Formative Assessment in Social Studies

By Brandon Bowyer

Formative assessment probably seems like a buzz word at this point.  Professional journals and administrators are pushing formative assessment more and more.  It can seem like a foreign concept, but it’s likely that you’re already using it in your classroom.  In this blog post, I will explain the two types of formative assessment that I use in the social studies classroom and why it’s important to use formative assessments every day.

        The most common way to explain the difference between formative and summative assessment is by using the phrases assessment “for learning” instead of assessment “of learning.”  To be honest, this can just make the difference between formal and summative assessment confusing.  Formative assessment should be used as the students are learning.  It’s a way to check in with students to see if they’re getting the content and concepts you’re teaching.  Summative assessment, on the other hand, should be used after students have learned the content and concepts.  This would be a chapter quiz, unit test, mid-term exam, or a final exam.  Summative assessment ensures that your students have learned the material and are ready to move on to the next chapter, unit, or class.

        There are two type of formative assessment I use in my classroom: formal and informal.  I think of them as two ways to take the temperature of the room.  Informal formative assessment is like looking at a thermometer.  It’s quick, easy, you know the average temperature of the class, it gives you an idea of how hot or cold the room is, but not where the hot spots and cold spots are.  Formal formative assessment is like using a temperature gun.  By pointing it at different students, you get a feel for how hot or cold they are, and by looking at the spots overall you get the temperature of the room.  It takes a little more time, but you get much more information.  Formative assessment arms you with data about your classroom.  You can see who’s struggling with the content and intervene before the summative assessment.

        Now that we have a handle on the difference between formal and informal formative assessment, here’s how I use it in the classroom.  Informal formative assessment is quick and easy.  One great way to do this is by using “cell phone reception.”  After we’ve covered a topic I’ll ask my students to show me their reception.  Three fingers or full bars means they’ve got it; two fingers or bars means they’re okay to move on, but many have questions; one finger or bar means they need more help; and no fingers or no reception means they need to go over the topic again.  I ask the students to show their reception by putting their fingers over their heart (like saying the Pledge of Allegiance).  This keeps students’ feelings relatively private and keeps them from being influenced by others.

        Formal formative assessment can come in many forms, but exit cards are the most common way of using formal formative assessment. These are half-sheets of paper, with any number of activities on them,  that students hand in as they exit the classroom.  (I recommend taking a look at 25 Quick Formative Assessments.)  These assessments cover the content and concepts that were taught during the class period.

One example is the 3-2-1 exit card, which is best used when introducing a concept with other content.  You ask students to provide 3, then 2, then 1 pieces of information.  I tend to move up the Bloom’s taxonomy with each section.  For example:

Name three fundamental principles of U.S. government.  

Provide two examples of fundamental principles of U.S. government.  

Create one example to explain the rule of law.

I also enjoy using quick-writes or short journaling activities as formal formative assessments.  This gives the students a chance to think and write about the content we covered during the class period.  Quick-writes and journals work especially well when you’re teaching students about new ideas or asking them to approach the content in a new way.  For example, when I’m teaching high school students about the filibuster I have them write a short paragraph about how they feel about the filibuster at the beginning of class.  At the end I will ask them to write, on the same sheet of paper, how their view of the filibuster has changed.  This gives me insight into how they’re thinking about the content.

Hopefully this blog post has taught you something, or changed your mind, about formative assessment.  At it’s most basic level, formative assessment gives you a peek into the students during the learning process.  This allows you to intervene before students take a quiz or test, rather than afterwards.  Using formative assessment, and making the appropriate intervention, will arm you with data about your students and make them more successful when the time comes for a quiz or test.


Brandon BowyerBrandon Bowyer is a new social studies teacher in Virginia.

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2 thoughts on “Formative Assessment in Social Studies

  1. Usually I comb through them, make sure everyone completed it, and find the patterns of misunderstanding. Generally they’re a completion grade and relatively small, but it should help students in the long run. It gives them a chance to be wrong, teaches them that being wrong isn’t the end of the world, and it gives everyone a chance to succeed at some point in the process. If you, as a teacher, intervene in the process the students will get the right information before the quiz/test and be able to succeed then.

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