3 reasons to use formative assessment in your virtual instruction—and tips on how to go about it

One of the common practices of any art, regardless of its form, is a focus on fundamentals. Whether practicing scales for a musician, free throws for a basketball player, or movements for an actor, fundamentals bring focus to our actions and present scenarios the practicing artist might face in the world.

If teaching is an art, then formative assessment—the planned, ongoing processes used to elicit and use evidence of student learning—is one of its fundamentals. During this singular moment in the lives of students, it has never been more important to understand student learning in the moment and use that understanding to drive instruction. As our research has shown, the learning gaps between students that will emerge during this period will likely be substantial. What we don’t know is how this crisis will affect those students individually: where specifically students may fall behind and the specific content they will need to catch up. Formative assessment can help bridge the gaps in our understanding by going deep into what students know and can do, and providing students the opportunity to collaborate on the next steps in completing their unfinished learning.

Here are three reasons to use formative assessment in your virtual classroom right now—and some ideas on how to make it work for you and your students.

1. Formative assessment lets you see where students are

Formative assessment is an invaluable way to lock down an understanding of a student’s level of current mastery. Even under the best conditions, the interruption to students’ daily routines during school breaks and other absences can interfere with how much of what they’ve learned students retain. Under circumstances like those we are living through—the trauma of a global pandemic, resulting in illness, loss of life, and economic insecurity—will likely limit what knowledge students can build and retain even more than a run-of-the-mill interruption to their learning.

Tip for application: Now is the time to examine your spring curricular map and consider what students might miss. Formative assessment provides tools for understanding student mastery of that content, information you can use to uncover what essential content to reinforce before summer break and where potential group-level learning gaps will lie for those students in the fall.

2. Formative assessment can increase student engagement

Formative assessment can provide opportunities to keep engagement high during virtual instruction. Doing formative assessment well is all about providing opportunities for students to reflect on the learning, set next steps to build their understanding, and act on those plans to continue toward mastery. Especially when our opportunities to interact with students have become limited, schooling structures that can provide that opportunity for students to engage are critical. As a process instead of a test, formative assessment practices are remarkably portable to virtual environments.

Several formative resources, including those listed in our post “75 digital tools and apps teachers can use to support formative assessment in the classroom,” provide opportunities for instructional enrichment or supplementation to support whole-group instruction. Additionally, whole-group classroom practices, such as Think-Pair-Share, Carrousel Brainstorming, and ABCD Cards, all of which are described in our post “27 easy formative assessment strategies for gathering evidence of student learning,” are all focused around helping students interact with content and interact with each other.

While you may not have access to the same physical tools or spaces for which many formative techniques were designed, the combination of the digital tools linked here and some creative thinking can help you adapt these techniques to a video-based virtual environment.

Tip for application: One way to try Carrousel Brainstorming digitally is to work with an application that allows for easy file sharing, like Google Drive. Break your class into groups of about four students. For the sake of clarity, let’s say that puts you at eight groups.

Create eight versions of the same document with nothing but instructions on it for each group (in Google’s case, you’ll use a Google Doc). The instructions should ask each group to, collaboratively, do something specific, like provide as many answers as they can think of to an open-ended question. Consider labeling each document with a group number or name to make it easier to keep track.

Once groups are done writing answers, share the documents with other groups so that each group has a chance to review a document they didn’t contribute to. You can ask them to insert comments to share what they think about the other group’s responses or add information they think is missing. You can follow up with a revised document that captures accurate information from the group documents and allows you to fill in holes students may have had or clear up misconceptions.

3. Formative assessment can help kids take ownership of their learning

Formative assessment can help build student ownership of learning, encouraging independent progress while teachers may be less able to attend to the needs of individual students. As any teacher knows, underlining the ‘why’ of learning is essential when building persistence and helping students make the connections between key ideas across specific skills. With less opportunities to communicate with students directly, and an increasing reliance on supplemental virtual instructional resources, using formative assessment techniques to support student goal setting or similar practices can help students understand the importance of continuing to work on key skills and give their best effort.

Quickly and unexpectedly, students have all taken a central role in governing their own learning (and their families have become your paraeducators!) Formative assessment practices help move students from learning to reflecting on their learning, and from reflecting on learning to valuing their own learning and that of their peers. Most formative assessment techniques require students to reflect on content in terms of what they have learned, and support their classmates in doing the same. This can mean asking students to identify what they’d like to learn next, making students the primary speakers in a class discussion, or even asking students in small groups to gauge each other’s understanding.

Regardless of the specific approach, formative assessment responds to the unique learning characteristics of this environment by letting students take their place in the driver’s seat of learning—and frees teachers to carefully examine that learning and use that information to guide instructional next steps. While empowering and activating learners has always been part of the secret sauce driving student growth, it’s particularly important when asking students to commit energy to learning outside the social context of a school building.

Tip for application: Our recent webinar series on empowering students as independent learners offers lots of concrete tips for building flexible thinking and reflection on learning progress.

One simple idea you could try, especially if you have older students, is to have students keep a journal during school closures. Google Drive will work well for this kind of assignment, too. How often you have them journal and how much you want them to say depends on their grade level, of course. If you wanted to provide writing prompts, you could encourage students to write about the challenges they see ahead every Monday, and you could ask them to reflect on what went well, what didn’t, and what they might try differently the following week.

In closing

While the fundamentals of formative assessment may not be different during school closures, applying formative assessment during distance learning will almost certainly require thinking about things in a completely different way. Developing these fundamentals can help rebuild the learning culture of your class, however, and make it easier for everyone to power through the sometimes isolating effects of distance learning.

Get the conversation started with colleagues using the following discussion questions.

Questions for teachers

  • What are three reasons to use formative assessment in virtual instruction? How can you apply these to your classroom?
  • How does formative assessment boost student engagement?
  • In what ways does formative assessment help students take ownership of their learning?
  • What are some ways you can integrate formative assessment strategies into your current classroom structure?

Questions for leaders

  • How can you model formative assessment strategies in staff meetings, PLCs, and meetings with teachers?
  • How do you create an environment that supports formative assessment as a process for student ownership and engagement?
  • How can you use formative assessment data to drive school-wide instructional change?

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