Formative Assessment 101 – Part 3: Using Formative Assessments During or After Instruction

This learning module focuses on providing you with strategies to identify where the learner is now both during and after instruction in relation to grade level expectations and unit learning goals.

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Developed by Carla Evans & Jeri Thompson
National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment


Welcome to Module 3: Where the learner is now, Part 2: Using formative assessments during or after instruction to elicit evidence of student strengths and learning needs. This module is part of Micro-Course 1: Learning Acceleration Using Formative Assessment Processes in the Classroom (Introductory Version) created by the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and the Center for Assessment. There is an Introduction to Micro-Course 1 module that explains the purpose, organization, and intended use of each micro-course and should be watched first, if you have not already done so.

In preparation for digging deeper into designing or selecting formative assessment, begin by reflecting on the following question: Which of these examples represent a formative assessment process and why?

  1. Teachers analyze student math tests to evaluate the quality of their math curriculum.
  2. A school tests students every 12 weeks to predict which students are “on track” to score proficient on the end-of-year state test.
  3. Exit ticket question after a lesson: “What is the difference between mass and weight?”
  4. Teacher instructs students to use white boards to “Sketch the graph of y=2x + 5. Then turn and talk to explain your thinking to your elbow partner.”

Please pause the video and respond to this question either alone or with colleagues. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video. You’ll want to write down your thoughts as we’ll return to these examples toward the end of our module.

Let’s do a quick review of formative assessments. As we discussed in Module 1, assessments are not formative or summative by design, they are formative or summative based on use. Formative assessment processes elicit evidence of student learning to adjust teaching and learning to better meet students’ needs. It occurs before, during, and after instruction and can range from informal in-the-moment questioning and observations by the teacher to more formal evidence such as a student response to an exit ticket or pre-assessment question. Formative assessments should not be graded as it is intended to provide feedback on teaching and learning while learning is taking place; not judge the level of student achievement at the end of an instructional period. In other words, formative assessment is assessment for learning.

This learning module focuses on providing you with strategies to identify where the learner is now both during and after instruction in relation to grade level expectations and unit learning goals. Strategies to identify where the learner is now before instruction was the focus of Module 2.

It’s important to recognize that there is no single way to elicit evidence of student learning during and after instruction. Formative assessments can be informal. Examples include teacher observation, all-student response systems (such as class polls), thinking thumbs, fist-to-five where students indicate their perceived understanding or using mini whiteboards to elicit a quick response to a question. 

Formative assessments can also be more formal in which students engage in collaborative discussions based on a planned question, or solve a problem, either with a peer or independently. Some techniques are listed on this slide.

The key point about the type of formative assessment selected or designed is that it enables the teacher to access information about how the students are thinking and learning. Generally, formative assessments should be planned in advance of instruction; although there are times when formative assessment opportunities arise spontaneously during the lesson because the teacher may be trying to figure out what next instructional move to make.

According to a study of the types of questions asked by elementary school teachers, Wragg and colleagues analyzed one thousand teacher questions and found that over half of the questions asked are managerial, such as Have you got your books?, another third of the questions required only recall, such as How many legs does an insect have?, and only eight percent of the questions asked required students to analyze, make inferences, or to generalize.

When designing formative assessment questions or activities, a focus on higher-order thinking skills and more complex conceptual expectations provides a more complete window into students’ thinking process allowing for stronger actionable information.

Strategic questioning promotes formative discourse. These questions share three common characteristics:

  1. they are planned for
  2. they promote productive struggle
  3. and, they require appropriate “wait time” and collegial conversations to increase student accountability when responding to complex questions. 

Strategic questions are open-ended and focus student attention on content and concepts critical to learning targets. In other words, open-ended questions require students to think beyond factual recall or literal paraphrasing of content and guide students along the learning pathway. 

Developing open questions depends on the information that the teacher is seeking. For example, questions can elicit a check for understanding, determine misconceptions, or spark discussions. Sample question stems are included on the slide. Additional question stems that allow for student strategic thinking can be found in a variety of resources also identified on this slide.

Your curricular resources are a great place to start planning for where, when, and how you could elicit evidence of student learning during and after instruction to adjust/monitor instruction while teaching and when thinking about the next lesson or sequence of lessons.

When utilizing any activity, question, discussion probe, and so on as part of the formative instruction and assessment process, it is critical for the teacher to ensure understanding of the unit goals. The next set of slides show a Gr 3 math example followed by a middle school science example.

This third grade math unit focuses on place value and problem solving with units of measure. The standards addressed include Numbers & Operations in Base Ten Standards 1 and 2 and Measurement and Data Standards 1 and 2.

Module 2, Topic A of this Gr 3 math unit focuses only on two of these standards: Numbers & Operation in Base Ten 2 and Measurement and Data 1. Let’s consider how a teacher might use the curricular resources to elicit evidence of student learning during and after instruction for Lesson 4: Solve word problems involving time intervals within 1 hour by counting backward and forward using the number line and clock.

Based on these standards and objectives, the curriculum provides questions that can be used (or modified) to elicit evidence of student learning. For example, during instruction the students can be asked either alone or with peers to complete the following activities and then share their thinking. Walking around the teacher can view student progress and listen to students debrief their thinking, which provides an opportunity for the teacher to determine misconceptions or misunderstandings and to adjust instruction accordingly.
After instruction the teacher could give an exit ticket that will direct instruction and flexible groupings the next day.

Please pause the video and consider: In what ways do these Gr 3 math questions make student thinking visible? Do these questions provide the teacher with information about what students have learned so she can determine how to move students toward the lesson objectives? What would you change or keep the same? After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video.

In this grade 6 science example, the unit on light and matter focuses on two Performance Expectations: PS4-2 and LS1-8.

Specific learning targets for students identified for the lesson include the two listed on this slide. They are color coded according to the science standard dimension emphasized. Blue represents a science and engineering practice, green a cross cutting concept (in this case systems), and orange is the disciplinary core idea. See the state content standards for more information.

At the end of this lesson, students are asked to diagram interactions between the important  parts of a mirror-window phenomenon. Once students get all the important parts into the diagram and labeled, they are asked to add pictures, symbols, and words to show how the parts work and interact to answer the two questions, as their initial attempt to explain the phenomenon. 

This diagram can be used to monitor students’ initial ideas about how we see objects; specifically, the extent to which their models reflect a “line of sight” or a “path of light.”

This curriculum even provides specific ‘look for’ recommendations for teachers. For example, teachers can look for specific indicators of misunderstandings or misconceptions by examining student diagrams for key components such as:

  • arrows pointing away from the eyes, or
  • arrows pointing away from the source of the light and bouncing away from objects, and arrows pointing into the eyes, or
  • a combination of the above

Please pause the video and consider how these “look-fors” will provide a window into students’ thinking, and to what extent they will:

  • provide the teacher with information about what students have learned as a result of instruction? 
  • provide the teacher with actionable information? How do you know?

The next set of slides show a Gr 11 English example in which the unit focuses on a series of standards [click to slide 17] and a lesson in which students are expected to read various texts to analyze the impact of allusions on the development of a main character.

After explicit instruction introducing the concept of allusion, including the definition, types of allusion (religious/biblical, mythological, literary, and historical), and an explanation of why authors use allusion, the class reads the Myth of Icarus. The students are given an artist’s rendition of the Myth and a poem [click to slide 19] and are asked to respond to a series of questions independently, and to then discuss their responses.

During instruction, as the students respond to comprehension questions and the ability to analyze the texts for the use of allusions, the teacher circulates to clarify misconceptions about the literary elements. At the end of the lesson, she collects student responses to determine students’ strengths and needs with respect to demonstrating comprehension and knowledge of allusions in two diverse texts. This evidence provides information about what students have learned as a result of instruction and with actionable information for the following lessons.

Please pause the video and consider how the formative assessment described provides this information. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video.

Let’s return to the warm-up question. Has your thinking about these examples changed based on your new learning? Examples A & B do not represent a formative process because the information is not used to monitor/adjust instruction or provide feedback to students. Whereas examples C & D are part of the formative assessment process because they are conducted during or right after a lesson allowing students to self- and peer-assess as well as allowing the teacher to gauge student understanding in order to make instructional or grouping decisions during or after instruction.

The final module in Micro-Course 1 goes deeper into how to close the gap between where the learner is and the grade level expectations.

We believe that it is essential to take a few minutes to reflect upon what you have heard and try to apply it to your professional practice. Pause to reflect and respond to the following:

  1. Describe how to engineer effective discussions, tasks, and activities to elicit evidence of student learning during instruction.
  2. Describe how to engineer effective discussions, tasks, and activities to elicit evidence of student learning after instruction.
  3. Explain how creating strategic questions as part of the formative assessment process allows for instructional decision-making and differentiation.
  4. Review the planned formative assessment questions or assignments for one of your units, do they make all students’ thinking visible and provide actionable information? Explain how or create new questions/activities if they do not. 
  5. What is one key takeaway and one lingering question you have after  listening to this module?

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