Sunday, February 23, 2014

Using “Public Response” to Formatively Assess: Is it working?

Recently I was able to present at the KCTE/LA Conference (; “Kentucky Council of Teachers of English/Language Arts” on Facebook). I presented formative assessment ideas (check out  for resources and PPT) with the emphasis on how I needed to keep track of those results better and use them more efficiently in the classroom.One way I have been formatively assessing more is using the "Thumbs" method. Thumbs up- you get it; Thumbs down- you don't. The question I began to ask myself though, is this really a valid form of formative assessment? Read on to follow my line of thinking...

A couple of questions came up during and after the presentation that I think deserve time and discussion.

1.      What if they don’t know what they don’t know? And that often IS the case. We poll students, do "Thumbs", have them write down their questions in a reflection- but often the student simply is not aware of what they don’t know. To me the answer to this is continuous formative assessment and NOT relying on one method.

For example, if I did "Thumbs"- show me a thumbs up if you understand this concept (or skill), a thumbs down if you do not or a sideways thumb if you’re getting there but still a bit muddy. Two things happen- Students either automatically give a thumbs up or I watch some students looking surreptitiously around the room before they give their response.

If I were to rely on the "Thumbs" response alone, I would never know if students really did understand the concept; therefore, providing other means of formative assessment is the only way I will truly find out. While it is more work on a teacher, providing a non-graded opportunity to SHOW they know is the only way we will truly see that students understand the concept/skill. So I began to question if “Thumbs” is a good formative assessment at all.

2.      A second question was very similar to the one above but focused more on what to do with students who won't participate or participate honestly.  I began to think about other quick ways that students might respond to a formative assessment without having to do so publicly in front of an entire class. Peer pressure is powerful and we often forget that everyone just wants to fit in- be the same. And if we are not truly monitoring those results with the intention of doing something about it- what’s the point? A couple of thoughts came to mind in regards to public response as a formative assessment:

First, we have to ensure that our students feel safe and comfortable in our classrooms. We have to be real- discussing our own faults and weaknesses. I often will discuss my math “issues” with my students as an example. I tell them that if I were doing thumbs, mine would be down. I know I need extra help and I’m OK with that. I also discuss how learning is developmental and does not indicate “smarts”. For example- take two toddlers- one learns to walk at age 12 months while the other learns at age 14 months. Do we think one is more intelligent than the other? Of course not; it is developmental- and reading and writing is too! Reinforcing these ideas, discussing myself, laughing when I have a typo or make a mistake and using it as an opportunity to show I’m human, and the prevention of “making fun” in the classroom all promote a safe classroom learning environment that allows for my students to feel free to respond more honestly.


That does not prevent it completely. We still have those students who just won’t participate or participate openly with an honest response.

Another idea then might be to provide a pack of post-its to students. They go through and number each one, with their assigned number, in the lower right hand corner on the back of each post-it.(They can use their assigned computer number, their Active Response System (clickers) number, etc.)   When it comes time to formatively assess, students can write their response- in a myriad of ways depending on what you are assessing:

A √ if they are good-to-go

A – if they are not following

A ? if they still need assistance.

Some might enjoy drawing Thumbs:

Either way, I would ask for some clarification in writing. What is it you don’t understand? State the idea in one concise sentence, what further questions do you have? Etc. That way if I get a thumbs up- I can truly ascertain if they really are following.

Providing a “Parking Lot” for students to attach their responses as they exit the room is the perfect place to post. You could even create a poster-sized Twitter or Facebook facsimile for them to post on, making it fun for them and informative for you. 


If you have one-to-one technology- use where they can post on e-post-its with their response and number. 

Here's another system using Post-its and a "parking place" to post them: The Stoplight Method

The benefit to using a system like this:

  • Students are not pressured or embarrassed. You know their number and no one else does.

  • You get honest answers

  • You can DO something with these results without taking the time to pause in instruction and write down the names of students who say they are not following or almost there in their understanding. (which is obvious to students, requires them to keep their thumbs up longer and leads to further embarrassment for the ones who are not understanding).

And ultimately, that is the bigger issue- if you use "Thumbs" or some other public response as a formative assessment- are you writing down the results? Are you using that information to plan instruction? Formative assessment should allow the opportunity and provide the information needed to plan according to what your students know and/or need to know.  

Using the Post-it method,  I can pull the post-it’s off quickly at the end of class, slap them in my grade book for that class period, and return to them at planning time or after school to review and adjust instruction for the next day. Ultimately, I am not depending on honest results in an open poll of a classroom full of adolescents who don’t want “to look dumb” in front of their peers. And it is a better way to tackle those who “don’t know what they don’t know” in a concise and simple format that takes minutes to review. 

What do you do to formatively assess your students and more importantly how are you using those results to plan and modify your instruction? 

Check out NCTE's Position Statement on Formative Assessment Here