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Whether you are a beginning or an experienced teacher, you probably wonder if what you’re doing is working for your students: Do they know what you’re setting out for them to learn?

The previous two articles in the “Getting …” series, “Getting Started” and “Getting into Action,” provide some suggestions for planning and implementing lessons to meet the objectives you want your students to learn. This is the third part in the series.

Finding out what students know

Effective student assessment is a topic that has been researched and written about for a long time, and it’s an area educators continue to explore (see selected resources in the footnotes). In this article, I will share with you a strategy for using assessments in your classroom and several examples of ones I’ve used.

Figure 1 shows a thought process that can identify what to teach and match individual objectives with a means to teach them, as discussed in the previous articles. The final step is to determine what the students know about the objectives, or the “Does it work?” piece. Were the tools that you (or the student) chose to teach/learn the objectives successful?

Figure 1.

There are two parts to consider when answering the question:

  • Formative assessment, or assessment for learning, evaluates what students know either before starting a unit or while a unit is in progress.
  • Summative assessment evaluates student learning according to a benchmark. “When data are collected at certain planned intervals, and are used to show what students have achieved to date, they provide a summary of progress.”1

Or, as Robert E. Stake, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says, "When the cook tastes the soup, that's formative; when the guests taste the soup, that's summative."2

Once the learning objectives are determined, students experience the lessons or activities that help them learn the objectives. The next step is for students to produce a product so the teacher has evidence of whether learning occurred. This is crucial. Without a product, the teacher must practice mind reading, and alas, even after 41 years of teaching, my ability to read minds is nonexistent! It is only by students demonstrating their knowledge in some fashion that anyone can assess whether a student has actually learned the objectives.

Examples of formative assessments

  1. Walk around and observe your students! Listen to them as they work on their learning tasks. Are they asking each other relevant questions? Do they seem engaged in the task?
  1. Have students present solutions to problems on a white board in the front of class or on individual white boards. (Figure 2)
  1. Have students make models. In this example, the objective was to identify and describe periodic table trends, so they made a 3-D model of the atomic radius periodic trend. ( Figure 3)
Figure 2. Figure 3.
  1. Have students describe a concept in 24 seconds in an audio recording and summarize the concept in seven words. With this brief time and word allotment, students must really understand what is important and not important about the topic. Find this resource in the AACT resource library.

Figure 4.
  1. The first day of class is an ideal opportunity for formative assessment! Teachers use formative assessment and may not be aware that they are doing so because many think it only applies to specific content. In a new class of students, knowing who the leaders are and who the followers are is important. It’s also helpful to gauge students’ prior knowledge and skills. So instead of going over rules, policies, procedures, etc., on the first day of class, have students solve a problem such as, “Which is more efficient, front-wheel or rear-wheel drive?” They can present their findings in a lab report or in a class discussion the next day. It gets them thinking critically, and it gives you an opportunity to get to know your students as learners. (Figure 4)
  1. If the learning objectives involve applying concepts and calculations, students can make a video to explain how to solve a calculation. Student must really know how to do the problem, as well as have the organizational skills and confidence to produce a successful video. Find this resource in the AACT resource library.

  2. For objectives that involve no calculations and are conceptual, making a stop-motion video that can explain a chosen concept to an elementary student is a great way to ensure students actually understand the concepts. The best example of this that I have seen is a video that a group of my students made about the creation of light spectra through the absorption and release of energy in the form of light. Find this resource in the AACT resource library.

It is one thing for students to be able to crank out solutions to problems, but it is entirely different when they can apply calculations with data collected in a lab investigation. After students study a topic, to demonstrate their understanding, they could design and carry out a lab experiment to further investigate the topic. (Figure 5)

Students can make a poster that both advertises and explains a topic to a specific audience, be it a classmate or the general public. This makes students synthesize learning objectives into a cognitive whole. (Figure 6)

Figure 5. Figure 6.

Additional examples of formative assessments can be found in Page Keeley’s books at the NSTA bookstore. 3 And a blog post on Edutopia, Dipsticks: Efficient Ways to Check for Understanding, has 53 examples of formative or summative assessments that can easily be put to use.

Figure 7.

Examples of summative assessments

Besides the typical end-of-unit test that has multiple-choice and short-answer questions to gauge how well students understand the objectives, these are alternative ways to assess student understanding of a topic that I have found successful.

  • A nice culminating activity for chemistry students is a lab practical to identify the components of an unknown solution. A similar activity to one I do with my students can be found in the AACT resource library.

  • A written test isn’t the only way for a student to synthesize an objective, so as part of an assigned group, students can research and present a poster on either an entire topic or a smaller subtopic. (Figure 7)

On the NSTA pedagogy listserv, David Vernot, a workshop leader, recently started a discussion looking for techniques that teachers use to collect individual student data in real time. 4 One of the respondents, Jan Barber-Doyle, made these points: “First, formative assessment is best used often and informally to take the temperature of the room, so to speak, and it need not be empirically precise. Second, the formative process is not scalar and cannot be used in some kind of point system (unless it is the students assessing themselves and setting learning targets).”

In other words, formative assessments are best used not to assign points for grades but to see how students are doing at the moment so the teacher can adjust the learning process if needed.


Getting to know what students know means walking around and listening to your students. It means asking them to produce something to demonstrate their learning. It means using a variety of ways to gauge their understanding. And these assessments do not need to become a grade.

To plan a successful course, use the combined process shown in Figure 1 as your guide. Start with the end in mind, align objectives and learning activities, and then ask, “Does it work?” Doing this will help your students be successful and you too!

Good luck with your assessing, and remember “If you don't know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?”5


  1. M. Carlson, G. Humphrey, and K. Reinhardt. Weaving Science Inquiry and Continuous Assessment; p. 4; Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA; 2003.
  2. Edutopia, Robert E. Stake, July 30, 2014, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/dipsticks-to-check-for-understanding-todd-finley.
  3. Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction and Learning, Page Keeley; NSTA Press, 2008.
  4. David Vernot, curriculum consultant, Butler County Educational Service Center, Hamilton, Ohio, pedagogy@list.nsta.org.
  5. Lewis Carroll, http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/33008.html.


Figure 1 is based on a similar diagram that the author found in an unremembered science education book from the 1980s.
Figures 2–7 are by the author or based on his students’ work.

Further Reading

Preparing instructional objectives. Robert F. Mager, 1984 (2nd ed.); Belmont, CA.

Embedding Formative Assessment—Knowledge Source Institute, Dr. Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the Institute of Education, University of London.

Formative Assessment—A Powerful, Quick Tool in the Classroom, by Chad Husting; Chemistry Solutions Vol. 1, Issue 1.

John Gardner, Assessment for Learning, 2 ed., ISBN-10: 978-0-85702-383-7.


Thanks to Dr. John Stiles for revisions and feedback during the writing of this article.