This year, we're presented with a unique challenge. The teaching and learning that usually happens in school buildings was moved to remote learning environments. Educators around the nation have risen to this challenge and are working tirelessly to provide continuous learning. As we tackle the challenge of distance teaching and learning, students, parents, and caregivers are asking the question, “How do I know if my student is understanding what I am expecting them to learn?”

While they are many types of assessment used in schools – diagnostic, interim, summative – it’s formative assessment that allows teachers to regularly guide student learning in the classroom. Formative assessments include sharing learning goals, modeling what success looks like, and giving clear, actionable feedback to students​. By design, formative assessment:

  • has an explicit connection to an instructional unit.
  • consists of many kinds of strategies and can be as informal as asking a 
    well-crafted question—and using the evidence collected from the question.
  • helps educators guide the learning process, rather than measure student performance.
  • provides students with data they can use to determine where they are in their learning, to set goals, to monitor their learning progress, and to serve as instructional resources for their peers. (Dyer, 2017)

Using results from formative assessment helps determine instructional next steps which could include remediation, re-teach, extension, or a deeper dive into a topic. In a distance learning environment where instruction is coming from multiple sources – teachers, parents, caregivers, digital tools – it’s important to use formative assessments that support student who have access to technology and those who do not.

Let’s explore some of the ways formative assessment can be used to support distance learning.

Check for Understanding

As students are working through assignments, reading independent texts, or using digital tools, regular checks for understanding, even every day, can help guide instruction. This is especially true in a distance learning environment which provides teachers and students an opportunity to use personalized learning. According to the US Department of Education, “Personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) may all vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are made available that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests and often self-initiated.”

With many students leading their own instruction – with the help of teachers and caregivers - these types of checks for understanding can be used regardless of the type of assignment: 

  • Journal - Ask students to keep a journal responding to the text that they are reading. Ask questions such as, “What did you read?” “What connections did you make to yourself or to others?”
  • Think, Ink, Pair Share - After posing a question, ask students to quickly sketch or jot down a few words answering the question, share with a peer (if possible) and share out.
  • Quick Write - Give students a prompt connected to the topic they are studying. Ask them to write without stopping for 2-3 minutes in response to the prompt.
  • Quick Quiz - After studying a topic, ask students to write 2-3 quiz questions for their peers.
  • “Exit” Tickets - Ask students a question related to the lesson that requires a one sentence response or is multiple choice.
  • 25 Word Story- Show students an image related to the topic of study. They then craft a story using only 25 words.
  • Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down - Verbally ask students a question, [insert examples]. Students respond with thumbs up if they understand and thumbs down if they need assistance.

In a distance learning environment, digital tools can help facilitate checks for understanding. The following resources are free online, and can be used in a variety of ways to engage students while assessing their knowledge and skills:

  • Plickers - lets you poll your class for free, without the need for student devices. Just give each student a card (a “paper clicker”), and use your Android smartphone or tablet to scan them to do instant checks-for-understanding, exit tickets, and impromptu polls
  • Flip-Grid - is the leading video discussion platform used by millions of PreK to PhD students, educators, and families around the world. Flipgrid brings the back row to the front and helps learners of all ages find their voices, share their voices, and respect the diverse voices of others.
  • Padlet - is like paper for your screen. Start with an empty page and then put whatever you like on it. Upload a video, record an interview, snap a selfie, write your own text posts or upload some documents, and watch your padlet come to life. Once others add to it, the page will update in real time.

Students may not be sitting in their classrooms, but the learning can’t stop. It is vital that all students are given an opportunity to continue their education, regardless of their distance learning environment. At the same time, it is crucial that teachers and caregivers have access to data that helps them determine if learning is taking place. The data doesn’t have to be complicated, and in fact, it is more important that the data is easy to gather and understand. Formative assessment, and the checks for understanding opportunities they provide, is a tool that everyone can use with their students to support their success. 

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