Tuesday / June 25

2 Tools for Formative Assessment in Social Studies [FREE Downloads!] 

In the social studies classroom, sources can be a great motivator for student understanding. They provide opportunities for students to interact with ‘real-world’ examples of information, and the ability to use current events to understand concepts critical to their success in social studies.  

In many ways, the ability to correctly decode a source is a skill that will follow them throughout life. So when students ask: ‘When are we gonna use this in REAL LIFE?’ (cue the eye roll) – you can tell them that sources such as political cartoons, charts and graphs, quotes, and excerpts will always be present. The skill of being able to appropriately analyze them often takes practice and guidance from the teacher. However, it is worth asking: What are your students telling you about what they know from analyzing sources? 

I am hoping that this post will be able to give you more explicit questions to ask your students so they can provide you feedback about their learning journey when it comes to understanding the importance of source analysis in social studies! 

In Alberta, Canada where I live, students are required to complete government exams in Grades 6, 9, and 12. Approximately 60% of the questions have a source related to them, so students must analyze the source and then answer a multiple choice question. It is vital for students to be able to communicate their understanding formatively to be successful summatively on this type of assessment.   

StudentCommunicated Understanding: 

As teachers, we do a great job of modelling how to analyze a source. We put the source up in front of the class (and sometimes give students their own copy) and as a group the teacher leads the students through how they would analyze. Allowing students to participate in Guided Annotation (effect size 0.63) is a great way to introduce source analysis. Yet a key aspect of understanding sources is for students to be able to use their own perspectives to tell you what they know. We as teachers must gradually release responsibility onto the learner.

Here are a few different ways of doing that:  

Students who are new to sources:  

When students are new to source analysis, I have them really break down the source using specific questions. The questions are provided in a hand out type of document, but can be varied in their delivery. For example, when analyzing a visual source, I might provide the following handout (click on the image to download!): 

Notice that this type of analysis has a ‘first glance’ and ‘deeper analysis’ component. This is intended to get students to really consider what the messaging of the source would be. I always provide opportunities for students to ask clarifying questions, and also assure them that once they are more comfortable analyzing with this type of task, this longer document is not necessary. 

Students who are familiar with sources: 

After a while (and often with older students) the novelty of really breaking down the source almost surgically isn’t really fun. So using a few simple questions, I have found students really can consider the intricacies of this task. Most importantly these questions allow for students to reflect and also provide the teacher with feedback on student learning.  

  1. Are there words/phrases in the source that you or others find difficult? 
  2. Are there examples of bias or satire used in the source that contribute to its message? 
  3. Are there multiple perspectives in the source? (If so, what are they?) 
  4. How does this source relate to the concepts we are learning in class? 

These questions can be talking points, questions that students must individually respond to or can serve as class discussion prompts. The questions can also be used all at once, or chunked across a few classes. I have found success when students apply these questions individually, because then they are challenged to make connections on their own.  

Using templates and tools to gather feedback: 

Over the course of the last few years, I have worked alongside teachers to develop a simple tool to formatively assess how much students know when it comes to source analysis. This incorporates some of the same questions mentioned above, but the progression is that students must use information from the source to answer a specific question. I have provided a blank word template, as well as a sample word document for teachers to use as a handout, but have also created a Google Form that can be used as well. Essentially all I have done is enter the questions on a Google Form template, it’s VERY easy to do! The Google Form is my personal favorite because it provides teachers with instant ability to intercept and redirect learning based on student responses – plus there aren’t piles of paper you take home in your bag! 

The word document and template look as follows (click on the images to expand & download the templates!):  

There are downloadable documents also attached for your use. A sample of the Google Form can be accessed by clicking on this link: folder of sample Google Forms can be accessed here: , you will just need to ‘make a copy’ of the folder to access and use personally. 

The beauty of this activity is that the analysis questions never change, the complexity increases for the students as the teacher changes the source and the corresponding question. 

By using this template in your classroom, you can pinpoint where the learner is experiencing a challenge or learning gap. It is so much more valuable than asking your class to ‘analyze this political cartoon’ or ‘look at these quotes’. This type of formative assessment will allow students to practice analyzing source material, while providing the teacher with information to guide the student to bridge the learning gap. 

I hope you can find a use for these extensions in your classroom! Please feel free to contact me via email (, or on Twitter (@VinceBusta) to support the implementation of these tools! 

Written by

Vince Bustamante currently serves as the Social Studies Curricular Consultant for Edmonton Catholic Schools. In this role he is responsible for resource development, providing teacher support, overseeing curriculum implementation as well as delivering professional learning sessions. He is trained as a Secondary Social Studies teacher with vast experience in middle and high schools, and has a passion for creating a social studies classroom that seeks to empower students to maximize their learning. Let’s get students excited about social studies!

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