Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Quizster: The Formative Assessment App

(cross-listed on

I teach high-school math, grades 9 through 12, with classes ranging from Geometry to Calculus. In the past few years, I have found myself increasingly interested in the structures of formative assessment, because although formative assessment is something we all aim to do in our classes, its specific method of implementation can have varying degrees of effectiveness on improving student learning. During the last two years, I have implemented weekly “No Big Deal quizzes” that contain a couple of questions targeting a recent topic, but without including any scaffolding in the questions or cues hinting at specific strategies. The students tended to fall on a spectrum on these formative assessments. They would take about 15 minutes at the start of class trying the questions; I would then collect their responses and go over the answers as a class as the students took careful notes and asked questions. The next day, I would return the graded “quizzes” (usually worth only 2 to 4 points for one or two questions) and assign similar problems on the board for the students to copy down and complete, in order to make up any points missed via showing an improved understanding on those topics. For some students, just turning this new assignment in is enough to show a thorough understanding and to address previous misconceptions, but for other students in the class, remediation frequently requires a continued back-and-forth dialogue on the new questions until they finally get it and are able to demonstrate that understanding on paper. If they have trouble revising the responses, they would first go to their notes on the initial quiz and ask me clarifying questions during class. If that wasn't enough, I would offer to sit down with them to go over the process again one-on-one. What this allowed me to do was to address real-time gaps in their knowledge, so that by the time I gave a summative assessment at the end of the unit (or halfway through a long unit), I could hold all the students accountable for higher-level complexity in problem-solving. This paper-based formative assessment process worked well and was critical in advancing my students’ learning, but I found myself having trouble with effectively following up with my students regarding their assessment results. They sometimes misplaced the graded papers with my written feedback on it, or they couldn't remember whether they still needed to revise a particular quiz. When they did sit down with me, I often wished that I had a more detailed record of their processes and misconceptions, instead of just a score in my gradebook and an unreliable memory of their errors.

My husband is a software developer, always on the lookout for ways to improve the existing ways of doing things. Sensing my frustration and seeing the hours I put into sorting through paperwork, he and I sat down to hash out the design for an app that would allow me to grade formative assessments in pieces, on the go, while I am on the bus or waiting for a meeting to start. The app we built takes photos of student work and allows the teacher to dialogue with the student, updating their assignment grades incrementally and providing additional feedback until the student completely masters the desired skill. It would also provide a photo record of the students’ progress, to enable effective one-on-one conferencing. I piloted the use of this program last year with 60 of my students during a full school term, and it easily complemented the formative assessment I was already doing. To maintain their focus on the math, the students would still complete their work on paper, but instead of handing me loose sheets during class, they would simply use their phones or tablets to take a photo of their work through the app for submission, which took a matter of seconds. After class, I would sit down and open the app to find all of their submissions, already sorted by question. I would grade a single question at a time using just my fingers and a touchscreen interface on a mobile device, across all students, and upon exiting, the scores and feedback would be published to the students instantaneously. Afterwards, the students would be able to submit further revisions and to receive further feedback until both they and I felt satisfied with the results. This app quickly gained popularity with my students. They loved the camera interface, the instantaneous feedback, and the ability to pull up an entire list of assignments to see which items still needed their attention. The more organized students liked not having loose sheets of paper floating around and to be able to keep track of all of their written work sequentially in a paper notebook, which stayed in their possession. I liked the flexibility to selectively collect a single question from a homework assignment, the freedom to grade anywhere without lugging around tons of papers and notebooks, and the ability to focus on providing quality feedback in real-time without fussing with the overhead surrounding the receipt, recording, and returning of assignments, because Quizster took care of all of those logistics for me.

Quizster has helped to streamline an important part of my students’ learning. In doing so, it has made me a more effective teacher, being able to focus my energy on what matters -- identifying student needs and personalizing my responses. I look forward to reading about how other teachers will implement this app in their classroom. Following 6 months of initial prototyping and testing with a small group of teachers, the app is now ready for release to a wider audience. If you wish to be part of the testing and evolution of this product, you can find more information at .