Formative Assessment In Practice

There is a lot of confusion about testing, and especially about formative assessment. The word assessment brings back a very traditional idea of paper and pencil test. But an assessment is anything that we can use to measure student progress, from a computer game to answering questions orally.

So, what is the different between these three kinds of tests we hear so much about, interim testing, summative testing, and formative testing? Here is a quick description.

Interim is the check point, usually halfway through the learning process. Summative assessment can tell us at the end of a unit or a topic how students have learned throughout that unit. And finally, formative assessment will tell almost on a daily basis how students are progressing, either on individual skills or towards mastery of the overall topic.

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is something that is integral to learning, not separate as a measurement of learning. Formative assessment is when you think about feedback that modifies learning and teaching. It engages teachers and pupils in their self-assessment of where they are in their own learning. As a result, they are able to modify, adapt, and improve that learning in the future.

What are the main elements of formative assessment?

One of the most important elements is the classroom culture. Establishing clear learning objectives, so that students can track their progress and they know exactly how their learning will be measured, so they’re not guessing at what’s going to satisfy the teacher. They don’t do all the work and then worry about what kind of mark they will get. In fact, marks might not even be used. A lot of teachers use comments only, and research shows that students tend to pay more attention and respond when there are comments rather than marks.

Another element is the focus on the learning process itself. Learning to learn is part of that and you are not only focused on the outcome. You need to have a repertoire of methods to use with students as they have diverse ways of learning.

Finally, another crucial element is feedback that is timely and specific and at the right level for what the learner needs.

Summative assessment refers to tests. It could be standardized tests that you have to take for university entrance or graduation, or to move to the next year in school, or classroom tests to move to the next unit, but there is a mark and that is the end of it. Formative assessment is the interactive assessment that happens when people are in the middle of a lesson for example, and having a dialogue about what they understand and what they don’t.

A simple way to differentiate the two is to talk about assessment for learning, which is formative assessment, and assessment of learning, which is summative assessment.

formative assessment in action

The formative assessment process

The formative assessment process is used by students and teachers during instruction to adjust teaching and learning strategies to reach their goals. Formative assessment is a process. Even though it includes the word assessment, it’s not a final test of what students can do. It is a process that occurs during learning, not after. In other words, formative assessment is assessment for learning, while learning is happening. This process of checking, evaluating, and adjusting while you are practising is the formative assessment process in action.

The formative assessment process often looks and feels like a classroom activity, discussion, or assignment. When used formatively, classroom activities inform the next steps for students and teachers. On the other hand, if used summatively, classroom assignments sum up students’ learning. It is important to remember that in order for an assessment to be formative, the focus should be on using the results to adjust and inform the next steps for learning.

This process involves an ongoing cycle of actions.

  1. First, students and teachers clarify the intended learning. This is the learning objective. Where are we headed and why?
  2. Then, they elicit and gather evidence of what students think, know, and can do.
  3. Afterwards, students and teachers interpret the evidence by comparing it to the learning objective.
  4. Finally, they act on the information accordingly.

Let’s look at each step of the process in detail. The first step is to clarify the intended learning. We have to start with what we want students to know, understand, and be able to do. What are the learning goals and how will we know if students have met them? Think about the process you used the last time you cooked a new dish. Did you read the entire recipe first to know what the dish would look like when it was finished? Did you revisit the recipe throughout the process as a guide when you got stuck? Clarifying the intended learning enables students to understand, for themselves, what they need to learn and how they know that they’ve learned it.

The second step is to elicit information about students’ thinking. This means that teachers need to gather information about how students are thinking about a problem, question, or task. Gathering evidence of students’ thinking while learning is happening, helps students and teachers make the right decisions about how to move forward.

Evidence can be gathered in many ways. For example, observing, listening, and questioning students; allowing them to show their thinking through handwritten or computer-based work; even asking students to perform, draw a picture, or use gestures to show what they are thinking. These are all great ways to find out what your students know, so you can support them. The sky’s the limit in terms of creatively eliciting information about what students think, know, and can do.

The third step in the formative assessment process is to interpret information. When you elicit evidence, it’s important to interpret that evidence based on the learning objectives; this helps you and your students stay focused. It’s important to interpret and evaluate what students know and can do based on the specific learning goals and success criteria. When a student answers a question, we immediately try to recognize where they may be struggling with respect to the learning goal. Other times, the interpretation process takes a little longer. For example, we might use a specific rubric to compare a student’s performance related to the learning goal. Students can also use rubrics for peer- and self-evaluation.

The last step in the formative assessment process is to act. Now that students know where they are and where they are going, we can help them get there. Taking action can involve adjusting instruction. For example, re-teaching something in a different way, differentiating a learning task, using a new strategy, showing more examples, changing the sequence of activities or tasks, or modifying the task for students in order to meet them where they are. We can help our students take action by providing them with opportunities to act on the feedback they have received.

The formative assessment process is most effective when all four steps are followed, and students are fully involved in the process. This process can accelerate learning by identifying and acting on learning gaps in real time.

formative assessment in action

Formative assessment strategies in action

Let’s see how you can use formative assessment to form instruction or inform your instructional choices moving forward. You may think that formative assessment is not for you, because you have many students in your class and your time is limited. However, adjusting your instruction doesn’t necessarily have to be an all or nothing scenario. Like so many things in life, there is a spectrum of instructional adjustments that you could make daily as a teacher.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • You put time into developing a lesson, plan only to find out that the class has already studied that with another teacher.
  • You start a project and then the kids just tell you that it’s boring and they are not engaged at all.
  • You start a lesson only to find out that the students lack essential background knowledge.

In all of these scenarios, you need to adjust instruction. If they learned something last year, then they need to learn something more advanced this year or build on what they know. If they’re not engaged, you need to employ different resources in order to gain their interest again. And if they’re missing background knowledge, you should go back and teach the things that they were missing and need to know to move forward.

You can use formative assessment to identify when and how you should adjust instruction. For example, you could formatively survey students to increase engagement. Once you know what they are interested in, you could see whether or not topics coming up are something that is going to intrigue them. You could choose themes according to their preferences or you could switch topics if they demonstrate a lack of engagement.

The same idea can be used with a questionnaire to gather information about students’ past experiences. You can adapt instructional strategies to meet individual student needs. You could use a rubric to determine which students are going to meet learning objectives or not, and then you could re-teach or break them into small groups based on that. In this way, you are informing instruction because you are targeting certain kids who need a little bit more help.

Another way that you can use formative assessment is to alter your instructional approach so as to accommodate students. For example, you can observe a class’s progress and extend a deadline if needed. You can offer them some scaffolding like checklists or calendars. If you can see that the students understand and have demonstrated learning, you can even shorten that assignment, and move on to some more in-depth learning.

formative assessment in action

Best teaching practices for formative assessment

Formative assessment is a great tool to use in your classroom to check on student understanding. One of the best attributes of this type of assessment is that it can be used at any time, unlike summative assessment that comes at the end of a unit. You’ll want to use formative assessment regularly to check the rate of progress.

The three primary goals of a formative assessment are

  1. to check your students current content mastery level
  2. to find which strategies have been effective in teaching the curriculum up until this point
  3. to determine how to help your students reach the learning objectives that they haven’t mastered yet.

Using a formative assessment allows for real-time data collection and provides an abundance of useful information. The information that you collect from the assessment allows you to monitor for differentiation and to identify the students who might need additional support for the lesson that you are teaching.

The data provides quick feedback that students can use to measure their own improvement and watch their growth during a unit of instruction. As for the teacher, it enables you to determine exactly where your students are in understanding. You can adjust instruction accordingly in order to close the learning gaps.

Quick formative assessments also makes grading simpler for the teacher, ensuring that you can re-teach and move on with your next objectives in a relevant timely way.

The key to a successful formative assessment lies in its creation and execution. The activity should be brief and engaging, allowing students to quickly demonstrate to you what they have learned. Keep in mind that formative assessments are not long tests or high stakes quizzes that take up important instructional time. They are a quick, targeted, information-gathering tool. They can be in the form of an entry ticket, an exit ticket or even just a quick warm-up question at the start of class. The opportunities are limitless. Whichever shape or form you choose, be sure to use formative assessments often.

Barriers to formative assessment

The greatest barrier teachers have in general is time. Time is something that we always need more of. Even outside of school in everyday life, time is our biggest enemy. It just keeps moving and we never seem to have enough of it. Teachers feel like that a lot, especially during distance learning. It seems even more oppressive since we don’t have the same amount of time with our students.

Unfortunately, the structural barriers in our educational system actually make time even harder for us. Our curriculums are over-packed, our textbooks are more like encyclopedias, and when we suggest great practices like formative assessment, most teachers say ‘well that sounds good but I don’t have the time to do it’.

As a result, we end up with these standardized tasks that are these benchmarks that we’re shooting for. We also have this idea that when you give a test, you have to learn how to take that test. It’s not just good enough that you already know the content. Tests are bad surrogates for whether or not you really have learned something or not. The testing system doesn’t encourage better instruction, it encourages teachers to rush.

So, there are a number of barriers that teachers have to fight through to be able to do formative assessment. The good news for teachers is when you close the door and make it the best learning place it can be, and if you follow your instinct and your students’ lead, and move at the speed of learning, then you’re going to do the best by your students.

One of the most common approaches when students need extra support is to simply reteach. In other words, we show students the exact same thing one more time. We need to understand that mostly adapting instruction will not just involve re-teaching a concept in the same way that it has been taught. Instead, if students don’t get it right the first time, we should consider adopting a different approach to teaching the concept or skills and extra opportunities to practise. This is when differentiated instruction becomes so important.

formative assessment in action

Simple formative assessment ideas

If you are pressed for time, here are some simple and quick ideas for regular formative assessment.

  1. Using a traffic light. Invite students to reflect. Is it green? That means they are good to go, they can apply the concept. Is it yellow? That means they think they understand it but they might still need a quick check-in with the teacher. Red means they don’t get it at all and they need help now.
  2. The same thing can be used instead of traffic lights by using thumbs up, thumbs down or thumb sideways. That’s another technique to have a student self-assess and give you a non-verbal opinion.
  3. And of course, you can also use emojis. So, you would ask the students to reflect and tell you how they’re feeling either about the concept or the lesson and to explain why.

Finally, you can use exit tickets. An exit ticket is a quick form of formative assessment that you can do at the end of any lesson. It is your way of answering this question: did my students learn what I wanted them to learn? The exit ticket can be as short as just one question that can show you what they have learned or what they know. At the end of the lesson, pass out post-it notes to each student and ask one final question to the class. The students will write their name and answer on the post-it note, and go stick it on the whiteboard. And at the end of the lesson, after everybody’s done, you will be able to get a quick glance and see who got it and who did not.

The purpose of an exit ticket is a real quick form of assessment to help inform instruction for the next day. For example, if you teach your lesson, and your exit ticket responses show that most of your class got it wrong, then you need to fix some things for the next lesson. If a lot of students had the same error, maybe they had a common misconception. You can address that in your plans the next day. Or maybe everybody got it right and you don’t have to teach that lesson again. Maybe you can move on, you can challenge them more. So it’s a really great way to see if your instruction is working

Tips for great formative assessment

If you want to push learning further, you’ve got to show students that it’s not the assessment that matters, but the thinking that happens after. Start with a quiz, and then do a quick poll about the quiz right after. If you are doing it online, you can use your app’s polling feature to measure how students feel about how they did. You could ask them how hard the quiz was, how confident they are feeling, if they felt prepared etc. You can then use the responses to differentiate future lessons.

Another idea is to start a discussion after a quiz that focuses not just on what happened, but on what to do next. Students who are feeling less confident could talk about what was challenging and zero in on specific ways to improve. More confident students could talk about how to push their understanding even further.

Finally, after a quiz, give students one or two short prompts that look to the future. Ask them what they still need to know or what they want to know more about. And ask them to respond with questions of their own. This is immensely useful because you are basically getting students to articulate their learning goals and motivating them to go out and find the answers.

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Anita Lindquist is the Head of Curriculum in a Secondary School in Stockholm. She is an advocate for excellence in public education and passionate about learning and teaching methodologies.


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