By Kelly Harmon Monmouth County Vocational School District

I wish I had a dollar every time a teacher asked their students if they had any questions and then continued on after no one raised a hand or shared any pressing inquiries. I see this much too often. Teachers assume that simply asking students if they have any questions equates to “assessing”, and if students are quiet in response then they must “get it”.  I beg to differ.

We need to move out of our comfort zone of doing what “we’ve always done” and jump into the trenches to provide formative assessments that allow us to get dirty while making spur of the moment decisions that may deviate from the scripted lesson plan.

Well, what does this look like and what does it mean?

  • This means assessing while teaching simultaneously.
  • This means being observant and attentive all of the time, jotting down notes as you walk around and monitoring groups working collaboratively.
  • This means conferencing with students while they work on an essay draft.
  • This means having students code, mark and annotate a text as they read in class, so you can assess their critical reading skills. (And if they don’t annotate, that’s very telling too. They probably don’t know how to!)
  • This means having a “confusion board” at the back of the room for students to share their questions from the previous night’s homework. In Cynthia Ryan’s 2014 article “Teaching in the Present- Empowering Teachers and Students through Formative Assessment”, she agrees that class should begin by “clearing up any misconceptions from the previous class, so every class is ‘a continuation of what happened in the last meeting’”.
  • This means asking students to write answers on white boards and sharing with the class.
  • This means allowing students to write what they know on post-it notes and sticking them up on the board for a quick review.
  • This means conferring with students during work time to provide real-time feedback.

unit of inquiry

True formative assessment is messy. It’s not a quiz or a mini summative assessment. It is a “constantly occurring process, a verb, a series of events in action, not a single tool or a static noun” (NCTE Executive Board, 2013).

Providing feedback that fortifies is extremely rewarding because “as teachers are seeking information about how students are learning, students are also engaging in self-reflection about their reading, writing, and thinking processes” (Ryan, 2014).

Below are some strategies for embedding formative assessments:

Strategy #1: Clarify, share and understand learning intentions and success criteria. The aim is not to help students complete the activity; it is to help them learn.

  • Get students to assess samples of student work – from anonymous students and then from peers
  • Use rubrics as the starting point for a dialogue with students.
  • Find out what your students think they are learning.
  • Use phrases like: “We are learning to…” and “What I’m looking for…”

Strategy #2: Engineer effective discussion, tasks, and activities that elicit evidence of learning. Plan questions in advance.

  • No hands up, except to ask a question. Choose students at random: electronic randomizer, sticks, small cards, hot seat questioning
  • Don’t let “don’t know” end the conversation.
  • Allow as much wait time as students need. Don’t answer your own question.
  • Try to avoid questions altogether. Make statements:
    • Declarative statement: (“You thought B was the best answer.”)
    • Reflective statement: (“So, what you’re saying is…”)
    • Statement of mind: (“I’m puzzled when you say…”)
    • Statement of interest: (“I’d like to hear a bit more about…”)
    • Student referral: (“It sounds like you’re agreeing with what Amy said…”)
    • Teacher opinion: (“I’ve never seen that happen…”)
    • Student question: (“Perhaps you could express that as a question.”)
    • Class question: (“What questions should we be asking now?”)
  • Get students to generate two-three questions using question shells (to ask at the end/start of a lesson or working in pairs. Some question shells might be:
    • How are…and…different?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of?
    • Explain why…
    • How does…affect…?
    • What would happen if?
    • Why is…happening?
    • What is the strongest counter-argument against…?

Strategy #3: Activate students as learning resources for one another.

  • Start with a whole-class discussion session then move into pairs.
  • Use “expert” students as learning resources for other students.
  • Model and discuss effective and ineffective feedback.
  • Provide sentence starters.
  • Use the “ABC” feedback technique: Agree with, Build on, Challenge.
  • Emphasize group goals in classroom work.
  • Build in plenty of time for groups to reflect on how they are working.

Strategy #4: Activate students as owners of their own learning. Only learners create learning. Teachers create environments within which students learn. 

  • Focus self-assessment on improvement, not on grades.
  • Make self-assessment a routine part of classwork. (Use learning portfolios and create a question parking lot.)
  • Survey students regularly on their learning.
  • Insist that students attend parent-teacher conferences.  Have a list of questions to help students plan what they will discuss with their parents.

*From Embedding Formative Assessment by Dylan William and Siobhan Leahy (Learning Sciences International, 2015)

So, the next time you ask your students if they have any questions and they respond by not responding, ask them to prove their mastery. Do a “Think Pair Share” or a “Send a Problem” activity. Don’t settle and don’t assume that a compliant student equates to an engaged learner.

If you would like more helpful formative assessment strategies, feel free to email me @ [email protected]. You might also check out Chris Tovani’s book, So What Do They Really Know? Assessment that Informs Teaching and Learning.


Tovani, Cris. So What Do They Really Know?. Stenhouse Publishers, Portsmouth, 2011.
Lemov, Doug. Teach Like a Champion. Jossey Bass Publisher, San Francisco. 2010.
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Contributing Author:

Kelly Harmon is a Jersey girl, born and raised on the Jersey Shore.  She graduated from Lehigh University with a MA in English Rhetoric & Composition. Kelly Harmon has more than 15 years of experience in public education as an ELA instructor, curriculum coordinator and supervisor. She is currently the Assistant Principal of Curriculum and Instruction for the Monmouth County Vocational School District.

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