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Formative assessment for any learning landscape

The education landscape continues to shift as schools resume in-person instruction. Tips for applying formative assessment no matter your learning environment.

5 min read


Formative assessment for any learning landscape


The education landscape continues to shift with teachers and students starting to slowly return to the classroom as COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the country, and educators are facing yet another change to their teaching environment. As we’ve experienced over the past year, each shift presents new challenges, and many educators are feeling unsure about whether they are effectively meeting students’ needs. 

Formative assessment is perhaps the most powerful tool teachers have to understand where students are in their learning and what they need to continue moving learning forward. The first step in using formative assessment effectively is to articulate clear learning goals or objectives. That way, teachers can use the data collected during formative assessments to understand students’ progress, identify gaps, and work to close those gaps.  

Assessing Prior Knowledge

Assessing prior knowledge helps teachers to design learning experiences that effectively meet student needs. Where are they beginning this learning journey? What do they already know or think they know about a topic, concept, or issue? 

Strategies designed to assess prior knowledge include:

  • Asynchronous online discussions. Engage students in a video-based or text-based discussion that challenges them to access and share their prior knowledge. Asynchronous discussions give students the time to consider a question, craft a response, and read and reply to their peers without the pressures that come with a real-time, rapid-fire conversation. Teachers can use the discussion functionality inside their learning management system, such as PowerSchool’s Schoology Learning, to facilitate these conversations. 
  • Carousel brainstorm. Ask students to participate in a carousel brainstorm in class or online sharing what they know about a collection of topics, vocabulary words, types of problems, moments in history, scientific phenomenon, mathematical processes, etc.  
  • Word association game. Play a word association game by presenting students with a word or phrase — such as “democracy”, “photosynthesis”, “symbolism” — and asking them to share three things that come to mind when they hear that word or phrase. Teachers can use a tool, like Mentimeter, to generate a real-time word cloud that surfaces the most commonly shared words. 
  • Brain dump. Challenge students to share everything they know about a topic or subject in a 90-second quick write. Remind students that the goal is to generate as much writing as possible in the allotted time, not to edit or self-censor. 

Teachers who understand where students are beginning in their learning journeys are more effective in making connections between that prior knowledge and the new learning. These connections between existing and new knowledge improve learning outcomes for students. It is also impossible to measure progress toward learning objectives if teachers do not know where students began in terms of their prior knowledge.

Checking for understanding

As students move through a learning cycle, teachers should check for understanding to identify misconceptions and gaps. This can be as simple as listening to a small group discussion or observing students as they work through a problem or task. Online learning has made collecting formative assessment data more challenging but I encourage teachers to use technology to check for understanding and capture quick data they can analyze after class.

Strategies designed to check for understanding include:

  • Quick polls. Use your LMS to send your students a quick poll to gauge their understanding. 
  • Tell me how. Present students with a problem, task, or question and challenge them to articulate how they would solve this problem, complete this task, or answer this question. The goal is not to produce an “answer” but rather to surface their thinking. 
  • Error analysis. Give students work containing errors and ask them to work with a partner or in a small group to identify and correct the errors present. Examples of this include math problems, writing sample, labeled flowchart or map.
  • 3-2-1 check-in. Ask students to identify three things they learned, two connections they made, and one question they have. Teachers can create a short exit ticket using the 3-2-1 format to gather quick data at the end of a class. 

Formative assessment should be a consistent part of a teachers’ practice and provide useful information they can use to make adjustments and improve learning experiences for students. The more formative assessment data the teacher collects, the more effective they will be at identifying and closing gaps by providing differentiated instruction, practice, models, supports, and scaffolds to meet individual or small groups of learners where they are in their progress toward learning objectives.

Formative assessment should help teachers feel more effective in meeting the diverse needs in a class and designing learning experiences to support learners in their progress toward mastering specific concepts and skills, regardless of the learning landscape.

Dr. Catlin Tucker is an experienced educator, bestselling author, international trainer, and keynote speaker. Catlin has published several books on blended learning, including Balance with Blended Learning. She has designed self-paced courses to support teachers in developing their skills teaching in blended learning and online learning environments. Catlin is active on Twitter @Catlin_Tucker and blogs at

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