6 Ways to Make Virtual Formative Assessment Meaningful

by | 11.30.20

Ben is a kindergarten teacher in California.

I teach kindergarten in Salinas – sometimes called the “Salad Bowl of the World” because of our rich agricultural industry. Just about everyone in our school community is a language learner. Some of us know a lot of English and a little Spanish, and some of us know a lot of Spanish and a little English. In kindergarten, one of our top priorities is building students’ language skills. Students practice those skills in all kinds of ways, from memorizing sight words to retelling narratives – and if I’m going to assess oral language, I need to be able to hear my students speak. 

As we’ve pivoted to online learning, one of the most urgent challenges has been the question of how to create space for meaningful interaction with our students. So much of supporting our students’ growth relies on our ability to give them individual feedback. 

During synchronous virtual meetings, it’s very challenging to give individual feedback on a regular basis. We don’t have the opportunity to circulate in the classroom and listen in on “turn and talks” between students. We can’t have those quick little interactions that give us so much insight into our students’ thinking. We’re basically in a meeting room where only two people can really talk at a time.

So how do we get the type of formative assessment information that allows us to understand our students’ thinking – and how do we give them the type of differentiated feedback that enables their growth? These are the questions we’re all trying to solve right now, and I’ve come to rely on tools that allow for recorded audio and video – like Seesaw and Flipgrid – as a means of receiving feedback from my students to better my practice and giving them feedback to help them grow. 

This is a time when we need to get creative about the ways we differentiate instruction and assess student learning – and these are some ways recorded audio and video can make that possible: 

With recorded audio and video, we can:

1. Open up efficient, two-way conversations with every student.

2. Use features to support student independence.

3. Offer students choice, ownership and opportunities to innovate.

4. Differentiate learning tasks, based on the same core activity.

5. Pinpoint our purpose, so our assessments are valid and reliable.

6. Accept imperfection – and embrace the opportunities this moment provides to us.


1. We can use recorded audio and video to open up efficient, two-way conversations with every student.

I could assess my students’ oral language skills in one-on-one video meetings, and I do find those meetings to be a great way to connect with students. But assessing all my students that way is also a time-consuming process. It requires making appointments, contacting families and getting students to log in. If that’s my only strategy for finding out about their learning, I’m going to be limited in how much feedback I can realistically offer. 

When my students record their thinking with an audio or video app, it replicates a formative assessment tool I use so often in the classroom: those times when I ask them to turn and talk with a partner, and I walk around and listen to them. In this case, they’re still pausing to share what they know – but they’re sharing with their camera or audio recorder. When students speak into Seesaw or Flipgrid, I hear their voice. I hear their thinking. That gives me feedback as a teacher, and it allows me to give them feedback, so they can hear my voice, too. 

2. We can use technology features to support student independence. 

Students are learning in all kinds of different situations, with all different levels of family support available during the day. Some have a parent helping them all day, and some are with a group of kids or with a babysitter. The more we can do to empower them to learn independently, the better.

I have recorded videos in Flipgrid, which I sort by color, and students know what color links they’re working through. They may not have someone at home who reads English, but as long as they know they need to click on the yellow link to get to the Flipgrid video they need, they can move forward. It takes some up-front investment to teach kids how to use the tool, but then they’re independent – even my kindergarten students.

3. We can offer students choice, ownership and opportunities to innovate.

Recently, my students and I read a story about a square pumpkin named Spookley, and they made their own pumpkins out of paper. I asked them to make a video and tell me about their pumpkin. Some kids did exactly what I had modeled with Spookley: They held up a sheet of paper and talked about their pumpkin. Some kids took a photo of their pumpkin and recorded their voice describing the image. And there were a few kids who drew their pumpkins right inside the app and recorded themselves talking about their pumpkin. 

So here’s the thing. I can show students one way to do something using Flipgrid or Seesaw. But once they know the tool, they’re able to self-select the best way to demonstrate their learning. I’ve seen kids use the tools in new, innovative ways that they can then model for their classmates, too. Some of what we’re doing here is giving kids a palette and inviting them to use the palette just like an artist. It’s like saying, “Here’s all the paint. You can choose.” They are building confidence with technology and exercising some control over their own learning. 

4. We can use technology to differentiate learning tasks, based on the same core activity.

Using both recorded audio and video, I can differentiate learning tasks using the same basic materials and activities – so as kids’ skills develop, we can build on them. I can also build in extra supports. 

For example, one thing students do in kindergarten is memorize a list of “sight words.” I have color-coded instructions, so kids can start at the appropriate level, and they can also listen to a recording of me reading the words before they practice them again. I can build in tiered instructions using the same sight words. Once they’ve mastered a sight word, I can say, “Next time, I want you to say the word, spell the word, and then give me a sentence using the word.” So even within the same activity, there’s room for students to build and grow in the language produced.

By adding differentiated instructions that all draw on the same basic materials, I give my students the learning experiences they each need without the workload of building a completely separate assessment for every student.

5. We can pinpoint our purpose, so our assessments are valid and reliable. 

Whenever we create assessments, we have to ask ourselves what we are trying to measure and whether it’s something we can assess validly and reliably. During virtual learning with kindergarteners, it’s hard for me to assess students’ writing. I can have them take a picture of something they’ve written and put it in Seesaw, but I can’t be sure how much of what they’re doing is independent. If I ask them to type something, I have no visibility into who is doing the typing. 

Our assessments must meet the needs of the moment, and that means right now I’m putting more time into ongoing formative assessment of students’ oral language skills. If I teach them about how a rainbow is formed, I can ask them to to retell the information. I can learn a lot about their level of understanding and their vocabulary listening for them to say something like, “The sun is shining through the water and light is reflecting to form a rainbow.” Over Seesaw or in a one-on-one meeting, I can assess their sight words and their ability to make letter sounds. So as far as their writing, maybe right now we’re focusing more on language building and oral retelling – and we know those skills will transfer to writing later. 

As students get older, they build more skills for expressing their thoughts in writing. But there are still going to be students for whom oral language is their most effective mode of expressing knowledge. We need to always stay focused on what our purpose is. Are we assessing writing skills, or are we assessing their understanding of a concept? If we’re not assessing writing skills, written assessments might not be the best way to measure progress. 

6. We can accept imperfection – and embrace the opportunities this moment provides to us.

When I describe the way I use recorded audio and video to assess my students, some people ask me, “What if their family is helping them?” And it’s true – that might happen sometimes. But the assessments we do in our classrooms aren’t perfect either. At school, I might bring a kid over to a small group table and assess them when they aren’t in their optimal moment. They have to demonstrate their learning on my schedule. When a student is creating a recording on a program like Seesaw, they can do it when they’re ready – on their schedule.

There is no perfect form of assessment, this included. I’m not seeing the kids face to face, so I’m going to miss some cues that might tell me if they’re struggling or need help. But much of the time, I can still hear it. And of course this shouldn’t completely replace that one-on-one video assessment.

All that said, when I can hear the kids read over a screencast, when I can see them pointing with a cursor, when I can hear how fluently they’re moving through sight words – those are all ways that I can get a sense for what they know – and what they need from me. I really find these recorded formative assessments very meaningful as a teacher, in so many ways. And it’s just really simple getting students to hit that record button and talk about what they know.

More on the value of differentiation and student choice:

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