Formative Assessment Tools for Online Instruction

Formative assessment, also known as informal assessment, is a tool to help drive instruction. It can take many different forms and should be the most frequently used form of assessment in most teachers’ classrooms- including virtual classrooms.

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is a tool to gauge students’ learning. It helps teachers understand if students are ‘getting it.’ Do students need additional instruction in a particular area? Where do teachers need to improve? Seeing where students may be struggling is a tool that teachers use to help them understand how to adjust (or in some cases revamp) their lessons to promote student achievement. While summative assessments, which are typically end of unit tests that measure student achievement, tend to be more formal and result in a grade for student learning, formative assessment can be very simple.

Varieties of Formative Assessment for the Online Classroom

Anecdotal Notes

Anecdotal notes based on classroom observation is probably the most common form of formative assessment in a brick and mortar (B&M) classroom. The utility of this type of assessment extends to the online classroom, too. This can include taking notes on skills & strategies that students are struggling with, frequent grammatical errors, as well as points of exceptional student performance.

In order for anecdotal notes to be a useful tool of formative assessment, they need to be well-organized. Leaving a pad full of post-it notes next to your computer isn’t going to cut it. Teachers need the ability to look back on well-organized information, recognize patterns, see student growth, and develop a plan based on that. When I was teaching in the classroom, I used accordion folders for all my students. It allowed me to add dated anecdotal notes (in chronological order) along with samples of student work. Creating a Word doc for each of your students that you update immediately after each class is a great option. It’s important to update the notes as soon as possible so all the information is fresh in your mind. You can also paste in samples of student work to support the notes that you take.

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3-2-1 Exit Cards

I absolutely LOVE 3-2-1 Exit Cards in the classroom. This can take the form of a post-it note or an index card that students complete prior to exiting the classroom. Teachers can also share a link with students to complete an online exit card. A 3-2-1 Exit Card contains:

Three things I learned today are:

Two things I found interesting are:

One question I still have is:

This can result in incredibly rich data for teachers to use when planning instruction or creating supplemental material for their online classes. You get to see what’s working well, what students are interested in, and where students may need additional support. I am personally fond of adapting this for the online classroom- particularly for young learners. I would simplify it to two things that I either learned or found interesting, and one question that I still have.

Running records help to ensure that a child is reading on the appropriate level.

Running Records

There are advantages and disadvantages to using running records. However, they can be incredibly useful for measuring a student’s reading ability and helping to discern whether they are reading texts that are on their level. As a teacher, this helps you to understand how much support you need to provide throughout the lesson. Scholastic has a fantastic guide that introduces teachers to taking running records.

For those of us teaching in Chinese schools, one major challenge to utilizing running records is that parents may be resistant to students reading aloud. They may view this as an inappropriate use of class time. It’s always important to respect the parents’ wishes. However, if you can work with parents to get them to see the value in occasionally using this type of assessment, it can be a tremendous benefit to the child. Another challenge with running records is that they can be difficult for teachers to take. Like anything, it takes time to become comfortable with it. If possible, listen to recordings and develop your skills taking running records. You’ll be surprised how fast it becomes second nature.

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Three Questions/Three Things

This is a great way to gauge possible misunderstandings by having students create a list of three questions that other students may have or three things another student may misunderstand about the topic. While it’s always important to help students understand that it’s OK to admit that they don’t get it, many students may be reluctant to admit that they’re having trouble learning. Three Questions is a great way to allow students bring possible areas of confusion to the attention of the teacher without students having to admit that they don’t understand. This can be done during or after class.

Using Technology

There are a lot of terrific apps out there that can help teachers administer formative assessment. Flubaroo is a great add-on for google sheets. It not only helps you to see students who are struggling, but allows you to identify topics that the class as a whole struggled with. This data can really help you identify areas where you need to reteach. Socrative and Kahoot are also fun quizzes that students can take on their smartphones. One feature I dislike about Kahoot is that students receive points and a ranking, which promotes competition and gives it the feel of a summative assessment, as opposed to one that simply promotes learning. On the plus side, in many cultures where competition is the norm, this may be something that motivates students. While these computer-based assessments are incredibly easy to administer and the data is organized for you almost instantly, it is not the richest form of data. Multiple choice and true false questions are easily impacted by guessing. Further, as with all types of technology in the classroom, teachers need to ensure that students have equitable access.

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Final Thoughts

With virtual classrooms are becoming more and more commonplace, teachers need to begin to transfer and adapt best practices in the B&M classroom to the online classroom- this includes assessment. Formative assessment should be used by teachers to drive the planning and revision of instruction for their students. While this is particularly valuable for teachers who see their students over an extended period, it still has value for teachers who see their kids only sporadically. Formatively assessing students allows teachers to understand when a concept needs to be retaught. It allows these teachers to adjust lesson delivery on the fly based on students’ needs. However you choose to administer it, consider adding formative assessment techniques to your classroom.

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