During the great digital pivot of 2020 and beyond, a lot of people jumped into virtual instructor-led training to ensure that they could continue supporting their staff and clients. There was a lot of rapid learning and, for some it’s been a great adoption that continues to show success.

For others there’s the challenge of seeing people, getting attendees to put their webcams on, feeling that you aren’t present and getting the energy of the room and therefore the informal assessment you usually make of learners can feel much reduced.

This article looks at informal ways we can understand what people are learning, or not learning, and how to do that in the virtual classroom.

What is formative assessment?

Wikipedia says that formative assessment is

“A range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment. The goal of a formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work. It also helps faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately. It typically involves qualitative feedback (rather than scores) for both student and teacher that focuses on the details of content and performance. It is commonly contrasted with summative assessment, which seeks to monitor educational outcomes, often for purposes of external accountability.”

Wikipedia goes on to state:

“Formative assessment involves a continuous way of checks and balances in the teaching learning processes. The method allows teachers to frequently check their learners’ progress and the effectiveness of their own practice

The elements I’ve put in bold are especially important for us to focus on, both for the learning and performance outcomes for the participants and organisation, but also for our own best delivery.

Continuous checks in virtual formative assessment

These continuous checks include any and all activities you do in your virtual classroom. This is everything from an emoji or green tick/thumbs up, through to collaboration projects across multiple sessions in a blended programme.

The key here is that as facilitators we are getting information, because the more you speak without involving people, the less information you have about them and the less you can react to their energy, questions and comments.

On the Differentiated Teaching website they say that:

“In the classroom, you gather formative assessment data from the minute your students walk in the door. Sometimes this is more formal to give you information on content mastery. Other times, you’re gathering this data to help you better identify and plan for the social-emotional needs of your class.”

This is why in our virtual classroom train the trainer course we stress the importance of logging on early to get setup and getting participants to join before the official session start time. This way you can chat to your participants and start getting that information very quickly. We can often pick up on the quiet one, chatty one or the funny one within a couple of lines of conversation.

Check learner progress

It’s so important in our sessions to feel that we know what people are picking up from our sessions. Many face-to-face trainers feel confident in this, but understandably can feel that a lot of those skills have been lost when they move to live online learning. This isn’t the case, but facilitators do need to think a bit differently about how to get this information.

What tools to use? The Formplus blog suggests:

“In some sense, formal and informal assessments can use the same methods. What matters is how the instructor applies these methods to achieve specific objectives. For example, the structure of a quiz for formal assessment significantly differs from a quiz for informal evaluation.”

Assessments that aren’t tests help our learners to get involved with the topic and develop their learning through activities, trial and error.

Even using some relatively basic tools in your virtual platform, like questions answered in chat or on polls, can give you a lot of information about what people understand, or not, and allow you to respond to those needs both during and after the session.

This approach could also stretch into informal activities as part of a longer programme, or what gets put on a learning or internal social channel, coaching and reflection and so on.

There’s another great point made on the Formplus blog:

“Informal assessment gives room for improvement, unlike one-off tests. Since there’s little or nothing at stake, students can make mistakes and improve their knowledge without undue pressure. Informal evaluation methods allow students to explore different angles of a particular subject.”

Young Asian man in a headset working on laptop and making notes, view from above

This is about activities where you can see what people are learning, grappling with and so on.

Virtual is really rich for this, the chat window is amazing for anyone to share anything any time they want, whiteboard activities mean everyone can see, not just people at the front near a flip chart.

Breakouts mean you can move between them to support, and depending on the tech you use, you can probably see the notes or output of the groups to keep track of that.

Specific tips from Andrew Miller, director of teaching and learning at Singapore American School, include:

“Focus on feedback: When checking for understanding, it’s important to communicate the feedback that comes from it.”

“These [in-the-moment] check-ins help you provide just-in-time feedback, and can guide your thinking about who might need further support later through resources, intervention, or small-group instruction through breakout groups in a synchronous session.”

Developing our own virtual skills

During the global pandemic we probably learned a lot of new digital learning skills and gained a lot of experience. What we are hearing from our clients is that now is the time to pause, reflect, get some formal training or coaching in order to have confidence in skills developed and support new learning still to come.

Chase Nordengren, principal research lead for the Professional Learning team at NWEA states that:

“Formative assessment can provide opportunities to keep engagement high during virtual instruction. Doing formative assessment well is all about providing opportunities for students to reflect on the learning, set next steps to build their understanding, and act on those plans to continue toward mastery.”

And we should do the same ourselves for our own learning journey with virtual design and delivery. To do that, we have some resources for you and your team to learn and reflect with:

Good luck with your formative assessments live online!