Managing Formative Assessment - Room 213

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Managing Formative Assessment

Assessment for learning, not just of learning.  It's a catch phrase educators are well aware of--but it's much more than just a bunch of buzz words.  Assessment for learning is something we should be using on a regular basis for real growth in our classrooms.

Unfortunately, for too much of my career, too much time was spent on assessment of learning only: essays, projects, tests and exams. Don't get me wrong, this type of assessment is an essential component of our teaching, but it should not be the be all and end all.  If it is, marking becomes an activity of "reward and catch": students who do well get rewarded with a high mark; those who don't work hard or get their work done on time get "caught" and get a bad one.  Likewise, those  who did work hard but didn't get it, or get it on time, would get a bad mark.  And then we would move on.

Those who got "caught" moved on too, without learning a whole lot.

I wrote in a previous post about how a new district policy forced me to change some of my practices when it comes to late and missing assignments.  As I adjusted to that change, I found myself changing other things as well, things that lead to more learning and engagement in my classroom.

The biggest shift has been the reduction of summative assignments and the addition of more formative ones.  This hasn't removed the pile of papers on my desk and in my school bag, it's just made different piles.  Better ones.  I'm using the "evidence" I collect to inform my teaching, not to reward and catch.

But you've heard all the reasons why formative assessment works.  What you really want are tips to manage it all.  I am by no means an expert.  I'm just learning about it all myself.  However, here are some ideas that I have found to be successful:

1. Take smaller bites: Start with backward design and plan formative assessments that allow students to work on the skills they need.  For example, if you know that a research essay is one of the summative assessments you want students to complete, give them some smaller assignments that they will use to build the skills they need to write one.  Ask them to write a paragraph that illustrates their ability to paraphrase, OR to embed a quotation and to cite it properly.  Don't expect it to be a "good" copy so they can focus on the skill you want them to develop, without worrying about word choice and mechanics.  Then, you can give them some feedback on how to improve this skill.

2. Use exit and entrance tickets to check for understanding:  These are so fast and so easy to use for both feedback and differentiation.  If you have taught your students how to do a work cited page, give them an exit ticket like the one to the left. You will get a quick look at where your students are.  You will know who needs further instruction and who can move on.

3. Checklists: I love my checklists.  They have transformed my marking and restored my sanity. Whenever I give an assignment, I spend some time making up a checklist of all of the things I want the students to be able to do. If I want them to master the structure of a paragraph, the checklist will look something like this:

The checklist is simple.  It focuses on only the skills I want them to work on, in this case structure.  I don't overwhelm them with things like word choice and sentence structure, as this is just a formative assessment used to help them scaffold skills on their journey toward the final, summative assessment.  What I love about my checklists is that they are so fast to use because I have to very little writing.  

4. Underlining instead of explaining: You know all the jokes about English teachers and red pens.  We love to write all over those assignments, don't we?  The problem with "correcting" an assignment is that we do all the thinking for the student.  If we underline an error and write "fragment" beside it, or point out that the topic sentence isn't clear, we've done half the work.  However, if we just underline errors and then give the assignment back to be revised or edited, then the student has to figure out why it was underlined.  I help them, of course, if they can't figure out why, but not before they have tried it themselves.  Once I started doing this, my students' writing improved dramatically.

5. Peer Assessment: We don't have to do all of the formative assessment.  Peers can use both of the above methods too.  Before students pass in a summative assessment, do some peer revision or editing.  Give students the checklists and have them go at it.

6. Self-Assessment: Students can use checklists themselves before they pass in an assignment.  Or, you can skip your part in it all together by providing them with an exemplar to compare their work to.  You can check out the process I used in a post from my old blog.

6. Redo's:  I was always scared of redo's.  Marking takes up so much time.  What if I offered students the chance to redo an assignment and all thirty of them do?   Well, the reality is that, usually, all of them don't.  However, the ones who really care about improving will and you may only have a handful of assignments to remark.  But...the problem with giving feedback on something like an essay, and then allowing those who don't care about their marks to move on, is that the learning stops.  If Johnny can't develop his ideas, or he doesn't know how to embed a quotation, he still won't know how to do it on the next assignment.  If you insist that he fix his errors, he might. So what's an overworked, bleary-eyed teacher to do?  The compromise I have found is that I ask them to redo the "worst" paragraph of an essay or writing assignment.  That way, students will have to consider my feedback and try to improve their writing.

I know what you're thinking.  All of these ideas are great, but I don't have the time.  I get it.  That's what I used to say.  And you're right, you won't have the time if all of your assessments are summative.  In order to switch my practice, I had to cut some things.  In my grade book, there are fewer marks for essays, tests etc. and more for smaller, formative assessments that I use to teach students how to do well on the summative ones.  It wasn't an easy switch, but it's been a transformative one for me.

You might be interested in checking out my Formative Assessment Checklists and my Formative Assessment Power Pack.

Questions or comments?  Leave them in the comments!


  1. Thanks for all your great ideas! I am working on this myself along with my PLC. I especially like the underlining strategy - great way to make them think!

    Mrs. Spangler in the Middle

  2. You're welcome, Lisa! I'd love to hear what you and your PLC are doing.

  3. I had a light bulb moment on strategy #6--having students redo "the worst" paragraph. That's much more manageable!

    1. Yes, it is. And it creates an opportunity for them to take your feedback and learn.

  4. Fantastic post! Quick question: you mentioned that both the formative and the summative scores go in your grade book. Do the formative scores actually count towards the student's grade, or are your grades strictly based on summative assessments? Thanks!

    1. The program that we use for grades allows us to toggle "summative" or "formative" for each assignment we enter. The ones marked formative are not calculated in the student's average, but their parents can see the mark on the assignment. It works well because when mom or dad wonders why their child only has a sixty in the class, you can point out the formative assignments that were not done -or not done well- and have a conversation about how important skill building is for their final grade.


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