Skip to content
ascd logo

February 1, 2021
Vol. 78
No. 5

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Taking Formative Assessment Virtual

author avatar
author avatar
premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Show & Tell: A Video Column / Taking Formative Assessment Virtual thumbnail
Teachers across the globe have been providing instruction in virtual or hybrid settings for the majority of this school year and have found creative ways around many of the challenges. The first order of business was to build our own digital competency and that of students. Remarkably, many students are now successfully navigating their way around learning management systems, file-sharing programs, and conferencing tools.
But assessment remains a challenge. Formal testing procedures have had to be adapted to accommodate the unique conditions of assessing from home. To fill the void of relatively limited formal assessments, educators are turning to more robust formative evaluation methods to check for understanding and make instructional decisions about next steps. The result is something of a silver lining to distance learning, because effective assessment for learning has the potential to advance student achievement.
However, some of the formative evaluation practices we rely on in a face-to-face environment can be challenging to enact in virtual classrooms. This is true of universal response systems, which are ways to get a response from all students to gauge their grasp of something. (If you've ever asked students to give you a thumbs up or a thumbs down about a question, you've used a universal response to check learning.) But in talking with colleagues, we've found creative ways to set up universal response opportunities in distance learning classrooms.

Four Ways to Make It Work

Universal Response Cards

Hand signals—like thumbs up or students signaling agreement or disagreement to a statement by raising a specific number of fingers to indicate their opinion—may be harder to interpret on a computer screen, where each student appears as a small box. And it can be unwieldy for very young students to type their reply in the chat box of a distance learning platform.
One ingenious method to make interpretation easier was suggested by our colleague Vince Bustamante of Edmonton Catholic Schools in Canada. He suggests having students use clear CD or DVD jewel cases, with green paper inserted on one side and red paper on the other. Students hold up one side or the other to answer yes/no or true/false questions posed by the teacher. The color stands out and is easily viewed.
Response cards are another effective way for teachers to frequently check for understanding and keep students engaged. As school systems distribute materials for students to use at home, the list has grown from digital devices to include a variety of generic response cards or preprinted cards for:
  • arithmetic symbols.
  • the letters AD for multiple-choice questions.
  • the numbers 1–4 for self-assessments.
  • a true/false card.
Preprinted cards to solicit teacher support, including ones reading "help, please," "repeat, please," or just showing a question mark, are also helpful. Such cards create a way for students to interact with the teacher without having to write in the chat; they're like the paddles bidders raise during an auction to gain the auctioneer's attention. Some teachers provide students with preprinted cards held together on a ring, for easy access.

Write-on Whiteboards

One way we gauge student progress is by observing students' written answers to more complex questions. Schools are (rightly) providing paper and writing supplies to students, but it can be difficult for teachers to see through a web cam a piece of paper that's been written on in pencil. Small whiteboards, used with dry erase markers, are far more visible because they are rigid and more easily photographed than a sheet of paper. First grade teacher Kimberley Perverley at Harborside Elementary in Chula Vista, California, regularly uses write-on whiteboards with her students. In the video accompanying this column, you'll see her use of these tools in action. Notice two techniques Kimberly uses: She has her students wait to reveal their answers simultaneously, and she takes a screenshot so she can further analyze their answers later.

Waterfall Chats

The digital meeting platforms offered in virtual settings can be leveraged to find out what students know. One common method is to pose a question and invite responses using the chat feature. In practice, however, this technique has its limits. Often just a handful of students reply. Or, worse, a "follow the leader" phenomenon occurs; students quickly learn to rely on the early responders and then simply echo the same reply. Wait time is also compromised—those with the fastest fingers are privileged.
A "waterfall chat" prevents these problems. Ask a question and invite students to each type their response but remind them not to hit "send" until instructed to do so. This provides ample wait time. When ready, say, "3, 2, 1 … send!" and watch the replies race by in the chat like a waterfall. You'll find more original answers since students will be less self-conscious about peers seeing their answers just hanging there in the chat for minutes on end. You can save the chat to analyze the results of individual students later.


Digital polling functions in virtual settings make it easy to get a visual sense of levels of understanding across the class. Because students can see the results, a completed poll can jumpstart a discussion. Pose a content-related opinion question in the poll and ask students what their reactions are to the results. Ask multiple-choice questions to see whether instruction is sticking. If many incorrect answers surface, instead of revealing the correct answer, ask students to provide a rationale for their answer in small group breakouts, then bring them back together and pose the question again. The number of correct responses the second time around often increases because students have had a chance to articulate their reasoning and listen to peers' thinking.

Fostering Active Learning

There's one other reason for continuing universal responses even in distance- or hybrid-learning classrooms: They foster active learning through retrieval of information and reflection. Response opportunities like these promote higher levels of participation, a key aspect to engagement, especially online. These low-cost techniques can go a long way in promoting learning.

Watch the Video

Watch a 1st grade teacher use whiteboards to gather all students' responses to a math problem.

<!--<iframe src="" style="position: absolute; top: 0px; right: 0px; bottom: 0px; left: 0px; width: 100%; height: 100%;"></iframe>-->

End Notes

1 Lee, H., Chung, H. Q., Zhang, Y., Abedi, J., &amp; Warschauer, M. (2020). The effectiveness and features of formative assessment in US K-12 education: A systematic review. Applied Measurement in Education, 33(2), 124–140.

Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University, where he focuses on policies and practices in literacy and school leadership. Additionally, he is a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College, an award-winning, open-enrollment public school in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego that he cofounded in 2007. His areas of interest include instructional design, curriculum development, and professional learning. A passionate educator, Fisher's work is dedicated to impacting professional learning communities and nurturing the knowledge and skills of caring teachers and school leaders so they may help students improve their learning and attain their goals and aspirations.

Fisher is a member of the California Reading Hall of Fame as well as the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit and Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE. Previously, he was an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He has published numerous articles and books on literacy and leadership, teaching and learning, and improving student achievement.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
The Way We Talk About Assessment Matters
Kevin Kuehn
2 months ago

Related Articles

From our issue
Product cover image 121039b.jpg
Making Professional Learning Stick
Go To Publication