Ritual Engagement Strategies that Help Assess Learning and Increase Rigor

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by Scott Sterling, Learning Sciences International

Ritual engagement sounds like a scary term, bringing to mind pictures of Mayan sacrifice. It’s actually just the little things you do during a lesson to assess learning informally. If done correctly, they become a habit (hence the “ritual”). For most teachers, this takes the form of periodically asking questions and soliciting answers.

As we all know, the most likely students to answer your questions are the ones that have the answer. The ones who might be struggling (who are the very students you want to identify under any formative assessment scheme) will try to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. Unfortunately, it usually works.

There are better ways. You’ve probably heard of some at various PD sessions and conferences. If you have any great ones, please share them in the comments. But here are three that have stood the test of time, reach every student in the classroom, and increase rigor at the same time.

Turn and talk

Many kids don’t want to speak in class; very few don’t want to speak to their friends during class. At the times you would typically ask a question of the group, instead have them ask the question of each other.

Say you’re covering a concept, and you come across a key point. Simply ask the students to turn to the kid next to them and talk about this point for about a minute. Walk around to make sure everyone is staying on task and try to listen in on the discussions. You’ll not only hear whether students are grasping the point, but also, if they are getting stuck, which concept is tripping them up. A minute can provide a wealth of formative assessment knowledge.

The parking lot

Again, this strategy caters to students who don’t wish to speak in front of the class.

Set up a spot on your board or a large sheet of paper, labeling it “The Parking Lot”. Then have plenty of Post-It notes available. Either periodically during the lesson or at the end of class as an exit ticket, ask one of the questions you would have previously asked the whole group. Everyone writes their answer or a question they still have about the concept on a Post-It, then sticks it to the parking lot.

A quick scan of the lot will tell you where you need to go next in your instruction. Kids are engaged because it’s anonymous.


This is for the techy teachers who might be working in a BYOD or 1:1 device environment. As you are delivering your lesson, open a backchannel website and have the students contribute their thoughts throughout your lesson. Project the conversation on your white board or LCD so everyone can follow along. Again, this technique makes for easy formative assessment without the constant stalls and pauses of questioning techniques.

Some of the more popular ways to provide a backchannel in your classroom include:

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, the new standards are asking students to think more abstractly about concepts. The only way to develop those skills is through a consistent dialogue that turns the topic around in the students’ heads. These and more strategies can help you get there.

If you’d like more informal assessment strategies, check out this handout from the American Federation of Teachers.

Comments (2)

  • […] their responses in a small group or with the entire […]

  • […] “Performance assessment doesn’t talk about how to teach… but how to assess learning,” explains Dr. Brookhart, adding that educators can only improve students’ ability to retrieve and store information by assessing their level of competency and then deciding how to move forward to foster increased higher-order thinking and problem solving. […]

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