I get a little jumpy around nomenclature. This probably comes from being a mathematician; we spend a lot of time coming up with names for complex ideas so that they’re easier to talk about. Naming a thing gives you power over it and all that. So when we come across a new name, it could take anywhere between a few minutes and a few months to unpack it. An abelian group, for instance, can be completely and formally defined very quickly, whereas a rigorous definition of Teichmüller space often takes several weeks in a course to reach. Some things are in between, easy to define but not-so-easy to figure out why the object has a special name (see dessin d’enfant). Very often a major step along the way to understanding something is grasping the simplicity—the inevitability, even—of its definition.
So it is with formative assessment. When I first learned about the formative/summative assessment distinction, I got nervous. I thought, “So, besides giving tests and quizzes, I need to be doing a whole bunch of other things in class to find out what students are thinking? How much more class time will this take? How much more preparation will it take? How will I ever incorporate this new feature into my class, and how bad will it be if I don’t manage to?” I think I got caught up in the impressiveness of the term assessment; that seemed like a big “thing”, and doing any kind of assessment must require a carefully crafted and substantial process.
So let’s back up a bit. In teaching, assessment means anything that provides an idea of students’ level of understanding. If it’s not graded, it’s formative.
As a teacher, unless you have literally never asked “Are there any questions?”, you have done formative assessment. Asking “Are there any questions?” is a crude and often ineffective means of formative assessment, but it is assessment nonetheless. You and I are already doing formative assessment, which means that we don’t have to start doing it; we can instead turn to ways of doing it better. Somehow I find that easier.
“Formative assessment” is more like “abelian group” than “Teichmüller space”. If you have ever added integers, you have worked with an abelian group. But having an easily-grasped definition doesn’t have to mean than a concept is limited. In fact, simple definitions can often encompass a broad range of ideas, which happen to share a few common features. There are entire theorems and theories built on abelian groups. Naming a thing gives you power over it. Now that we’ve named formative assessment, let’s see how we can build on it.
David Wees has a collection of 56 different examples of formative assessment, which range from the “Quick nod” (“You ask students if they understand, and they nod yes or no”—possibly virtually, which enables anonymity) to “Clickers” to “Extension projects” (“Such as: diorama, poster, fancy file folder, collage, abc books. Any creative ideas students can come up with to demonstrate additional understanding of a topic.”) John Scammell has a similar collection of Practical Formative Assessment Strategies (some overlap with Wees’s list), grouped into sections like “Whole Class Strategies”, “Individual Student Strategies”, “Peer Feedback Strategies”, “Engineering Classroom Discussion Strategies”, and so on.
Formative assessment doesn’t have to take much time or preparation. You’re probably already doing it without realizing it. Adding some variety to the methods of assessment, however, can provide a more complete picture of students’ understanding, to their benefit. Feel free to add more resources in the comments.