10 Creative Pre-assessment Ideas You May Not Know

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pre-assessmentPre-assessment is a powerful instructional tool. Conducted prior to new learning experiences, the process empowers students as much as it empowers teachers.

I became acquainted with pre-assessment during the early years as a classroom teacher. This was when differentiated instruction felt new to everyone. In those days, we used pre-tests, anticipation guides, and student work samples from previously taught units to identify what kids knew, what they were already able to do, and where we should invest our greatest energies.

Our pre-assessment practices have evolved quite a bit since then. Many teachers have come to understand that assessment in any context rarely requires testing, and data isn’t just a simple set of numbers, and defining strengths and needs serves learners in more ways than we previously understood.

Sure, we still pre-assess to compact the lessons we teach, but engaging learners in this sort of reflective work helps them carve productive pathways through student-directed learning experiences as well. Consider some of these approaches as you design learning experiences for your students or prepare to engage them in self-directed projects:

Ten Creative Ways to Pre-Assess Learners

1. Ranking: Invite learners to surface, review, and then rank new concepts, content, and skills that will be learned according to anticipated difficulty. Debrief by asking them to explain their reasoning, and help them use what is learned to approach the experience proactively. Use it to inform the way you support your students as well.

2. Similes: Ask your students to create similes for concepts, content, and skills they feel they already know. Use their responses to consider the depth and complexity of their understanding. Allow them to revisit and revise their work as they learn more, and challenge them to explain how and why their thinking is changing.

3. Conjure, Cluster, Categorize: Provide each learner with a stack of sticky notes. Prior to new learning, encourage each student to generate a set of curiosities, questions, and predicted challenges: one per sticky note. Cluster the notes that are relevant to one another, and create categories for the clusters. These can inform your teaching points.

4. Guess the Question: Provide learners a set of essential concepts that they will explore throughout the new learning experience. Ask them to guess what the most critical questions might be, relevant to each.

5. First and Final Thoughts: Prior to beginning your study, ask students to share their initial thoughts regarding what they are about to learn, what they are most compelled by, and where their personal interests and needs might be best satisfied. Use this information to adjust the instructional plan. Ask them to revisit and revise these statements at the end of the learning experience in order to describe their levels of satisfaction.

6. Wonder Board: After introducing students to the topics they will explore, ask them what they wonder, and have them add these questions to a shared display. As learning unfolds, encourage students to attend to these questions and provide time for them to connect and share their discoveries. Alternatively, inspire them to attach the answers they uncover to relevant questions on the wonder board.

7. A Carousel of Catalysts: Craft a handful of powerful pre-assessment questions that will enable you to understand the needs of your students. Post each question at the top of its own chart, and hang the charts around your classroom. Ask students to carousel from one to another, adding their responses to each question to the corresponding charts.

8. How Certain Are You? Challenge students to brainstorm everything they feel they already know about the topic at hand. Ask them to record each idea on a separate sticky note. Then, create a way for them to display these notes according to levels of certainty. For example: post a scale at the front of the room. Label the far left end of the scale “very uncertain” and the far right “very certain.” Ask learners to post their sticky notes on the scale according to how certain they feel about their background knowledge.

9. Pass the Prompt: This works much like the carousel of catalysts, but learners may remain seated instead of moving around. Here, each catalyst is added to the top of a sheet of paper, and it is passed from one student to the next. Kids add their responses to each sheet as it is received before sending it along.

10. Quaker Read: After previewing a text, each reader underlines the post powerful or important sentence, phrase, or word. Then, the group forms a circle. One student stands and reads his or her selection. Another follows as soon as the first reader is seated, striving to continue the narrative. Students are encouraged to read selections even if others chose the same portions of the text. Listening for what is repeated helps everyone identify which portions of the text resonated most.

Eager to make the evolution in each learner’s thinking accessible to all? Using technology to transform the pre-assessment process reaps even greater rewards. Rather than using sticky notes or paper, consider facilitating any of the activities above through a blog. Doing so provides a permanent record of initial thoughts, and the commenting feature invites ongoing engagement. Virtual corkboards might be a better choice for ranking and sorting activies, and Google Docs enables collaboration better than a blog might.

You may have other ideas as well, and your mileage with each will vary, of course. To that end, I hope you’ll share your best ideas with us. Drop them into the comments box, and be sure to swing through that space before you leave.

There are many ways to approach pre-assessment. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.
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