Formative Assessment Strategies

Formative Assessment Strategies

Assessments provide teachers feedback about what their students know. Summative assessments — like traditional unit tests or cumulative projects — allow teachers to measure how well students have mastered a subject or skill. These types of assessments, given at the end of a unit of study, are often high-stakes, graded assignments. If a student performs poorly, there is no time to revise teaching tactics or revisit content as the unit of study is complete and another must begin.

Formative assessments, on the other hand, are informal and meant to serve as a temperature check of student understanding. They allow teachers the opportunity to pause and evaluate which students need further clarification before moving on to new material. If a teacher has regularly made use of formative assessments throughout the course of study, the results of summative assessments should come as no surprise to either the student or teacher.

Formative assessments should be used to gather feedback about students’ progress, not to assign grades. According to the New South Wales Department of Education, “Feedback in the form of comments, rather than grades, focuses on the task and includes what the student needs to do to improve.” Formative assessments should be done while students are in the process of learning so teachers can make informed decisions about how to teach.

Because formative assessments are essential in any classroom and should be employed frequently, it’s important to have several strategies teachers can turn to again and again throughout the year.

Formative Assessment Strategy Examples

There are plenty of great formative assessment ideas that can keep lessons productive for both students and teachers. The best strategies are highly flexible and can be easily adapted to almost any subject and grade. Ultimately, the important thing to keep in mind is that the goal of formative assessments is not to assign grades but simply to gauge the level of understanding across all students.

Index Summary Cards

Index cards are one of the most useful supplies a teacher can keep on hand. They are excellent tools for formative assessments because they make it so easy to adjust prompts and inherently limit responses. They can be used for entrance and exit tickets or even in the middle of a lesson.

Students can be prompted to provide a short summary of a topic or write a quick 3-2-1 response. This can be three ideas they understand completely, two questions, and one comparison to something else they’ve learned. It might be three of the most important ideas, two supporting details, and one question. The possibilities are truly endless.

When used at the beginning or in the middle of a lesson, students can also be paired up to discuss their responses.

Misconception Check

This strategy is commonly used by veteran teachers who know from experience which concepts are often the most confusing for students. Identifying misconceptions is a powerful tool for identifying what students understand and what may need additional or alternative instruction.

Like index cards, how a teacher presents misconceptions can be varied and adjusted in several ways. The teacher can simply make a statement and ask students if they agree or disagree. Students can be asked to explain their thinking or to add further clarification to other answers. This can be a good way to get more students involved.

4 Corners (Small Group Discussions)

Another useful formative assessment strategy involves getting students to talk in small groups. For students who need to get up and move, try using a “four corners” strategy. It can be particularly helpful because it requires them to self-evaluate.

Assign each corner a number. Corner one is for students who recognize they don’t understand the material being taught and need additional support. Corner two is for students who may grasp the basics, but details may still be unclear. Corner three is for students who have good understanding but may still need occasional reinforcement. Corner four is for students who have good understanding and could clearly explain the topic to other students.

Students should be asked to choose a corner and then given a few minutes to discuss a prompt or question of the teacher’s choosing. Groups can be assisted individually or paired with different groups. For instance, group four can help group one, while groups two and three work together. Alternatively, small groups can be formed pairing stronger students with those needing more support.

Press Pause

This is another strategy that can help empower students. At any point during a lesson, either the teacher or a student can “press pause.” Students then choose from a selection of prompts and respond within a minute or two. These prompts should include both comprehension and reflective statements like:

  • I don’t understand…
  • – I was surprised by…
  • I am confused about…
  • – This reminds me of…
  • – I changed my attitude about…


Choose a few students to share their responses and discuss as a class to identify areas of confusion. Keep a list of these prompts posted in the classroom to refer to. Add to them as necessary.

True/False Quiz

A quick true or false quiz can reveal valuable insights into what students know. To keep these low stakes and to garner honest responses, make them ungraded. Students will be more likely to reveal what they don’t know without fear of a bad grade. Be sure to ask students to explain why a response is true or false so you can get an understanding of their thinking.

Observation Strategy

This strategy is so easy that teachers sometimes forget how effective it can be. Simply walking around the classroom and observing students as they work can be a powerful formative assessment. This allows the teacher to see which students are engaged and which are not.

To be more systematic about it, keep a simple checklist with each student’s name. If you can’t quite evaluate student progress from simply observing, ask a few clarifying questions to see what they know. Next to their name keep a tally of who’s got it and who needs more instruction. Learn more with this Systematic Observation of Formal Assessment of Students by Teachers PDF.

ABC Summaries

This formative assessment encourages creativity on the part of the student. Assign each student a letter of the alphabet. Then ask them to think of a word that begins with their letter that is related to the topic being studied. This can be a fun way to get some insights into how students are thinking about a given topic.

Big Questions/Little Questions

Like observations, simply asking questions seems almost too simple to be effective. It’s not. Keep a set of questions that can be applied to any topic and address both big concepts and smaller details. Some of these questions might be:

  • – How is _______ similar to or different from _____?
  • – What is the main idea?
  • – Give three supporting details that support the main idea.
  • – In what other ways might we show ____?
  • – What might you infer from_____?


Questions give you the opportunity to be specific about what you expect students to know. However, some students may be reluctant to participate. You can let students know you plan to call on everyone or follow up with specific students later.

Formative assessments are an important part of learning. The more strategies teachers have for these quick and easy checks for understanding, the more successful their students will be.