8 Formative Assessments for Social Studies

7 Min Read
Formative Assessment for Social Studies

Checking for student understanding during the learning process in the social studies classroom can help inform instruction. Using formative assessment is a way to evaluate student knowledge as they learn. Formative assessment monitors learning; therefore, teachers can use this in-the-moment feedback to guide students.

Formative assessments can range from formal to informal, and teachers can conduct them via technology or without it. There’s no one-size-fits-all formative assessment strategy to implement in the classroom, but there are plenty of techniques teachers can try.

What Is Formative Assessment?

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) defines formative assessment as a process used during instruction to elicit evidence of learning to improve student understanding. Dr. Julie Miles, Senior Vice President, Learning Sciences at HMH, describes the purpose of formative assessment like this: “[The] primary purpose is to inform teachers about how their students are progressing, where gaps exist in students’ learning, and how their instruction needs to be adjusted to improve student learning, possibly by slowing down the pace, repeating instruction, or even challenging some students with new and potentially more difficult tasks.”

It’s a normal part of learning for students to be challenged along the way. Unlike summative assessment, which happens after the end of a course or learning activity, formative assessment allows teachers to evaluate student comprehension on the go and provide support where needed.

8 Formative Assessment Examples for Social Studies

We’ve provided formative assessment examples for social studies teachers can use in their classrooms to collect the data they need to improve student learning:

1. Exit Tickets

Using exit tickets is an informal way to check for learning across subjects; this formative assessment allows students to reflect on their learning and think critically. One benefit of exit tickets is that teachers have much flexibility when deciding on what to include on exit tickets. Authors of Improving Adolescent Literacy: Strategies at Work Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey believe exit tickets fall into three categories:

  • Prompts that document learning
  • Prompts that emphasize the process of learning
  • Prompts that evaluate the effectiveness of instruction

These categories aren’t all-inclusive, but no matter what, completing this process should only take a few minutes.

Teachers can use paper, index cards, or even digital tools to create exit tickets, and students respond to a question related to the lesson taught in class that day on the ticket at the end of a class or lesson. The posed question might also align with a social studies concept covered during the lesson. For example, if teaching Native American history, an exit ticket could ask students what they know about the Native American cultures in their local area or what they learned about that surprised them and why it did.

Afterward, students can hand their tickets to the teacher or digitally submit their responses. Senior assessment specialist Amanda Bratten provides more information on implementing an exit ticket strategy into your instruction.

2. Class Discussions

Teachers can learn about students’ understanding of concepts by conducting an informal class discussion. By evaluating classroom discourse, teachers can gain real-time data to help guide their instruction.

Teachers can ask open-end questions to initiate the discussion and allow students to discuss their knowledge and opinions. One egalitarian way to conduct a discussion is using the popsicle stick formative assessment strategy. A teacher writes each student’s name on a popsicle stick (or another item) and randomly draws a name—one by one—to give everyone a chance to respond. This method allows for teachers to check for gaps in understanding and, by giving everyone a chance to speak, teaches students that their thoughts are valuable.

3. Venn Diagram

There are plenty of opportunities in social studies to make connections between topics. A Venn diagram is a tool that can help students understand the similarities and differences between two or more ideas. Plus, this graphic organizer can act as a formative assessment by providing teachers insight into how much students comprehend the topics they’re studying.

Students can create a Venn diagram on paper or using an online tool. Alternatively, they could use a template. The Venn diagram will likely align with the lesson they’re learning to gauge their understanding of the topic or a concept. For example, students might compare different cultures, economic trends, or historical eras—the possibilities are endless.

4. Polls

A poll is a quick way to check student knowledge. As a type of formative assessment, research shows that polls can provide a range of functions, such as assessing prior knowledge, eliciting misconceptions, and helping students recognize their own progress. Polls are flexible in what they assess and how teachers conduct them.

Teachers can administer polls during or after a lesson using technology or manually, such as having students simply raise their hands. If teachers administer polls during class, questions and responses can serve as a foundation for a class discussion. If students respond to a poll after class, this can allow them to reflect on their learning.

5. Think-Pair-Share

Think-pair-share is a learning strategy that teachers can use across disciplines. For this strategy, students have time to reflect individually on a posed question or prompt, discuss their thoughts with a partner, and share their ideas during a whole-class discussion. Not only does this strategy help students work on their speaking and listening skills, but teachers can also gain insight into their students’ knowledge by listening to their conversations.

Teachers might conduct this formative assessment strategy by asking an open-ended question related to a social studies lesson and then explaining to students that each student must think quietly before discussing the question with a partner and, later, the entire class. After the class discussion, students might reflect on what they learned from their partners and during the whole-class discussion.

6. Timeline

Timelines serve as visual tools to help us understand history and where events fall in chronological order. Timelines can capture anywhere from minutes to centuries. Plus, timelines can help students make connections. For example, students can see how events overlap (think Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank being born in 1929). Additionally, students can understand outcomes caused by events in history, such as the Pearl Harbor attack launching the U.S. into World War II.

As a type of formative assessment, you can have students create or fill out timelines based on what they’re currently studying in class. This task allows you to gauge how much they know about where important dates and events fall in history.

7. KWL Chart

A KWL chart is a graphic organizer that helps students to synthesize what they know (K), what they want to know (W), and what they have learned (L) about a topic. Teachers can use this tool as a type of formative assessment because it can determine prior student knowledge of a topic and check for understanding after instruction.

Students might answer the questions posed on the graphic organizer about a social studies concept, such as climate change or a topic like World War II. A KWL chart can be completed before starting a new lesson. Read more about how you can use a KWL chart in your classroom.

8. Data-Informed Assessment

Educational technology can provide various ways to assess, and formative assessment using technology provides plenty of benefits for teachers and students, such as:

  • Customizable learning goals and content
  • Real-time data capturing and updates
  • In-the-moment feedback
  • A safe, positive learning environment

HMH Social Studies programs, for example, feature embedded assessments that directly align with students’ learning to check for knowledge, such as reading check questions and opportunities to analyze videos, maps, and visuals. These tools offer immediate feedback and reporting that inform teachers’ instruction.

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Using Formative Assessment to Inform Instruction

Teachers can use the data captured from formative assessments to help inform and differentiate their instruction. Dr. Julie Miles simply summarizes the steps teachers can take when using assessment data: “All assessments will yield data, and this data needs to be turned into information. Then from information, you can derive insights and take appropriate actions.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all when choosing the formative assessment ideas for social studies that works best for your classroom. Because of the various strategies available, if one doesn’t work, implement another until one of them sticks.


Learn more about our K–12 social studies programs, which provide embedded formative assessments for social studies that check student knowledge.

Get a free guide to choosing the right assessments for your district.

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