Assessments for Learning

This semester, we are highlighting Authentic Assessments in the FCLT blog. As explained in our previous post, authentic assessments amplify the real-world relevance of learning and give students greater agency over their learning. Formative assessments can be any course activity that provides students and/or teachers with feedback to be used in order to modify teaching and learning activities.

Typically low-stakes, formative assessments are presented as opportunities to practice elements that students will be asked to show mastery on when they get to the summative assignment–the midterm, exam, or paper that is consequential to the grade. They can certainly do this, as well as provide the student and instructor with useful information about where each student or the class as a whole may be struggling so more class time can be spent to address weaker areas. Early and regular activities that insist that students engage with the content and practice skills set the culture and expectations. Students and professors have a more realistic gauge on what students have learned. By contrast, students can often overestimate what they learn as a passive audience to a lecture, especially when the professor presenting the lecture is a good speaker.1 As Sharon Bowman says, “real learning takes place when we stop talking and our learners start talking.”2 Mixing lecture and interaction has proven to be much more effective.

Formative assessments accomplish more than one goal. When students play a more active or interactive role in their own learning, it can go a long way toward retention. Formative assessments also open students to connect with one another, to collaborate. Encouraging interaction creates more points of connection for students to collaborate with one another. Ultimately educational research finds that formative work leads to better student outcomes,3 and narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students.4

Ideas for Collaborative Formative Assessments

The good news about formative assessment is that it can be short and simple! Many formative strategies work really well across audiences at different ages and can be applied to very different types of content. Something to keep in mind with formative assessment is that it has different goals than demonstrating mastery. Goals of formative assessment can include collaboration, getting students to interact, and connecting learning to the real world. These can make a course more meaningful and have positive effects on student motivation. This can support the elements of the course that are more focused on testing knowledge. Taken together, formative activities can reinforce that learning is more than demonstrating mastery. It includes taking risks and trying things without fear of failure.

Here are some ideas from Cornell’s Active Learning Initiative6 and other resources7 around the web for building collaborative formative assessment into your courses. Consider how you can use these strategies with your content to engage students!

Stump Your Partner

Give students a specific, short amount of time (1-2 minutes) to generate a challenging question based on the lecture that has been given thus far. Then students pose that question to the student next to them (in class) or to another student in breakout rooms.

You could ask student to write these questions down and hand them in so you can use them to create quizzes or exams.

Fishbowl Debate

Have students form groups of three (or divide them in breakout rooms for synchronous or discussions asynchronously). Randomly assign roles so that one student takes one position on a debate, another student takes the opposite position, and the person in the middle takes notes and decides which side is most convincing. Debrief by calling on a few groups to summarize the discussion.

Write for 1 Minute – Then Think/Pair/Share

At the end of a lecture or in the last 10 minutes of a course session, ask students to write for one minute with feedback to an open-ended question. Here are some examples:

  • What is the most meaningful thing you learned today?
  • What are three things you learned, two things you are curious about and one thing you didn’t understand?
  • How would you have done things differently in class today?
  • Complete this sentence: What I found interesting about this work was…
  • The most challenging concept/idea in class today was … I think it means…

Have students partner and share ideas from what they wrote. Have a few share back to the group as time allows. Have those who also had the same idea use reactions or raise hands to indicate and offer acknowledgment and praise to those who respond. Ask for additional sharing from those who had a different answer that has not yet been offered.

Speed Check

Stop lecturing and give students a specific amount of time (1 or 2 minutes carefully timed- groups should get longer than individuals) to work individually or in pairs or groups to write down the ten (or choose a number you prefer) most important facts, concepts, steps that were covered on the topic today. Once the time is up, see who was able to write down ten (or the number given). Did anyone get more? If no one got ten, who got the most? Have students (or groups) who met the criteria repeat their list. Optionally you can have others raise hands or use “Reactions” in Zoom to indicate if they got the same ones. Give the person applause or some form of praise. You can write them down on a blackboard or whiteboard. When the collective responses are recorded, how many concepts were there?

Using Discussions to Connect to Each other and the Real World

I will end with this 8-minute video on using Canvas discussions as a collaborative, formative activity that connects to real-world relevance. I like this activity because it shows that you can use tools as simple as Canvas discussion, and connect students to each other by using real-world prompts to generate lively connections between students and between the student and the course content.

Tell Us About Your Formative, Collaborative Activities!

We’d love to hear what activities you are using to get students talking to one another about your course content. Please share them with us in the Comments! Instructional designers in the FCLT are also excited to help you develop similar activities for your in-person, hybrid, or online course!


  1. Colleen Flaherty. 2019. ‘The Dangers of Fluent Lectures‘. Inside Higher Ed.
  2. Sharon L. Bowman. 2009. Training from the Back of the Room! Pfeiffer Publishing.
  3. Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. 1998. Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy, & Practice, 5(1), 7–74
  4. Colleen Flaherty. 2020. The Power of Peer Interaction. Inside Higher Ed.
  5. Elli J. Theobald, Mariah J. Hill, Elisa Tran, and Scott Freeman. 2020. “Active learning narrows achievement gaps for underrepresented students in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math.” PNAS 117(12): 6476-6483.
  6. Cornell Center for Teaching Innovation. “Examples of Collaborative Learning or Group Work Activities.”

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