Formative Assessment

Better ways to ask “Does that makes sense?”

On this page:

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is assessment for learning as opposed to end of the unit assessment of learning (summative assessment). Assessment is formative when:

  • Evidence is gathered about student achievement or understanding.
  • This information allows the teacher or learner to alter future instructional steps.
  • It's done in order to improve learning outcomes (Black & William, 2009).

This information serves as feedback to the teacher about how a student is doing in order to plan next steps (e.g., for teaching) and may also be for students so that they are aware of their own understanding (e.g., for learning). It’s easier to understand what formative assessment is by comparing it to summative assessment and noting the differences seen below.

  Formative Summative
  Assessment for Learning Assessment of Learning
Purpose Improve learning Measure attainment
When While learning is in progress End of learning
Focused on Learning process and the learning progress Products of learning
Who Collaborative Teacher directed
Use Provide feedback and adjust lesson Final evaluation

A key point to note is that formative assessment is used to understand whether an activity or lesson worked and to use this feedback to make adjustments. It serves no purpose to find out students are confused and move on anyway.

An often-used quote that helps illustrate the difference between these is:

“When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative. When the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.”
Robert E. Stake

Why do I need it?

There are several reasons to assess student understanding before a lesson has concluded.

  • Barriers: Often concepts build off of each other. If students did not understand the initial foundational concepts you are teaching, there is no point in moving on to subsequent topics as students will be unable to make meaning out of them.
  • Efficiency: If you spend too much time teaching something students already understand, or not enough time on topics they find difficult, you will be using your limited time inefficiently. The only way to determine this is to assess student understanding during lessons.
  • Feedback: In order for feedback to be effective it must be timely. If the only feedback students receive is after the lesson is over (exams, homework assignments) then students will have moved on to the next task. It’s not only unhelpful to receive feedback when that information can no longer be applied, it will also be a waste of your time writing it.

Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)

There are several resources for formative assessment activities. One of the most popular sets of formative assessment activities are called Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross (1993).

Formative Assessment Techniques
Name Description What to do with the data Time requirement
Minute paper During the last few minutes of the class period, ask students to answer on a half–sheet of paper: “What is the most important point you learned today?”; and, “What point remains least clear to you?” The purpose is to elicit data about students’ comprehension of a particular class session. Review responses and note any useful comments. During the following class periods emphasize the issues illuminated by your students’ comments. Prep: Low
In class: Low
Analysis: Low
Chain notes Students pass around an envelope on which the teacher has written one question about the class. When the envelope reaches a student he/she spends a moment to respond to the question and then places the response in the envelope. Go through the student responses and determine the best criteria for categorizing the data with the goal of detecting response patterns. Discussing the patterns of responses with students can lead to better teaching and learning. Prep: Low
In class: Low
Analysis: Low
Memory matrix
Students fill in cells of a two–dimensional diagram for which the instructor has provided labels. For example, in a music course, labels might consist of periods (Baroque, Classical) by countries (Germany, France, Britain); students enter composers in cells to demonstrate their ability to remember and classify key concepts. Tally the numbers of correct and incorrect responses in each cell. Analyze differences both between and among the cells. Look for patterns among the incorrect responses and decide what might be the cause(s). Prep: Med
In class: Med
Analysis: Med

Directed paraphrasing Ask students to write a layman’s “translation” of something they have just learned–geared to a specified individual or audience—to assess their ability to comprehend and transfer concepts. Categorize student responses according to characteristics you feel are important. Analyze the responses both within and across categories, noting ways you could address student needs.
Prep: Low
In class: Med
Analysis: Med
One–sentence summary Students summarize knowledge of a topic by constructing a single sentence that answers the questions “Who does what to whom, when, where, how, and why?” The purpose is to require students to select only the defining features of an idea. Evaluate the quality of each summary quickly and holistically. Note whether students have identified the essential concepts of the class topic and their interrelationships. Share your observations with your students. Prep: Low
In class: Med
Analysis: Med

Student–generated test questions Allow students to write test questions and model answers for specified topics, in a format consistent with course exams. This will give students the opportunity to evaluate the course topics, reflect on what they understand, and what are good test items. Make a rough tally of the questions your students propose and the topics that they cover. Evaluate the questions and use the goods ones as prompts for discussion. You may also want to revise the questions and use them on the upcoming exam. Prep: Med
In class: High
Analysis: High
(May be homework)

From: Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass. (TG)

Additional CATs resources are available in the Additional resources section at the bottom of this page.

Educative assessment

Another way of describing or thinking about formative assessment is by Wiggins (1998) as well as Fink (2013) called educative assessment. Fink recommends four steps for creating quality educative assessments.

Forward looking. Change the focus of your assessment to forward-looking. Backward assessment looks at what’s been covered and asks students “Did you get it?” Forward-looking assessment looks ahead to what you might want students to do with that content. It asks the question “Can you do this with what you’ve learned?” This means giving students authentic forward looking tasks (i.e., using the information as it would be used in the real world).

Identify appropriate criteria or standards. In order for students to do something well they need to understand what components of the task are being assessed and the criteria for quality for those components. One way to do this is to create rubrics that are shared with the students at the start of the task to make clear what is expected of them (see Rubrics). Two added bonuses are that rubrics make grading more focused and fair and when students score poorly there is an objective agreed upon measure to point to for why this has happened.

Give many opportunities for self-assessment. In order for students to learn from their mistakes as well as their successes they need plenty of opportunities to practice and receive feedback. Building in activities throughout the individual units of instruction can help students self-assess earlier while they still have time to ask questions and adjust what they are doing.

Provide FIDeLity feedback. Feedback is both not part of a student’s grade and is in dialogue with them. It needs to be:

  • Frequent
  • Immediate
  • Discriminating (using criteria and standards)
  • Done Lovingly

Feedback is only helpful if they have many opportunities, the topic is still fresh (and ongoing), it’s clear what they did wrong and how they might do better, and it’s delivered in a safe and constructive way.

This is in contrast to “auditive” assessment (i.e., summative, Wiggins 1998), such as grading, which is backwards-looking. To be clear, auditive is not a bad way of assessing, but a good mix of all types of assessment is needed.

Best practices for feedback

There are also best practices and educational theory bolstering the need for formative assessment. First, educational research has shown that in order for students to learn teachers must engage their previous understanding, support the development of a conceptual framework of ideas (i.e. students learn nothing if they only collect unconnected facts) and support metacognition in order for students to monitor their own learning (Bransford et al., 2000). All three of these principals require the feedback necessitated by formative assessment.

In order for feedback to be successful, formative assessment must:

  • Clarify and share learning goals and success criteria.
  • Create effective classroom discussions and other tasks which demonstrate evidence of student understanding.
  • Provide feedback that can and will be acted upon.
  • Allow students to become instructional resources for one another.
  • Stimulate students to become owners of their own learning (Wiliam & Thompson, 2008).

Evidence for formative assessment

Previous studies, and large meta-analyses gathering together the finding from these studies have shown large effect sizes of .4 to .7 in learning gains (an equivalent of 1 to 2 letter grades) for students when teachers use formative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 1998; 2006). Gains are also shown to affect special education students including those with low attaining students and those with disabilities (Fuchs et al., 1997) leading formative assessment to be considered the 3rd most powerful teaching practice (d = .90; Hattie, 2008).

There have been several challenges to the accuracy of these studies, with the most notable criticism being vague and often circular definitions of what constitutes formative assessment, poor research design of many studies and no agreed upon methods or terminology for formative assessment (Dunn & Mulvenon, 2009; Kingston & Nash, 2011). These are issues related to how people have studied formative assessment and not formative assessment itself.