Can Type One writing prompts be used for formative assessment?

Dr. John Collins, Featured Blogger

By John Collins, Ed.D, Founder and Managing Director, Collins Education Associates

All writing doesn’t have to be high stakes to be valuable. We know that informal writing promotes and clarifies thinking. Low-stakes writing also has been found to be an effective vehicle for formative assessment—that is, checking on student understanding. Collins Writing teachers have long used Type Two Writing (informal writing concerned with correct content) for formative assessment. But don’t overlook Type One Writing (informal writing done to capture ideas) as another effective tool for formative assessment.

There are endless Type One Writing prompts that can be used effectively. But in recent years, I have been stressing three powerful Type One Writing prompts that help check for student understanding. Each prompt can be adapted for a wide variety of grade levels and content areas. They are engaging and give us valuable information about what students are thinking. One prompt is ideal before a unit of instruction; another is designed to be used during instruction; and the last is an effective way to conclude a unit of instruction.

Before Instruction
At the beginning of a new unit, teachers should try to determine how much students know. The best way to do that is to learn how much vocabulary your students know about a topic:

Type One Prompt—Assess Prior Knowledge: We are about to begin a (unit, chapter, section, etc.) on ________. List ____ (use a specific number) words or phrases that you think might be related to this topic. If you are not sure, try to guess. After you have created the list, circle ____ (use a specific number) words you feel are the most critical.

If you feel the topic is so new to students that most will have no prior knowledge, an alternative prompt might be: List ____ (a specific number) questions you have about ________, the topic we are about to study.

During Instruction
At the end of class, rather than summarizing the lesson information yourself, let students do it in the form of writing quiz questions that you might use with them for review of content:

Type One Prompt—Create Quiz Questions: Create a fair, clear, and challenging prompt that I can ask at the beginning of our next class about the content we have covered.

This strategy is engaging, provides closure, and offers formative assessment in several ways. It gives the teacher immediate feedback on what students thought was important in the lesson. When the question is asked the next day (as a Type Two prompt, checking for correct content), the teacher receives another level of formative assessment (Do my students know the answer?). Finally, students receive a formative assessment in the form of a quiz grade.

After Instruction

Too often when students receive graded work back from their teacher, they spend little time reviewing and reflecting on the feedback they received. This prompt requires students to review and reflect on the evaluation they received on an assignment:

Type One Prompt: Stop and Reflect: In ____ (a specific number) written lines, reflect on why this (paper, test, project) received the grade that it did.

At first, students may need some help to write a thoughtful reflection. Encourage them to reflect on what they wished they had done differently when preparing for the test or what they did well in the project—and ask them to elaborate.

These three Type One prompts have become my go-to assignments because they work effectively in so many teaching situations. They are based on best classroom practices, sound educational research, and my experience in classrooms over the last 30 years. For more information on their rationale and suggestions for implementing them effectively see Three Great Type One Assignments.