Formative Assessment

Formative Assessment

What is Formative Assessment?

Formative assessment is process used to monitor student learning as it happens in the classroom.  The goal of formative assessment is to provide feedback to both instructors and students to improve learning.  Instructors use the information gathered in the formative assessment process to make adjustments in the classroom.  For example, the instructor may find it necessary to reteach a concept that is not being understood, find alternative approaches or may need to provide additional reinforcement activities for students.   The instructors may also provide feedback to the students regarding their progress, which may assist the student in "closing the gap" between their current level of learning and the desired level.  Formative assessment is designed to be an ongoing process that takes place throughout learning for the purpose of feedback. It is ultimately a form of communication between instructors and students.  Therefore, formative assessments are not "graded" or given point values.

 What are the key elements or components or the formative assessment process?

  • Understanding the learning target and identifying the gap - It is important that both the instructors and students understand what the target is for student learning in a particular lesson.  Formative assessment can be used to then identify where the student current stands and assist in closing the gap, thereby getting the student closer to the goal. It is important that the instructor clearing communicates the target to the students.
  • Giving assignments or using formative assessment strategies - Instructors must give assignments or provide students with opportunities to produce work that allows the instructor to compare their current status with the target.  The instructor must then be prepared to use that information in a constructive way to find learning strategies for the students that will be more appropriate and beneficial. The results of formative assessment can be used to match students with the appropriate materials and activities. Corrective activities may involve enrichment opportunities, a change in format or presentation style or an organizational change.  In order to meet the needs of all students, this may require some individualization of learning strategies in the classroom or perhaps the creation of multiple tiers of students who are at a similar level. 
  • Giving feedback - Instructors must use the information gained from formative assessment strategies to provide feedback to students regarding their status.  Students must be willing to give feedback to the instructor, allowing the instructor to modify instructional approaches if necessary and better assist the students.
  • Using learning progressions - Once the instructor has identified where the student is on the learning continuum, the material can be broken into a series of smaller goals that are more manageable, yet move the student forward.
  •  Involving students - Students are more engaged and motived when they are involved in the decision making about their learning and when they have the opportunity to provide feedback to the instructor. In more traditional settings, students are simply given material to learn, and their level of understanding is measured at the conclusion of the lesson in some type of summative assessment, such as a quiz or exam.  Students are not given the opportunity to be part of the learning process in that model.

 What are the types of formative assessment strategies?

There are many strategies that can be used in formative assessment, all of which provide different means for students to demonstrate what they have learned.  They can be broken into several broad categories:

  • Summaries/Reflections - This may include strategies such as journaling and exit slips, which allow the student to reflect on what they have learned and find personal meaning.
  • Lists, Charts, and Organizational Strategies - These strategies help students to organize the information, make connections, and discover relationships.
  • Visual Representations - Students use both words and pictures in these strategies. This increases the modes of learning and better encompasses a larger variety of learning styles.
  • Collaborative Activities - Students are able to work to together and have the opportunity for peer-to-peer instruction.

 For specific examples of each type of formative assessment, refer to the following link:  The resources on this page will also provide additional explanations and examples for a variety of strategies.

 Why Use Formative Assessments?  What are the benefits?

The following YouTube Video, Understanding Formative Assessments, features several teachers that use formative assessments in their classroom.  This video provides specific examples of formative assessment strategies, but perhaps more importantly, provides an opportunity to hear from instructors regarding their feelings on the benefits of formative assessment and what it has meant to them and the students in their classrooms.

Suggested Readings

  • Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (formerly: Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education), 21(1), 5-31.
  • Boston, C. (2002). The concept of formative assessment. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 8(9), 1-5.
  • Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in higher education, 31(2), 199-218.
  • Popham, W. J., & Popham, J. W. (2005). Classroom assessment: What teachers need to know. Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.
  • Sadler, D. R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional science, 18(2), 119-144.
  • Wang, T. H. (2007). What strategies are effective for formative assessment in an e‐learning environment?. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23(3), 171-186.
  • Yorke, M. (2003). Formative assessment in higher education: Moves towards theory and the enhancement of pedagogic practice. Higher education, 45(4), 477-501.

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Resource Links

What are formative assessments and why should we use them? - This website provides a good overview of formative assessment and includes a definition, examples, when to use it, and why it is helpful.

 A Sampling of Types of Formative Assessment - The following link contains a chart that is a comprehensive list of types of formative assessment that gives specific examples and provides additional links.

 The Best Value in Formative Assessment - What is formative assessment?  How is it different from summative assessment or feedback?  What are the advantages of formative classroom assessment?  The following link addresses those questions.

 Formative and Summative Assessment - For a brief comparison of diagnostic, formative and summative assessments, follow this link:

 How does formative assessment work? - The following resources provide a chart and discussion regarding how the techniques used in formative assessment improve student learning.

 Fact Sheet on Formative Assessment - This link provides information the elements of the formative assessment process and provides  types of formative assessment strategies.

  What does the research say the benefits of formative assessment are? - For a discussion regarding the research on the benefits of formative assessment, follow this link:

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