Informal formative assessments are an essential component of my teaching practice. They provide me and my students with instant feedback such that I can adjust my teaching strategies and they can see where their comprehension and competencies stand in relation to the learning targets. Additionally, these assessments can turn a passive lecture into a more interactive student-driven lesson. They are perhaps the most effective and important teaching tools in my toolbox.

An informal formative assessment can take many forms, but it is always ungraded, instant, and reflective for both student and teacher. ** Informal **implies that it is low-key, low-stakes, and often personalized to the student.

**means it is a diagnostic tool that helps guide learning towards a summative assessment.**

*Formative*Perhaps the worst (i.e. least informative and reflective) informal formative assessment are the phrases “Does that make sense?” and “Any questions?” I learned this lesson the hard way as a beginner lab instructor. These are phrases I’d heard a lot as a student myself, so I suppose I picked up the habit somewhere along the way. I’d walk students through a diagram of the Krebs cycle while staring at my PowerPoint, and then I would look up and say some version of the aforementioned questions and wait a few seconds. I would be met with glassy-eyed nods and then I’d launch into the next slide. Needless to say, it did not make sense and they had lots of questions, but they didn’t have the framework, time, or space to process their own understanding. And I had the confirmation bias I needed to move on to the next slide. A few weeks later, the students would fail the Krebs cycle on the summative assessment, and I had to ask myself: *why in the world didn’t they say something*?

The truth is, many students probably felt confident in their knowledge and skills. Or, at least, *they didn’t know that they didn’t know.* Thus, **a good formative assessment (whether formal or informal) forces students to reflect on their actual knowledge and skills, and provides instant feedback so that both students and teachers can modify their strategies moving forward.**

Okay, enough background. Here is a list of common informal formative assessments that you can use in virtually any classroom situation, from small groups to large lectures:

**5-finger Temperature Check (before and after)**– When starting a new topic, ask students to give a show of fingers to indicate their level of understanding. “How would you rate your understanding of ______? 1 means you have never heard of the topic before and 5 means you think you already understand the learning goals.” Generally it’s normal to see a lot of 2’s and 3’s.**At the end of the topic/class, ask the same question.**Aim for 4’s and 5’s. If you’re not getting there, ask students to share what’s unclear (see #3 below) and use the opportunity to re-teach.**This also gives feedback to the student**–did they ask the right questions during class? Did they improve their understanding?**Entry Tasks**– In every class I teach, I start with an entry task. This sets the tone for learning and gives students a few minutes to “get in the zone.” It also provides me with a little insight into how students are thinking about a topic. Typically I have a short open-ended question on the board that students can discuss and think about together. For example, if I’m teaching about evolution, I might ask, “Why don’t birds have teeth?” I typically give students 2 minutes to discuss during class and then we discuss as a class for up to 5 minutes. While this does cut into class time, I notice that**it gets students to put on their analytical hats**and really changes the mood from the typical “sit-and-get” lectures they’re probably coming from.**Turn & Talk (aka Pair & Share)**– If you have ever asked students a question and received blank stares in response, this single strategy will change your whole game. This also works extremely well when you have one or more students who are dominating the discussion or if you are trying to get participation from quiet students.**The technique is super simple: Instead of asking a question and soliciting responses from**Give them a minute or so to formulate a response and*individuals*, ask students to turn and*discuss with their neighbor*.**then**Through this method, students are not singled out, but rather asked to share their group’s thoughts. It forces every student to participate since they know any one of them could be called upon while simultaneously lifting the burden and fear of sharing their personal ideas. Turn and talk provides opportunity for reflection and quick corrections through student-driven discussion. Furthermore, it creates accountability to stay focused and during the rest of the class because no one wants to let their neighbors down.**call on a pair of students randomly to share**their thoughts.**See/Think/Wonder –**This is really a type of “thinking routine.” It’s a chart with three columns (see, think, and wonder). Students can fill it out as a small group or whole class, with the intention of getting students to really think deeply about a topic. Usually you give students about 5 minutes per column, but it could be a quick brainstorm. I’ve used this strategy to get students to ask new questions, form hypotheses about complex systems, and abstract engineering concepts from biology. For example, imagine you’re starting a group project where students need to design a new biomimetic product. This could be a way to start the brainstorming of new ideas. Students spend 3 minutes**observing (“see”) a phenomena**in nature and writing down what they see. Then they spend 3 more minutes**abstracting those observations**(“think”) into physical or engineering phenomena. And finally they spend another 3 minutes**applying (“wonder”) these new discoveries**to a biomimetic product. As a teacher, you’ll get to see exactly where their understanding lies, how deep it goes, and what their current limitations are.**Online quizzes or clickers –**While not truly “informal,” online quizzes or clickers can provide instant formative feedback for students and teachers. Sites like www.mentimeter.com and www.kahoot.com allow instructors to make free quizzes. Rather than having each student take the quiz independently, you can gamify it by putting the students in groups. This has the added benefit of**encouraging debate and discourse.****The QHPM**– This is another semi-formal formative assessment that I created about 15 years ago. It’s a**scientific framework that allows students to practice asking questions, forming hypotheses and predictions, and generating methodologies**to test those predictions. In a typical biology course, I asked students to write one per week. I provided quick feedback (e.g. Are the hypotheses based on prior knowledge/logic? Are the predictions testable?) and the QHPMs were graded based solely on participation. Learn more here.

If you have questions or want to implement these in your classroom, I would love to work with you. Please let me know if you have questions as well.