Skip to Main Content

Formative Assessment: Home


Formative assessment is assessment for learning.

Formative assessment checks for understanding and provides students with feedback and support. It helps teachers recognize where students are struggling and make plans to address problems as they arise.

These checks should not be graded since the purpose of formative assessment techniques is to obtain feedback to use in improving teaching and learning, not to evaluate learning.

Sources: Carnegie Mellon University & Jay McTighe.

The following tools and strategies have been adapted from 8 Quick Checks for Understanding by Jay McTighe.

Quick Signals

Ask students to display a designated hand signal to indicate their degree of confidence in their understanding of a concept, principle, or process. For example:

Thumbs up: I understand _____ and can explain it in my own words.
Wave hand: I’m not completely sure about _____ and doubt I could explain it.
Thumbs down: I don’t yet understand _____ and cannot explain it.

This can be done with heads down on a desk if you wish to give students more privacy. 

Visual Representations

Visual representations can also be used as formative assessments. Have students create a visual or symbolic representation (e.g., a graphic organizer, web, or concept map) of information and abstract concepts and then be prepared to explain their graphic. Picturing techniques are especially useful to see if students understand how various concepts or elements of a process are related.


Draw a visual web of factors affecting plant growth.
Develop a concept map to illustrate how a bill becomes a law.
Create a story map or sequence diagram showing the major events in the story.


In collaborative/online learning environments, students can post their visuals on Padlet, on a Presentation Slide, or in Nearpod.



Having students regularly summarize what they are learning helps them increase comprehension and retention of new material, and also provides teachers with insight into whether students are really grasping important ideas.


  • Compose a tweet in 280 characters or less answering the question: What is the big idea that you have learned about _____?
  • Record a one-minute audio reflection or video to summarize the key concepts from one or more lessons.


On an iPad or iOS device, Clips would be a quick way to summarize understanding. FlipGrid, iMovie, Voice Memo, Garageband, Keynote, or PowerPoint are also tools students could use to summarize with audio or video.



Ask students to teach a new concept or skill to someone else—a new student, a student who has just returned from absence, or a younger child. You’ll be able to gauge their degree of understanding as you review or observe their lesson.


  • Develop a five-minute lesson to teach a younger student about how supply and demand can affect the price of things. Use one or more specific examples that we have not discussed.
  • Your friend has been absent and missed the last two lessons where you learned about community helpers. Draw a picture of at least five helpers in our community to help them understand the concept of a community helper.


There are many digital resources that can support this approach, including Padlet, FlipGrid, Keynote, PowerPoint, Word, and Canva.



Choice Statements

Show students a binary-choice statement or question containing an understanding or a common misconception and have them select a response (e.g., True or False, Agree or Disagree) and share it via a whiteboard, app, or hand signal (e.g., thumbs up or down). This is particularly effective to use in checking students’ prior knowledge or potential misconceptions before beginning new instruction.

Here are a couple of “choosing” formats with examples:

  • True/False: When dropped from the same height, a bowling ball will land before a marble.
  • Agree/Disagree: Is this an example of alliteration?

In Hybrid learning, students can use the chat to record their choices or respond to a poll.




An efficient and effective quick check for understanding involves troubleshooting. Present students with a common misconception or a frequent procedural error. See if they can:

  1. Identify the flaw or error, and (even better)
  2. Correct it.

Their responses will provide a quick check of the depth of their understanding.


  • Present a rough draft of writing and ask students to serve as an editor to mark compositional and grammatical errors.
  • Have students review work on a multistep word problem to identify computational mistakes and reasoning errors, and correct them.
  • In a photography class, show photos reflecting common compositional errors or flawed exposure or lighting, and have students recommend needed corrections using photo editing software.


Microsoft Word, Canva, or Padlet may help with this strategy.



Understanding is revealed when students can transfer their learning to new situations. One of the best checks for understanding is to see if students can apply material in a somewhat novel context. This technique includes asking students to find or create new and novel examples to illustrate a newly learned concept.


  • Create a “real life” word problem to see if other students understand how to calculate surface area.
  • Locate a news article or blog post that presents an example of the tension between individual rights and the common good.
  • Find examples of symmetry somewhere in our school or on the playground.


Another technique invites students to develop an analogy or metaphor to illustrate a newly learned concept or skill. The effectiveness of their explanatory analogy or metaphor can give you insight into their understanding. However, be cautious when interpreting student responses to this technique—a student may very well understand a concept but be unable to generate an appropriate analogy. Asking students to explain their analogies will give you further insight into their understanding.

Here’s a prompt for students: A _____ is like a _____ because _____.


  • Formative assessment is like tasting a meal while you’re cooking because it provides feedback that a cook can use to make adjustments to improve the meal.
  • A fraction is a part of a whole like a wheel is a part of a bicycle.


Students can also create visual analogies. In online/hybrid learning environments, students can post their analogies and metaphors in a chat box or on a Padlet or PowerPoint Slide.

Note: Several of these techniques can be naturally used in conjunction with another popular formative assessment technique—an exit card—given to students at the end of a class period or end of the school day.


While these techniques can provide valuable information about the effectiveness of teaching and the quality of students’ learning, they’re not ends in themselves. Instead, they should be seen as the first step in a “feedback cycle.” The next step is to act on that feedback—reteaching something that many students failed to learn; correcting misconceptions that may be revealed; and/or providing scaffolded support to students who need it.

Please check out our Guide to Feedback for more information