Formative Assessment in the Undergraduate Classroom: Three Activities to Try Today

This post serves as a follow-up to a student-led unit on assessment run on February 17 and 24 as part of the Futures Initiative “Mapping the Futures of Higher Education” course held at the Graduate Center, CUNY. I (representing Hunter College) along with Janey Flanagan (BMCC) and Maria Greene (BMCC) covered some of the pros and cons of both summative and formative assessment in the undergraduate course and offered a forum for lecturers from colleges across the CUNY system to share their successes and challenges with implementing these various types of knowledge “checkpoints” in their own classrooms.

I have included some of the readings we asked our peers to familiarize themselves with before our unit. They offer a solid background on the topic for anyone who may be interested in learning more about current trends and debates surrounding the issue of assessment in higher education.

A thoughtful piece on “why assessment?” can be found here:

The Legitimacy of Assessment – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education

As well as two short but informative discussions on the differences between summative and formative assessment:

Chuck Holland, TEDed

Dylan Wiliam, The Journey To Excellence 

As these talks reveal, as the benefits of reflective, student-orientated assessment are not only realized but begin to spread across the various landscaped of higher education our attention consequentially begins to turn to ways in which we can put this theory into practice.

For more on theory: (article)  Take a look at Mantz Yorke’s work on formative assessment in higher education.

For more on practice: (video) Spare a few minutes to learn some new strategies for formative assessment.

Today I would like to share with you some of my own short, simple, and yet effective strategies for formative assessment which I also shared with my peers, encouraging them to try these activities with their students as well. Each of these low-risk, mini-assessments I developed for use in my own classroom where time is often a consideration. I have therefore timed each of these activities to take only around 5-10 minutes.

  • Activity 1: Midterm Evaluation Survey (click for an example of what I use in my own class). This survey, passed out about half-way through the course, is an effective way to collect student feedback on how the course is working for them so far. Since students are often already comfortable taking evaluative surveys — from student information forms on the first day to course evaluations on the last day of class — their answers are often surprisingly honest. Anonymity helps promote candor as well but you may want to have student names attached to their surveys if you wish to reach out to specific students as a follow-up.
    • Feel free to add your own course objectives and place them in the course objectives section of the mid-term survey I have offered as an example. Have students rate their level of comfort with each task.
    • I find it most useful to ask students what is the ONE thing they are most worried about moving forward in the course.
  • Activity 2: Exit Passes – Writing on an index card, students should answer short prompts and turn their cards into the instructor before they can exit/leave for the day.
    • Examples of quick, short prompts: What is one question you have after today’s lesson, one thing you took away from today’s lesson, one connection you made to something we learned last class, etc.
    • Student answers can then be used to guide your lesson plan for the following class.
  • Activity 3:  Transitional Free-writing — This is a great transitional task so you’ll want to insert this 5-minute unstructured writing activity (as a checkpoint for understanding or review/ reflection between units) at various strategic points throughout your class time.
    • Examples of transitional writing prompts can be found here.
    • This is an especially useful activity for brainstorming or “brain-dumping” before or after curricular units or specific activities or to prepare for an upcoming summative assessment like an essay or exam.

Having asked my peers to try out one of these activities with their own class in the week between our class sessions I eagerly looked forward to the second day of our unit. I was very excited to hear about everyone’s experiences implementing these types of formative assessments. The results of this inspiring discussion have been summarized below. I have also included some of the questions I posed to my peers during our forum.

  • Midterm Assessment Survey – 1-2 teachers chose this activity
  1. How did you explain this survey to your students? Did you have it anonymous? When in your class did you hand it out? How long did it take?
  2. What were some of the scaled questions you asked?
  3. What were some other questions asked?
  • Check out Richard Lissemore’s blog post about his experience.
  • We all agreed: keep assessments low-risk. When fear is reduced, students learn much better.
    • Students were also really happy to be asked about what was working for them.
  • Many students rated their study habits as being less effective than they probably actually are, i.e. they were undervaluing their study skills…why could this be?
  • Several classes reported wanting to do more group work, hands-on work, or video-based work — such requests can easily be added into upcoming lessons.
  • Transitional Writing – 2-3 teachers chose this activity
  1. Which prompt did you choose? When in class did you have them write? For how long? How did you explain this activity/keep it low-risk?
  • Prompts included translating a text into a different format; identifying and writing about a text’s central question; simply asking students what they still felt confused about, etc.
  • One teacher combined two of the “beginning of class” writing prompts (found here) and was really happy with her students’ openness and lyricality as they wrote about the Alexie/Bechdel project which had — just the previous session — completely exploded out of (in the best way possible!) what was meant to be just a short lesson.
  • Exit Passes – the majority of teachers chose this activity
  1. How did you explain this activity to your students?
  2. What questions did you have them respond to?
  3. How long did you give them to write and how long did it take/how easy was it to pass out/collect the cards?
  • One of my peers used exit passes as a check point for a unit on space configurations. He asked his students to hand in their cards on the way out, having written the answer to a short question on the topic. He also used the assessment survey as an exit pass as well.
  • Another peer asked his students to say what they would like more of in the class. Students responded they wanted more hands-on work.

The above student responses take us to the next step when using formative assessments, that is, using all this information we have just mined to help our students succeed (and realize what they need to do to succeed) on their summative exams or essays. In many ways these surveys, prompts, and passes serve as stepping stones for our students as they prepare themselves for overall success in the course.

The following are some questions you may wish to ask yourself if you choose to try out any of the above activities in your own classes. The purpose of these questions is to help you turn your students’ responses into effective strategies for their success.

Shift through your students’ answers and consider:

  1. What are my students telling me they understand?
  2. What are my students telling me they are confused about?
  3. What is the most fundamental concept or objective which students appear to need more time to review? Is this a few students or a majority of students?

Now keep in mind your answers to the above questions and ponder the following:

  1. Think of the concepts or objectives your students say they understand. How did you teach these topics? What do you think was more/most effective about these pedagogies?
  2. Think about the concepts or objectives your students say they are confused about. Why do you think these topics were harder to grasp? Think back on how you taught these topics—how might you find a way to review them in a more memorable or effective manner? How can you integrate a review of these topics into upcoming lessons?
  3. And finally: what are some short term (the very next class) and long term (over several classes, sometime before the next major assignment) formative assessments or activities that you may be able to implement to help your students with the fundamental topics/objectives they need more review on?

As you can probably tell from this last set of questions, formative assessment not only evaluates the students but the teacher as well. The entire class is compelled to take a self-reflective look at both the expectations and realities of the course and the classroom. Looking back is often the first step toward moving forward and you will never not be surprised by what your students are able to teach you about yourself.

Feel free to reach out if you have any comments or suggestions about any of these activities and I am excited to hear about your own experiences with formative assessment in the undergraduate classroom.