18 December 2016

Formative Assessment

One of my roles at school is to present a short teaching and learning slot in staff briefing on a Monday morning. The Lead Practitioners do this on a rota, so I'm on every nine weeks. This is a challenge - it's hard to find good teaching ideas that can be clearly explained in a two minute time slot and are relevant to teachers in every subject.

In last week's briefing I chose to present on formative assessment because this is part of my teaching practice that I've improved significantly over the last couple of years. I've not perfected it yet, but I'm getting better.

I used to think that circulating around the room during lessons and looking at my students' classwork gave me a good insight into whether they'd learnt anything. In most lessons I'd conclude that enough of them were getting the right answers, and this meant that I'd taught the topic well enough to move onto a new topic. Later in the term they'd do a test and I'd be disappointed when they got the wrong answers. Had they forgotten the things I'd taught them, or not learnt them properly in the first place?

Over the last couple of years I've developed more effective formative assessment techniques, strongly influenced by Kris Boulton's excellent post 'How tests teach and motivate'. As a result I now have more reliable information on which to base my decision making and I'm able to act more quickly when a student needs support.

In my briefing presentation I talked about two techniques for formative assessment: exit tickets and low stakes quizzes. These approaches work well in maths and in many other subjects (though not every subject, as an art teacher pointed out to me after my presentation!). You may have already tried these techniques but in case you're not familiar with them, I will briefly explain how they work.

Exit Tickets
The idea here is that students spend five minutes completing a few questions individually at the end of each lesson and then hand their answers to the teacher as they leave. The teacher marks the exit tickets on the same day - this helps them identify misconceptions and determine what to teach in the next lesson.

Exit tickets capture information from every single student, allowing the teacher to instantly identify students who are struggling. This allows teachers to intervene at the right time, for example by emailing a video link or by asking a student to stay behind after school for extra support. Some teachers also use exit tickets for RAG123 - this is where students rate their own understanding and effort (you can read more about it here).

Using exit tickets does present some challenges. They are only effective if each student completes a ticket on their own, without conferring or copying. Whether or not you can easily get your students to work silently for five minutes at the end of the lesson depends on the behaviour and culture at your school. Exit tickets are best introduced at the start of a school year as part of a set lesson routine. Another challenge is in asking the right questions - the questions on the exit ticket must be very carefully chosen to ensure that they accurately assess students' new knowledge or skills. Some exit tickets just ask students to write a sentence explaining 'what they learnt today' - I think this is probably less helpful than actually testing their knowledge directly.

If you're considering using exit tickets, or if you're sceptical about their value, I recommend that you read Harry Fletcher-Wood's post 'Using Exit Tickets to Assess and Plan: 'The Tuning Fork of Teaching'. 

We are fortunate in maths to have access to banks of pre-made exit tickets. In Gems 38 I featured Lesley Hall's (@lhmaths) exit tickets and Emma Bell's (@EJMaths) exit tickets. The Algebra by Example resources that I featured in Gems 54 might be useful for exit tickets too. If you want to make your own exit tickets, MathsImpact on TES has provided templates.
If you use exit tickets in your lessons please comment below - I'd love to hear how they work for you.

Low Stakes Quizzes
Low stakes quizzes are have transformed my teaching over the last two years. I currently use them with both my Year 7s and my Year 11s and am considering introducing them at A level too. Every Friday I give my students a 15 minute test in the lesson. They do this in silence, but for my Year 11s it's an 'open book' quiz, so they may refer to their notes (this is partly to encourage good note taking).

My tests are multiple choice. Questions are drawn from diagnosticquestions.com, a fantastic website that contains thousands of questions for maths and a number of other subjects. Multiple choice quizzes are very quick to mark, and I could make that even quicker if I used an automated marking tool like Quick Key. Every Monday morning I return the quizzes to my students, displaying a slide similar to the one shown below (this example was for a Year 7 class).
My students have responded really well to these quizzes and genuinely seem to care about their results. They get a sticker when they get full marks and even my Year 11s love getting those stickers! Results are recorded on a sheet (Year 7s have this tracking sheet stapled into the cover of their exercise book) so they can easily see which topics need more work. I feel like I know my students really well since I started using these quizzes. I've blogged about this before in my posts 'Some Things I've Tried' and 'Going Well...'.
This technique is a bit less 'real time' than exit tickets as it's once a week instead of every lesson, but I find it easier to manage. Some teachers have expressed concern that it eats into teaching time too much, but I now consider it to be a vital part of my teaching. Running and returning the tests takes no more than 25 minutes of lesson time a week.

Further Reading
This post has provided a couple of examples of effective formative assessment techniques - there are many other techniques that I haven't mentioned here, such as questioning, mini-whiteboards, Plickers and Socrative. If you're looking to learn more about formative assessment in maths, the Mathematics Assessment Project has provided a full professional development module which includes links to books such the classic 'Mathematics inside the black box' by Jeremy Hodgen and Dylan Wiliam.

I'd love to hear about approaches used by other maths teachers. How do you assess your students' progress during lessons? How do you judge the right starting point for your next lesson? How do you know which students need a bit more support? Please let me know in the comments below.


  1. Hi Jo. Some really useful thoughts here, thank you! I have used Plickers with Diagnostic Questions a bit. It can be useful as a way of assessing in the moment whilst reducing conferring. Some more thoughts here:

    1. Thanks Mark - very useful post. It's great to see Plickers working well in a maths classroom alongside DQs.

  2. I use post its for exit tickets (but the don't exit as they finish!), get them to answer with name on. Once I feel they've had enough time they swap and I read answers out, they just tick or cross and total. I have the numbers 0 to 13 stuck up around my room. On the way out they stick whoevers they marked on the relevant score. Gives us all visual idea of learning and saves me marking!

    1. It's great to get a quick visual on general levels of understanding, whilst also being able to identify the individual students didn't get many marks. Plus anything that saves marking time is a good thing! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Our school have just started using Exit tickets in our dept marking policy - we use exam questions from exampro to get them used to the wording in tests. They help me so muc to identify misconceptions and what I need to teach in the next lesson.

    1. A great idea. I often use exam questions as starters or extensions - or anywhere else I can fit them into my lessons! Constant exposure to exam questions throughout the year really helps with exam technique. Good idea to use them for exit tickets - thanks for sharing!

  4. We do a similar thing in our school where students complete a 'demonstrate' activity in silence/independently at the end of every lesson which is usually 3 exam questions based on whatever has been taught in the lesson. This is then highlighted by the teacher at the end of every lesson in a 'RAG' style and the student completes the necessary RAG question at the start of the next lesson. Makes marking very easy/quick and actually useful for planning the next lesson! Really like the quizzes ides - will look at trying to do something similar next year, thanks Jo!

    1. Thank you, it's really helpful to hear what you're doing. Looks like you've developed a great approach to formative assessment to help you plan your lessons. Excellent stuff.

  5. I like these ideas. Thanks for sharing. I have a concern with multiple choice as students can often use given answers to determine the solution without actually having first solved the problem.

  6. That is why it is really important to have "decoy" options in the answers, ie answers that students would arrive at if they had specific misconceptions. Check out the podcast of Craig Barton discussing this with Dylan Wiliam. Craig's site Diagnostic Questions is a great resource of thousands of such questions.
    There is a 1/4 chance that they can guess an individual question but if you do 3 or 4 questions at a time you easily get over this.