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March 17, 2021

Dial Up Your Formative Assessment Technique

The Big Tent #anewkindofPD

In my role as assessment coach and consultant, I have had many conversations about the differences between formative assessment as a form of testing, and formative assessment strategies that become part of instructional pedagogy. A common misconception among educators is the use of formative assessment as a noun, when in fact the research frames formative assessment as a verb. Capturing the strategies that move learning forward can be tricky, but Teaching Channel has some great examples of practical ways that teachers can implement formative assessment.

In his book Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam reminds us that, “The shorter the time interval between eliciting the evidence and using it to improve instruction, the bigger the likely impact on learning.” Wiliam, along with other assessment gurus (Hattie, Stiggins, Heritage, Brookhart, and countless others) have been encouraging the use of formative classroom strategies for many years. Each of them talks about the use of specific and descriptive feedback, the active involvement of students in their own learning, adjusting teaching to take into account the results of evidence collected during learning, and a shift in focus from paper and pencil testing to gathering data from minute by minute classroom interactions with students.

With the recent change in legislation from No Child Left Behind, to the Every Student Succeeds Act, we just may have the opportunity to refocus on formative assessment strategies, and reduce the frenetic focus on summative test scores. If we take a deep breath, and employ great teaching strategies, we may be surprised at the results. Endless test-prep has not been proven to raise test scores, but formative assessment strategies have been proven to increase learning, as well as student engagement.

The best teachers continuously monitor student learning as they go about teaching to the standards. Teaching Channel has a wealth of videos that show how this can be done effectively and efficiently. One of my favorite examples is My Favorite No, featuring Leah Alcala in Oakland, California. In the six-minute video, Ms. Alcala provides clear criteria for success, gathers information, analyzes it for common errors, provides rich, supportive feedback to her students, involves the students in their own learning, and does it all in a quick, and highly engaging activity. There are four specific instances that highlight formative strategies. I have timestamped them for reference.

  1. Students learn as a class what the common misconceptions for the math concepts entail. Even if students are not having the misconception that is currently being addressed, they understand how to help one another as peers, and they also understand that “we all make mistakes.” The goal is to uncover misconceptions and adjust accordingly. Mistakes are opportunities! (1:04)
  2. Using a warm-up routine as a way to collect evidence means that Ms. Alcala can adjust her instruction immediately. This works for both what students can do well, and the areas that need more attention. We often neglect to highlight the ways in which formative strategies can save time. Leah does not need to worry that her students understand the distributive property, they are ready to move forward with this concept. (3:55)
  3. Formative strategies help to level the playing field for all students. This warm-up activity engages every learner, without making students feel badly about making errors. Leah points out what students have done well before sharing the mistake. Simply by using the words, “My Favorite No,” this teacher has taken the negativity out of learning from mistakes. (5:10)
  4. Leah points out the way in which the students are successfully solving math problems, therefore the students have a much clearer understanding of what’s expected. Leah’s students are not spending time trying to figure out how to meet the criteria for success. The students are not surprised by what they know, and what they don’t know, and neither is Ms. Alcala. (5:20)

Amazing. This video is my go-to choice for explaining how formative classroom strategies contribute to the effectiveness of schools.

Other Teaching Channel videos I use to illustrate the effective use of formative strategies are:

  • Highlighting Mistakes, A Grading Strategy – This is a “companion” video to My Favorite No. A class culture where taking risks is valued, and learning from mistakes is a good thing, continues with Ms. Alcala at the helm.
  • Formative Assessment: Collaborative Discussions – Ms. Bouchard artfully involves her students in setting the criteria for success, and therefore encouraging students to take ownership in their learning.
  • Show Your Cards – Mr. English gives his students the opportunity for metacognition as they go through a wide range of understanding while learning new material and concepts. It’s all about the students!
  • Clipboards: A Tool for Informal Assessment – Audra Phillips uses the clipboard method for collecting evidence, which helps her remember ongoing information about each child and the class as a whole. The notes can then be used during class discussions, and to share observations.
  • Formative Assessment Using the U-P-S Strategy – This video shows high school math students self assessing as they solve math problems. The evidence gathered through the “Understand, Plan, and Solve” process also provides data and evidence for Ms. Mickle to better evaluate her next steps in instruction.
  • Assess and Plan with Exit Tickets – Mr. Crandall uses exit tickets to assess current understanding and plan for tomorrow’s lesson. The low-stress environment he has created is critical to the success of the exit ticket strategy.
  • The Stoplight Method: An End-of-Lesson Assessment – While this video is only a minute long, Sarah Brown Wessling demonstrates the importance of having student’s self assess, and helps to determine their next steps in learning.

These are just a handful of my favorites. I suggest you try breaking them down for the strategies you see using the Notes feature, too.

“The best teachers constantly monitor what is happening to students as they set about learning, and they investigate when things do not proceed as planned or expected. They also reflect on their own practice so they might get better at ensuring that their students learn successfully,” Stiggins, 2002.

Systematically eliciting evidence of student learning during the teaching process can provide invaluable information to teachers. By highlighting student thinking, and misconceptions, and gathering information from all students, teachers can use this representative evidence to better plan instruction based on an understanding of the entire class. Because formative assessment strategies have been shown in the research to improve students’ in-class learning, many educators have adopted these strategies in order to raise their students’ performances on accountability tests. In some cases, the research shows a gain of several additional months of learning each year when an intentional use of formative strategies has been implemented. Let’s shift the focus from endless hours of test prep to teaching the curriculum with deep intention and plenty of student involvement in the process.


Brookhart, S. (2008). Feedback that fits. Educational Leadership, 65(4), 54-59.

Hattie, J. & Timperly, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Journal of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Heritage, M. (2007). Formative assessment: What do teachers need to know and do?, 89(2), 140-145.

Moss, C.M. & Brookhart, S.M. (2009). Advancing formative assessment in every classroom: A guide for instructional leaders. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiliam, D. (2008). Changing classroom practice. Educational Leadership, 65(4), 36-41.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree

Stiggins, R. J. 2002. Assessment crisis: The absence of assessment FOR learning, Phi Delta Kappan, 83(10), 758-765.


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