Formative assessment is a teaching practice that evidence says makes a difference. In this video, Sue Davis explains how she uses formative assessment in her maths lessons.
Watch Formative assessment in maths | Australian Education Research Organisation on YouTube.

Duration: 6:57

Formative assessment is a teaching practice that evidence says makes a difference. In this video, Sue Davis explains how she uses formative assessment in her maths lessons.

This video can also be used to facilitate a group session where teachers can reflect on their own practice.


Hi, my name is Sue Davis, I'm a primary school teacher and tutor, and I've been teaching for about 17 years. I love teaching and I'm always thinking about ways to improve my practice.

I've recently enjoyed filming some maths lessons for Ochre Education and AERO. I've been working on my formative assessment practice, particularly developing my capacity to check student understanding, monitor learning, and provide timely feedback.

As a maths teacher, checking for understanding is absolutely core to my work. In my classroom, I want students constantly thinking, working, reasoning, solving complex problems. And I need to check their understanding along the way to make sure they're with me and that we're all on track in our learning. It avoids having students slip under the radar; those that appear to understand, but in fact do not.

Checking for understanding in the maths classroom is also important because it facilitates a pedagogy of engagement, where students are not passive receivers of us talking or modelling, but rather they interact with the teacher and with the learning. Breaking down the learning allows incremental steps, each building on the other, allowing for that dynamic to-and-fro between teacher and students.

When you're checking for understanding in the classroom, it's important to keep it low stakes. We might occasionally check understanding with a mid-unit quiz or revision questions, but the bulk of our checking for understanding happens in real-time as the lesson is unfolding, and we are touching base to elicit evidence of learning so that we know what to do next. I think that's important to keep in mind. We aren't talking about formal testing here as such, rather thinking about lesson design and delivery that considers what students know and can do. Mid-lesson, we have to be responsive to that to ensure that our teaching is effective and appropriate for the needs of our students. When I'm designing lessons online, I have to plan the use of pause points very carefully.

Recently, I designed a series of lessons on place value and I had to include a series of pause points along the way to check that students understood digits, numerals, and number values, and how they relate to each other. They are core to understanding place value. So I plan for a bulk of my checking for understanding around those concepts. You can see in this example that I started with explicit instruction on the vocabulary of digits and what a one, two, three, or four-digit number is. The pause points first assessed student's ability to correctly apply digits with the support of a place value chart. Then, I used a quick quiz without that support to assess their ability to perform the task without the additional scaffolding.

In an online context, sometimes we can't see what our students are producing as they're moving through a lesson. So we need to think carefully about what likely answers they are getting and what likely responses they may be forming. This is where it's important to talk them through the right answer - be explicit about it - but also it's a chance to give feedback on the other alternatives and what those responses might mean for their learning. In this example, I address the difference between having a particular digit in a number, for example, four, and being a four-digit number by using numbers which didn't start with a four, and addressing that explicitly in the feedback for that slide.

In the classroom, I routinely use mini whiteboards to check students' understanding. I plan questions ahead of time, and using mini whiteboards means my students can show me what they know in various ways. Sometimes, I might be asking them to perform a simple procedure or set out a problem. With the showing of their whiteboards, I can scan the room to get a sense of how the whole cohort is tracking, as well as identify individual responses that require follow-up. I can then provide corrective feedback, identify trends in responses, and build a culture of error by working through incorrect answers in real time. For example, if I was trying to make sure that my students had mastered ordering four-digit numbers based on their value, I would ask them to create the highest or lowest value four-digit number from a given set of digits.

Really, the purpose of checking for understanding is to discover any misconceptions that students may hold or have taken from our teaching. I want to know what my students are thinking. And if they have a misconception, then I want to address that as early as possible. The last thing I want is for a problem to be rehearsed and embedded in long-term memory. It makes it much more difficult to fix those misconceptions if they're left too long. That is why timely feedback when the student has time to actually practise the revised knowledge is so important.

In this example, I'm looking for the misconception that a number cannot be a multiple of 100 if it has a zero in the hundreds place. If I find a student with that misconception, I'm going to reteach regrouping thousands as hundreds. I'm still refining how I give feedback to correct errors or misconceptions in a way that doesn't risk the disengagement of students who have already mastered the teaching point.

To other teachers, I'd say to be confident in responding to your students' needs. It may be tempting to move through the content to 'get it done', but taking the time you need to ensure that students achieve mastery is more important than ticking off a part of the curriculum. It also ensures that future learning will be based on stronger foundations, saving time in the long run, anyway.

To learn more about formative assessment practices, download the Formative assessment guide from the AERO website, and good luck as you explore this element of your own teaching.

Keywords: practice implementation, student progress, student learning