Tasting the Soup: How Formative Checks Lead to Better Learning

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A famous five-star chef has made the same delicious gourmet soup for years.  She is so well-renowned for this soup that people come from far and wide to savor her amazing concoction.  Although she’s made the soup thousands of times, she never grows complacent or relies solely on the scent wafting from the pot: every few minutes, she samples the soup to ensure that it is just the right blend, texture, taste.  She would never dream of waiting until it is done to taste it.  If there was a mistake, it would be too late at that point.  However, if she tries a spoonful every few minutes, she can ensure that the soup is on course to its award-winning finish.  This is what makes her soup consistent, and this is what makes the soup delicious.

In a not-so-thinly veiled metaphor, think of making the soup as your teaching.  Many teachers wait until the unit of a lesson, or even (egads!) to the end of a unit to check for their students understanding, resulting in uneven student learning.  The danger in only assessing learning at the end is that the teacher cannot assess whether each student is grasping the concepts at each stage of learning along the way.

When a teacher does a check for understanding during a lesson, it is also known as a formative assessment, whereas as a final test, project, or other type of final product is known as a summative assessment.  Formative assessment is helpful for several reasons: by letting a teacher see where each student is at any given point in a lesson, it makes it easier for a teacher to tailor her teaching to individual student needs.

Here are 5 great ways to do formative checks during your lesson:

Think-Pair-Share

After teaching a new concept, ask a question about it.  Have students meet with a partner to discuss the answer, and as they do, circulate while listening to their answers.  This will enable you to get a sense of whether all of the students comprehend the topic, and if not, what they are missing.

Whiteboards

As you are teaching or modeling a concept, have the students follow along on their own mini-whiteboard.  Periodically, do a formative check by asking the students a question to answer on their whiteboards.  When they hold up their answers, you can check to see who is on target, and who might need a little bit more help or re-teaching.

Observation and Individual Guidance During Activity

While students are working independently or in groups, this is prime time to check their work for understanding.  Especially for students who need differentiation, extra help, or enrichment, looking at their work when you aren’t doing direct instruction allows you to offer more personalized instruction.

Braindump

After teaching a new concept, give the students 2 minutes to write down/ draw everything they understand about it.  This will give you a quick snapshot of student understanding.

Exit Ticket/ 3-2-1 Ticket

A great way to see if students are on track at the end of a lesson is to have them fill out an exit ticket.  You can ask them a specific question from the lesson, or leave it more general and have them sum up the biggest takeaway from the day.  A specific type of exit ticket is called a 3-2-1 ticket.  Students write down 3 things they learned, 2 questions that they had on things they either did not understand or wanted to know more about, and then the one thing that they liked the most/found most interesting.  This is a great type of exit ticket because it allows room for not only displaying their mastery, but also to ask questions and say what they liked.

Chart Learning

This isn’t a specific strategy, but rather an essential point.  While you may not be giving a formal grade to your formative checks (and often times it is better not to grade them to promote more growth), it is essential to note the results of these checks for each student in order to track their growth.  Knowing where each student stands and having a record of it is helpful in talking to your students and their parents about the student’s learning progress.  Having a formative check clipboard with a space for each student to jot down notes during the lesson is a helpful technique that I use.

At the end of the day, formative assessment is about gathering information to strengthen your instruction for every child, and ensuring that every student’s mastery of the subject matter and skills is solid by the end of a unit.  So when you are making learning soup, taste away, in order to serve your students the tastiest dish possible!

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