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Library Girl's Picks: The Best Digital Tools for Formative Assessment

Updated: Oct 10, 2018

On Monday, I had the opportunity to participate in another fab edition of the TL Virtual Cafe webinar series.  This month's PD offering was an "Edutech Smackdown" featuring the Queen of All Things Library:  Joyce Valenza.  I love these smackdown sessions because they are the ultimate crowdsourced PD.  Everybody grabs a slide (or two or ten) and when their time comes, takes the mic to share something they love.  They are fun, fast paced and the cream always seems to rise to the top.  Delish!

That said, for my few minutes with the mic, I decided to focus my attention on formative assessment.  As much I love tech toys, (and I do.  I really, really do), I grow weary of gadgets for the sake of gadgets.  If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that technology is not going to improve student learning, boost achievement or save education -  only good instruction will do those things.  That's not to say that effective technology use can't enhance that instruction   Of course, it can.  But technology is but one vehicle by which we can deliver our content and pedagogy.  What's more, even the best tech tool is only as good as the instruction it supports. 

Which brings me back to formative assessment.

When incorporated into a lesson, formative assessment provides the teacher librarian with a snapshot of the teaching and learning while it is still happening.   This is valuable for so many reasons.  First, the activity itself can provide the students with extra practice.  Secondly, when done effectively, formative assessment offers a quick and more reliable check for understanding than the old "raise your hand if you have a question" technique.  Third, and probably most importantly, formative assessment provides the teacher librarian with instant data that can be used to adjust instruction "on the fly" in order to better meet student needs.  And, finally, formative assessment can help guide future lessons.  All all good stuff.

Obviously, this is not rocket science.  Great teachers have been using formative assessment since the first prehistoric student blamed a hungry T-Rex for his missing homework. That said, today's teachers and students have a plethora of digital teaching and learning tools at their fingertips that makes incorporating formative assessment in the learning process both really easy and super fun!

So... here are some of my picks - along with a few others that were suggested by members of my PLN.  Big thanks to Steven Anderson, Nancy Mangum, Neill Kimrey and Angela Monk for sharing your expertise with me.  You guys rock!

Admit/Exit Tickets are a beloved formative assessment strategy.  Indeed, I cannot even begin to count the number of post-it notes I've used over the years to gauge my students' progress, interest or prior knowledge.  Of the digital tools available for this type of formative assessment, Linoit is my favorite.  I use it all of the time.  It's easy, reliable, is available as both a web tool & an APP and your boards can be easily saved and/embedded.  It's a win-win.  I also like the APPs iBrainstorm and Perfect Caption as well as the webtools Stixy and Wallwisher - although, increasingly, there seems to always be a glitch in the Wallwisher matrix.

Graphic organizers are another great formative assessment tool.  Asking kids to organize/prioritize a set of data is an effective way of gauging their understanding of those concepts.  The standout in this category, for me, is Popplet.  With both a web based and APP version that allow kids to collaborate, adjust the map as their thoughts evolve and save their popplets for later use, I am a fan. and SimpleMind are also useful tools with similar functionality.  However, if you're looking for premade organizers like venn diagrams, four corners, etc., the APP Tools for Students is a great option which features hundreds of existing organizers that kids can edit  and share.

Taking a quick survey or poll is an AWESOME way to find out, quickly, what your students know, before moving forward in the lesson.  What makes today's digital versions of these mini assessments so effective is the ability to view/share the results in real time.  My favorite tool for this purpose is Socrative. Like the description says, Socrative, literally, turns any internet ready device into a set of clickers - teachers can give both students and teacher paced quizzes, the results are instantly graphed and shared AND there's a feature which allows students to vote on the responses that are captured.  Amazing.  Of course, if you're lacking netbooks/laptops or Smart devices in your school,  Poll Everywhere offers a similar service using text messaging and Google Forms can be a great web based alternative - although teasing the data out of a Google Form requires a bit more work.

I can still remember the first time I was able to put an individual whiteboard into each of my student's hands.  I simply could not believe how powerful having them write the answer to a question on their own board and hold that answer up for me to see could be. I thought, this is going to revolution my teaching - and in some ways it did.  One thing is for sure, it didn't take long before all those boards were stained and smudged and cracked from hard (but important!) use.  That said,  today there are a plethora of individual whiteboard APPs out there that offer the same instant glimpse into what your students know that their hard plastic counterparts did PLUS so much more.  My favorite of these offerings is Educreations - an APP that let's students draw, write, create, narrate, record and share what they know.  They can record (and play back!) the steps in solving a math problem, label the parts of a plant or identify places on a map by annotating a preloaded photo and the final products can be embedded on any webpage.  Show Me and Whiteboard Pro offer similar products, but Jot! is a really simple APP that more resembles the individual whiteboards of yore.  Jot is not fancy, but it's reliable.

My favorite tech tool right now is an APP called Reflection.   Essentially, Reflection allows you to "reflect" multiple mobile devices on a desktop computer - which can then be projected and shared via a data projector/apple TV, etc.  So... no matter what your students are working on - maybe they are playing Cyber Bully Zombies as part of a digital citizenship unit or perhaps they're creating digital timelines or writing their own ebooks.  Either way, you can see it all, in real time.  A-MAZ-ING.   The down side?  It's pricey.  Right now, I am rocking the free trial and will gladly fork out the $14.99 once that runs out, but that's a stiff price tag for schools sporting carts and carts of devices. That said, I recently learned that Doceri offers a similar service, (and is free!) but I've yet to see it in action, so I am keeping Reflection at the top of my list.

For more information on Formative Assessment in the library, I'd suggest a reading of this School Library Monthly article from 2011 by Kristin Fontichiaro.  This resource provides some stories from the trenches - that is to say examples from librarians currently using using formative assessment as an instructional strategy.  My favorite part of the article though is when Kristen says:  "To be blunt, if school librarians are to call themselves teachers, then they too must ensure that students are learning, not just "doing."'

Amen, sister.  Amen.

For me, formative assessment acts as a reality check.  Regardless of how many virtual light bulbs I *think* I see going off above my students' heads, until I truly and accurately check for understanding, I am just fooling myself.   So, whether delivered through a pack of post it notes or a cart full of tablets, formative assessment remains a crucial part of the instructional process - and one that belongs as much in the library and lab as it does in the traditional classroom.


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