Formative Assessment and Quiz are not Synonyms!




I recently participated in an #sschat on Twitter with Dr. Grant Wiggins, the highly acclaimed co-author of Understanding by Design. He’s a rock star in education, so I was excited to have the opportunity to chat with him. We were discussing formative assessment and I shared a view that I often discuss with teachers, that formative assessment and quiz are not synonyms! Dr. Wiggins responded by saying if the quiz is looking back and not forward, a quiz isn’t formative at all! BINGO!

Formative assessment is the constant, daily, checking-in with students to gauge their understanding to guide instruction and provide feedback for continued learning. In essence, it’s teaching, not “assessing” in the more formal manner we tend to use the word assessment. It’s not a grading and reporting category, and it’s not inherently formal. It’s real-time teaching.

So what does formative assessment look like in a 21st century social studies classroom?  Here’s just a few ideas.


1. Assess historical understanding of primary sources by having students brainstorm dialogue. 

Speech bubbles in PowerPoint have been a mainstay in my teaching for years. (See my previous blog post, 6 Ways to Make PowerPoint More Engaging and Interactive.) Earlier on, I’d write my own speech bubbles and insert them in images of historical figures in PowerPoint. As I tried to make my lessons less teacher-centered, I realized this can be a formative assessment tool and I don’t need to be the creative thinking one! Give students sources, have them process the ideas, then have them brainstorm possible dialogue. It forces students to apply their understanding rather than simply summarize it Wikipedia-style.

For example, all Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook sections have an “elaborate” tab that includes a bank of related primary and secondary sources. The Civil Rights Movement section includes the following sources:

Excerpt from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act Speech
Excerpt from President John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Speech
Discovery Streaming has the video of JFK’s speech, along with reaction by Martin Luther King.

Background reading can also be provided to further build the background knowledge students need to access the higher level historical thinking skills. Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook has background readings at multiple reading levels on the events of 1963 related to the image, including Taking a Stand in Birmingham.

Students can analyze these sources and either on paper or on a personal learning device, insert dialogue into the following photo to gauge their understanding to drive your instruction and provide feedback.














What’s great about this photo too is too often we confine analysis of civil rights leaders to King, Kennedy, and Johnson. But some lesser known and very influential leaders are in the room too, like Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph, long time union organizer and head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, now a U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district. Additional sources about these men can be provided for further analysis and assessment.

Once student have examined source material to brainstorm dialogue, a teacher can reveal some of the actual dialogue from the meeting, then students can compare and draw conclusions. This would be effective to formatively assess contextualization skills.


2. Student discourse strategies – rocks/sucks or yep/nope

I just learned about “rocks/sucks” as a student discourse method at the National Council for the Social Studies Conference in Boston, and its simplicity is genius. Throw out a topic, and have students move to one side of the classroom—one side for “rocks” and the other for “sucks.” The “sucks” language may be a stretch in some classrooms. I’ve chatted with teachers who prefer to use “yep/nope.”  Either way, participants debate, and a teacher can facilitate if needed.  Quite the engaging frame to solicit student discourse as a formative assessment tool. We did this as teachers with “Andrew Jackson” and “executive orders.” You can imagine the lively discourse that ensued. Formative assessment doesn’t always need to be written or with hands in the air. Having students unpack some source material than posing a rocks/sucks question to evaluate point of view is a great student-centered and creative assessment strategy. One teacher, in the midst of the debate, said, “An angry class is a learning class.”

Another student discourse strategy is using structured academic controversies. This is a really effective way to elevate the rigor of a class discussion, use it as a formative assessment tool, and root it in the historical thinking skills of claim and evidence. Students need to weigh evidence on both sides of a controversy, then build consensus in a collaborative environment. has a description of the method and an example: students weigh if Lincoln was racist.

Rubistar has customizable rubrics for oral discourse projects and tasks.


3. Instant polling technology

Web-based polling, like, is another way to quickly assess historical thinking. Polleverywhere even allows teachers to embed the live poll in their PowerPoint presentation. Students can read source material, or view a film clip from Discovery Streaming, then answer a quick question to provide you with instant data to guide instruction.

For example, to continue with the Civil Right theme, students can view this interview with Malcolm X, then use Polleverywhere to answer a historical thinking question, like


Malcolm X poll












4. Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook Interactives

If you have a Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook account, a plethora of assessment tools are available. The Civil Rights Movement section includes a historical perspectives investigation called Advocating for Change. I especially like this activity because it assigns students a role and creates empathy with common people rather than the household names of the Civil Rights Movement.














Techbook also includes many other investigations, brief and extended constructed responses, review flashcards, selected response questions, and several custom builder tools:

builder tools