questions in advance and anticipate possible alternate conceptions. Stop briefly after each question to discuss.

5. Polling

Polling platforms allow the teacher to construct multiple choice, true/false, or short-answer questions for students to answer using a cell phone, laptop, iPad, or another device.

Promises: Polling provides immediate feedback to the teacher and students. Additionally, middle school students tend to be interested in technology and may even have their own devices, so enabling them to bring their own device may be quite motivating and engaging. Polling may also be well suited for shy students.

Pitfalls: You have to be prepared to provide students who do not have a cell phone with devices so they can participate. Since many polling platforms allow the teacher to create multiple choice, true/false, and matching questions, it’s important to consider what this type of data does or does not reveal about students’ understanding, and incorporate discussions so students can explain their responses. Before using such polling options, engage students in a discussion about appropriate technology use.

Concluding Thoughts

Formative assessment is an essential part of teaching and learning that enables teachers to gauge students’ understanding of content and make instructional modifications. Having a repertoire of formative assessment strategies—and being aware of their promises and pitfalls—will help new teachers make informed decisions that best support student learning.

Dr. Saclarides is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati. She teaches mathematics education courses to undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Education. Her research centers on how coaches can support the teaching and learning of mathematics at elementary schools.

Mr. Gerardo is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati. He teaches mathematics education courses as well as a course on diversity and equity to undergraduate students in the School of Education. His research focuses on how pre-service secondary mathematics work alongside of Black and Latinx students. 

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