Making Formative Assessments Less Formal

McKenzie Lueders
June 23, 2022

McKenzie is the Teacher Ed Instructor at the Blue Valley Center for Advanced and Professional Studies in Overland Park, KS.  She teaches Foundations of Education and a Capstone course that immerses students into K-12 classrooms working alongside classroom teachers for a full semester. McKenzie is passionate about providing equitable opportunities for high school students aspiring to be teachers in an effort to grow the profession and fill our nation’s classrooms with passionate educators.

I teach in a high school, Blue Valley CAPS, that immerses students into a variety of professions, giving them real world experience, solving real world problems, and teaching professionalism while keeping academic rigor high. Students can take courses in law, medicine, engineering, bioscience, and teaching, and the list doesn’t stop there.  If you walk around our building at any given time, you’re bound to run into robots shooting basketballs, bump into students carrying snakes down the hall, hear the sounds of goats coming from the Vet Med class, and listen in as students prepare an elevator pitch.  It’s truly an incredible place unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my 13 years as an educator.

At the beginning of the school year, a month into a new position, at a new school, surrounded by new colleagues, I was asked to present on formative assessments.  As you can imagine, not every one of my colleagues entered this career in traditional fashion.  About half of our staff were professionals in the industry and chose to make the move to teach students that were interested in their field.  Therefore, when the district chose to put an emphasis on formative assessments, I had a room full of colleagues muttering the phrase, “just one more thing we’re being asked to do” and here I was, the new kid on the block, delivering the information.

But I was excited.  I was excited because I knew that they, like so many other teachers, might not yet understand the meaning of formative assessments and how they can transform your teaching and, more importantly, the learning experience for students.  Formative assessments inform our teaching.  They tell us what our students don’t understand or are struggling with and what our students have mastered.  They provide us direction.  If a standard, concept, or skill is a pot of gold, then formative assessments are our rainbow leading us straight to it.

What is a formative assessment?

  • A check for understanding
  • A way to quickly determine what your students need more help with
  • Instant feedback telling you where the gaps are in their understanding or mastery

What happens in a classroom without formative assessments?

Simple. I equate it to packing all of your belongings in the back of a truck and not tying anything down or securing any loose items.  You fly down the highway to your destination, never looking back to make sure your prized possessions are still with you.  When you arrive, you’re stuck with what managed to stay in the bed of the truck.  You realize most of it flew out along the way and didn’t make it to the destination with you.  Those items are our students and if we just take a little bit of time to make quick pit stops to check in on their understanding, catch up the ones that we’re on the brink of losing, and re-secure everyone, we’ll all make it to our destination successfully.

What do formative assessments look like?

Formative assessments can be formal; they can be a quiz in the middle of a unit, or a skill check that a student needs to master before they can go on.  However, most of the time, I use informal formative assessments.  I’ll give students a blank piece of scrap paper and tell them to write something they still don’t understand or where they might still need some more instruction.  Sometimes I read them after they leave so I can get some direction on the next day’s lesson and what I need to incorporate, other times, I’ll just start choosing some randomly out of the pile and addressing them there on the spot.  Informal checks like these are always anonymous; they wouldn’t be honest if they worried I was going to out them to the class. 

Other ways I’ve done informal formative assessments is had everyone face the front of the room and ask them to hold up on the fingers, on a scale of 1-5, how they feel about the material that day.  They hold up their fingers close to and in front of their chest so they are protected and I can quickly glance and get an overall picture about how everyone feels. 

If I’m doing something sequential, or skill based, I’ll give students distinct options of where they’d like some more support or instruction.  They write it down on a scrap of paper, write their name, and then I divide them up the next day into small groups depending on where they need help.  I use the students that have mastered the content or a particular skill to help out at each group.  Formative assessments are often quick, don’t take much, if any preparation, and pay dividends in the achievement of students.

Is Unrulr helpful for formative assessments?

Absolutely! My second semester students spend a lot of time out in K-12 classrooms immersing themselves into the life of a teacher.  They teach lessons, work with small groups, help differentiate instructions, sit in on planning meetings and even attend PLCs sometimes.  Because our time together is limited, I need a way to check that they are observing, experiencing, and understanding certain skills and competencies.  Unrulr allows formative assessments to occur without me even being present.  They can snap pictures, record reflections, interact with classmates, and it gives me the ability to gauge experiences we need to debrief about, center our discussions around things they’ve seen in the classroom that they don’t quite understand, or fill in gaps between what they’ve learned in my classroom versus how they see it being executed in others. Sometimes I prompt them if I want to see something specific.  Other times I give them something to look for and it is up to their interpretation how it presents itself in the classroom. It isn’t a formal exam.  It isn’t a quiz they have to study for.  It’s informal, quick, and allows me to guide their learning through authentic experiences.