Using Formative Assessments to Guide Instruction

Becky ThalBlog, Grade Better


  • Formative assessments help teachers effectively plan and guide instruction. It also helps to understand students better in terms of whether they are on track, need support, or a challenge.
  • Likely, you’ll need to plan for differentiated instruction to meet the needs of your students, individually or as a class.
  • There are many formative assessment options: Do-nows & bell ringers, games & contests, exit tickets, student engagement platforms, video responses, and collaboration boards.

Formative assessments have gained popularity over the past several years, but like many things, they may be more important now than ever before. Teachers are seeking the best ways to meet students’ needs. But first, they need to get a handle on where they are at academically. It is definitely more challenging this year. Not only are teachers trying to compensate for the large gap in face-to-face instruction that took place last spring, but they are also trying to overcome many new obstacles this year. The type of instruction taking place is varied, with many schools either fully remote or on a hybrid schedule. Even those attending in person have restrictions placed on them, making personalized instruction difficult.  

Gone are the days where teachers would wait until the end of a topic, unit of study, or even just a single lesson to decide who “got it” and who didn’t. Click To Tweet

Better than benchmarks.

The first few weeks of school are often filled with benchmark and diagnostic testing, but nothing helps teachers understand their students better than formative assessments. Typically shorter, and more relaxed, formative assessments help guide teacher instruction in a variety of ways. Gone are the days where teachers would wait until the end of a topic, unit of study, or even just a single lesson to decide who “got it” and who didn’t.

By giving smaller checkpoints along the way, teachers are able to decide who needs extra support, who is on track, and who can be pushed with perhaps some more challenging tasks. It helps teachers be able to plan their time, and the students’ time, more productively and efficiently. Formative assessments can be done synchronously or asynchronously, which also allows for flexibility in this challenging year.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash

Lots of options.

Whether you have tech readily available to you and your students or not, there are a variety of options for formative assessments. Some are more traditional, while others hardly seem like you’re giving an assessment at all! 

Do-Nows & Bell RingersIf you use an online platform like IXL or Khan Academy, or have students take out a good ol’ fashioned paper and pencil, give students a few questions or problems that review previously taught concepts. It is a great way to assess what they retained and what they didn’t. You can do this daily or a few times a week. It doesn’t need to be fancy but it should be quick. 

Games & Contests – Students tend to be competitive by nature. Take advantage of this when trying to conduct a quick assessment. Platforms like Sumdog allow you to set up competitions and challenges between students or even classes. Games like Kahoot, Quizizz, and Gimkit can be played synchronously or asynchronously, and provide you with valuable reports.

Exit Tickets – These are always a great way to assess what students took away from the day’s lesson. These can include proficiency questions, SEL type questions, or ideally a combination of the two. You can choose to create a Google Form (plenty of pre-made ones exist online), or use a platform like Tailor-ED which has already done the work for you. Paper exit tickets work too, if you or your students don’t have access to technology.

Student Engagement Platforms – Student Engagement Platforms are given that name because they do just that—engage students. Nearpod and Peardeck allow you to build interactive questions into existing lessons for quick checks for understanding. Seesaw allows students various options for showing their work and building a portfolio in the process. Both Nearpod and Seesaw have thousands of pre-made lessons/activities available as well. Their free versions are fantastic.

Video Responses – Many students who never raise their hand in class, have no problem explaining themselves on video. Students love platforms like Flipgrid to share their knowledge! Seesaw, among others, also allows for video responses. Pose a question or two on one of these platforms and let students show you what they know!

Collaboration Boards – Use tools like or Google Jamboard to have students complete a few practice or warm-up problems. No tech? No problem! Have students use their own personal whiteboards to answer the questions or have them do it on paper and circulate around to check for understanding. Nearpod also has built-in collaboration boards that you can quickly create on the fly!

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Decide your next steps.

The data you gather from various formative assessments helps you determine the next steps for the class as a whole and for individual students. At this point, differentiating instruction will likely become necessary. The whole class may need to spend more time on a skill. You may realize that only some students need more instruction and extra practice. While meeting one-on-one and in small groups is challenging this year due to social distancing restrictions, you can use breakout rooms on Google Meet or Zoom to accomplish your mission.

The results of formative assessments are good to have when giving parents a snapshot of their child’s strengths and weaknesses.  They are also good when making a case to administration or other school personnel. If you’re not as comfortable with giving formative assessments or have tended to gravitate to the same type, now is the time to branch out!

Start slow, but try something new. Find what works for you and your class. Again, if done correctly, formative assessments don’t seem like assessments at all. That’s a win for both you and your students!


Becky Thal is a 5th grade math and science teacher in New Jersey and a Data Analyst for the Teach Better Team. Prior to starting her career in teaching in 2005, Becky worked for several years in advertising in New York City. She is an active member of her school staff, currently serving on several committees including SEL, Climate and Culture, and the Future Ready Team. Becky is also an active member of her community and her children’s schools. In her spare time, she enjoys trips to the beach, trying new restaurants, and attending her kids’ various games and events. Becky lives with her husband, three children and dog, Cliff, who she loves spending time with on the weekends.