Hello there! It has been a minute – and a teacher post is coming your way! This post is being brought to you courtesy of my Instructional Effectiveness course that I am taking right now, as part of my M.Ed. at Clemson University.
So, what is formative assessment?
Formative assessment is an ongoing measurement of how your students are progressing toward your learning goals and objectives. Unlike summative assessment, which happens after instruction, formative assessment happens during – ideally, throughout – instruction, and is used to form your future instructional decisions (hence, formative!). My district’s goal this year is focusing on incorporating Checks for Understanding, or CFUs, every 1-3 minutes during instruction. Why so often? Think of the ever-popular exit ticket. These can give you some great information about your students… as they leave your classroom. You then need to wait until the next day to address misconceptions. By checking for understanding as instruction is occurring, teachers can make on-the-spot adjustments to instruction. The point of misunderstanding is easier to target, and students are less likely to slip through with learning gaps.
If not an exit ticket, then what?
As a teacher of the little ones, it often feels like many formative assessment ideas discussed during professional development are too advanced or complicated for younger children. However, most can be easily modified to suit any age or ability level, especially when it’s a general medium that can be easily tailored across content areas. Here, I’ll outline three that I use most often in my own classroom, and one that I plan on utilizing later on this school year.
What’s waxy, pliable, and colorful? Wikki Stix! I first heard about Wikki Stix when I started digging deeper into learning about guided reading tools. Last year, I had written a Donors Choose project that didn’t quite reach the minimum monetary amount, so I threw in a package of Wikki Stix to reach it. Since then, I have used these wonderful little gizmos at least every week, mostly during guided reading groups and math groups. Students love the colors that they come in and it provides them with a truly hands-on experience.
Here are some of my favorite uses of Wikki Stix:
- Say a number or shape and have students build it.
- Give a problem and have students solve and show their answer.
- Use picture clues and have students write the initial, medial, or final sound. This can be easily differentiated depending on your level of readers.
- Make sight words or spelling words.
Another Donors Choose prize, dry-erase boards are one of my students’ favorite ways to show off their learning. Like Wikki Stix, they can truly be used across content areas. We like to call it 1,2,3…FLIP! when we use ours. Students know to hold their boards close to their chests so that they keep their answer a secret. This helps me gather a more valid picture of their understanding, and it feels like a game to them. In addition, I can quickly glance to get a quick snapshot of how we stand in our learning at that moment.
I incorporate dry-erase boards almost daily, usually in one of the following ways:
- Say a number or shape and have students write/draw it on their boards.
- Read a story problem and have students solve.
- Allow all students to participate in whole-group review games by allowing them to write on their boards before answering aloud.
- Practice letter formation, spelling words, and sight words.
- Stop and jot periodically to check for understanding throughout lessons.
This one always makes my heart happy. I introduced our procedure for this at the beginning of the year, and it is one of the most low-prep yet engaging and open-ended formative assessments you can do. Having expectations on accountable talk, taking turns, and bringing it back to the whole group from the outset is key to being successful in think-pair-share, but once the groundwork is laid, it is so simple. We use hand gestures to monitor our process and stay on track. If you’re unfamiliar with think-pair-share, it has three steps.
1. Think – The teacher poses a question and allows for think time in which student independently reflect on the question in relation to their learning. At this time, my students put a thinking finger to their temple so I know they are considering the prompt.
2. Pair – Students pair with a neighbor and take turns sharing ideas. Doing so gives them valuable time to re-assess their thinking and modify it if necessary. When my students have composed a thought and are ready to pair, they hold up crossed fingers. When I see everyone is ready, they then turn to a partner near them. Some teachers have assigned partners, but I prefer to keep mine fluid and let my students pick their person. This is where that positive environment is key – without it, you run the risk of students not being able to self-regulate in choosing a partner and someone getting hurt. During this time, I visit with groups and listen in to what they are saying, providing some guiding questions if needed.
3. Share – The teacher has students share what they discussed. Some modifications to this can include using popsicle sticks to call on non-volunteers and having students tell what their partner said. I do both of these often to help keep students engaged and remember that what their partner says is as important as what they are saying. I bring them back to share time from pairing by quietly counting down from five on my fingers. I do this so as to give the pairs time to wrap up their thoughts.
Not only does this method require little preparation aside from planning and timing effective questions, it allows your more shy students to practice and rehearse. All students get a chance to speak in one way or another, and it can often cause that necessary cognitive dissonance to push them further in their thinking. Connections between ideas can easily be made in these conversations, and all learners can be challenged when the questions posed are open-ended and allow for more than one right answer.
The Road Ahead: Plickers
I have heard about Plickers from a colleague and plan to research and implement it later this year in my classroom. Essentially, Plickers are “paper clickers”: each student has a unique Plicker with four answer choice sides. After reading a multiple-choice question, students hold their Plicker with the correct answer choice on top. The teacher can then scan the room with a phone or tablet and get immediate feedback using the students’ unique identities. I am intrigued by this method because we are not a 1:1 technology school and also because I can quickly see which students require more support before moving on to independent practice, or which students require remediation after learning a topic. To help little learners get the hang of putting the correct side of the card on top, you can have them first put a clothespin on their answer, then turn the clothespin to the ceiling. This will be a method that I will revisit after our winter break once I have more time to set it up – each student will need his/her own unique Plicker card, and questions will need to be entered into the program before proceeding.
Collaboration: The Cornerstone to Creativity
So, how can coaches facilitate these experiences in their school? It starts with collaboration among teachers. I do not take credit for thinking of any of these ideas on my own; instead, I learned about them through collaboration with other teachers, whether at my school or teacher-bloggers across the country! Allowing teachers time to collaborate with each other is important, but an important consideration is to give teachers time to collaborate with teachers of similar age groups. What works for fifth-grade students is very different from what works for kindergarteners. Sharing how we can modify these creative assessments for different learner groups is a valuable and important conversation to have during these times. The role of the coach here isn’t to simply schedule these meetings, but to come as a well-researched player with a host of tricks that teachers can discuss in terms of their own objectives and individual students.