If there is one part of teaching that has been improved and made more efficient by technology, it is the use of educational technology as an assessment tool. I spend much of my professional time sifting through new apps and new pedagogy to understand whether certain apps have any long term value or if the new storytelling tool online is easier and more effective than the one that created such a buzz last year.

That aside, there is still a necessity to check for understanding to ensure that students are learning what will remain timeless in the face of exponential innovation.

Why Check for Understanding?

Checking for understanding is one of the most underrated and undervalued topics that is practiced daily. Teachers are notorious for asking the class for “the answer” early in their career to learn only some students raise their hands, and some don’t. If the answer is given by one of them, all of them now must all know from then on, what “the answer” is.

Students are not always self-regulated learners. They may not be aware of what they do or do not understand“-(Hofer, Yu, & Pintrich, 1998) This notion rears its ugly head when students with short attention spans do poorly later on to which the teacher asks, “Weren’t you listening?” We shouldn’t be upset with their answers in this regard. Their failure is ours too, and we must accept that making mistakes can be part of the learning process as long as it is focused, constructive and tied to curricular goals.

Most teachers think of a quiz as a check for understanding, but they are often bi-weekly, graded and often too long to manage a meaningful debrief with a dozen or so students that would benefit from a conference to clear up misconceptions. Jennifer Sparrow, the curriculum coordinator at Singapore American used this model in a workshop I attended that outlined how assessment frequency and use can be practiced to ensure cyclical re-visitation and reflection.

Assessment for your goals should mirror the frequency of the levels above
Assessment for your goals should mirror the frequency of the levels above (Image courtesy of Jennifer Sparrow)

For example, assessments “as” learning are the informal prompts and discussion methods that may take 4-5 times throughout a lesson. Such activities like “fist to finger”, “think, pair share” or “thumbs up, thumbs down” are examples that can used to visually see that every student is making a statement, offering an opinion or making a prediction. Having students use personal white boards in math class is another assessment “as” learning. These are meant to foster discussion, give dissenters a voice and come to a consensus.

Assessments “for” learning are done less frequently, but done more formally. This is where a student response system comes in handy as it minimizes the amount of time marking and tabulates responses into a spreadsheet that can be reviewed by teachers, teams and parents as formative tasks to see how students are meeting the curriculum on a weekly basis. “Checking for understanding not only corrects misconceptions, it can also improve learning“.-(Vosniadou, Ioannides, 2001)

Finally, the assessments “of” learning are the final summative tests or PBL products where we as an institution tell students: “show us what you have learned” which happen most infrequently, typically, at the end of a unit. They show the highest level of understanding and if other assessments were used throughout, students statistically do the best on them. I have found that teachers that offer retake after retake on these assessments have not used formative ones frequently enough, and do so to inflate grades to a point that will show their teaching in a favorable light and thus avoid controversy.


3 Student Response Systems for Formative Assessments

1. Infuse Learning

Infuse learning is a great response system to try this year as it shows real time feedback on how a group of students are progressing through a quick assessment. See the below video on the process and note it’s definite advantage that it has a great multitude of response types. Students can translate questions in different languages and even audio as well. The drawing feature is very nice as you can have students draw pictures (which may be harder to standardize). Being able to embed a picture is a nice feature if you’re teaching art, humanities or any other subject that benefits from a nice visual.


2. Socrative

Socrative is also a nice survey response tool and like Infuse Learning, it gives real time feedback. A teacher creates a “room” where students are directed to do a quiz. There is a nice tutorial exploring the system in the video below. One advantageous benefit is that students can choose which “pace” to do their assessment. A teacher paced assessment is more constrained by time as a teacher might want to give only 5 minutes for the assessment. Another great feature of Socrative is that students don’t need to create accounts. They simply go to the room that the teacher created and do the assessment. Students respond and teachers see their progress as a progress bar chart.



3. Google Forms

I’ve written about Google Forms before and coming from a Google Apps school, I must say they are very nice tools. They’ve made some changes to Google Forms over the summer but most of the major features still exist. I learned that you can embed a drawing into a form but it can be a bit clunky. Also, you can collate student responses in real time but assessment is not done as easily as Socrative or Infuse Learning as you have to “grade” your assignment using a grading script like “Flubaroo“, which requires a few mouse clicks and is a bit cumbersome if time is not a luxury. One point I always make with Google Forms is to formally go over the “correct” response after they have all been collected.

Creating a question type in Google forms
Creating a question type in Google forms


Want to Help your Students, Give them Honest Feedback

An interesting blogger said a few weeks ago that “assessment is not a spreadsheet, but a conversation.” This is so true, but replacing good feedback for interpersonal relationships is one of the main reasons for the push of standardization testing in education, which Diane Ravitch woefully asks “Is it because teachers can’t be trusted?Relationships are key, but we have to have the resolve and data to tell all vested parties when intervention is required, and early on is best.

We can’t chalk up poor achievement to quips such as “Suzy doesn’t test well” or “I don’t believe in tests”. Such spreadsheets and their data may seem impersonal at first, but they are also balanced with a personal touch afterwards, knowing that all our students are human, all humans make mistakes and “because understanding develops as a result of ongoing inquiry and rethinking, the assessment of understanding should be thought of terms of a collection of evidence over time instead of a single event“-(Wiggins, McTighe, 1988)


What are your thoughts on using student response systems? And what tools have you found invaluable in managing assessment in your school? Let us know in the comments below.



  • Checking for Understanding-Formative Assessment Techniques for your Classroom: Fisher, Frey 2007
  • Designing learning environments to promote conceptual change in science. Learning and Instruction, Vosniadou, S., Ioannides, C., 11, 381-419, 2001
  • Understanding by Design-Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Wiggins G., McTighe, J. 1988

Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Marco Arment.

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