Formative Assessment

What is it?

According to Black and William (1998b), assessment is defined as all activities undertaken by students and teachers in order to get information that can be used diagnostically to alter teaching and learning (as cited in Boston, 2002). Throughout the course of a year or semester, teachers have a variety of opportunities to assess how their students are learning and then use that information to make positive changes in their instruction.

There are two types of assessment commonly used by educators to receive feedback; formative and summative. Anderson (2005) defines formative as “an assessment which is used for improvement (individual or program) rather than for making final decisions or accountability” and its role is to provide information that can be used for immediate modifications for teaching and learning within the program (as cited in DiVall et al., 2014). Formative assessment occurs during the teaching and learning process, and are usually embedded within an activity for educators to determine where there are gaps in students’ knowledge.  DiVall et al. (2014) describes formative assessment as “assessment for learning”, whereas summative is “assessment of learning”. Formative assessment is crucial in improving learning or teaching while it is occurring, and focuses on the developmental learning needs of the students in a way that changes can be made before that class is over (Garrett & Camper, 2015).

How does it work?

Assessment is a critical piece of any curriculum in order to get feedback from students, or for students to participate in self-evaluations. Intentional formative assessments are centered around the learner, gather information that is beneficial to both the learner and educator, and are designed to be unique to that specific experience (Garrett & Camper, 2015). Educators need to be responsive to student learning during the educational experience, and formative assessment pushes them to do just that. This type of assessment is most effective when it is used as a feedback tool, and instructors respond accordingly to that feedback.

DiVall et al. (2014) suggested an array of formative assessment techniques for the classroom:

  • Prior knowledge assessment: Short quiz before or at the start of a class, or before each new topic or chapter
  • Minute paper: Students are asked what they thought was the most important information and what they did not understand
  • Muddiest point: Students respond to a question revolving around the most confusing point of a topic
  • Clickers: Question(s) asked anytime during a class to gauge students’ learning
  • Case studies: Analysis and response to case-related questions and/or identification of a problem

All of these techniques require minimal preparation and immediate feedback for the instructor on the class’ comprehension of the material. They are also all “safe” ways for students to practice their skills or knowledge, as none of the above activities are graded or heavily weighted. Activities like these can easily be combined as part of the class participation grade.

Other formative assessment techniques include practice quizzes, ungraded pop-quizzes, various group work activities, clearest point exercises, reflection journals, Q & A sessions, and professor-student conferences (Ives, 2014 & Northern Illinois University). 

Who is doing it?

Instructors have the responsibility of creating an ideal learning environment for their students. In order to do this, it is important for instructors to measure student progress and evaluate their learning which can be done by implementing formative assessments throughout the course. Educators at all levels, from early childhood through the collegiate level, incorporate assessments into their curricula to gauge whether or not students are learning to their full potential.

Different types of formative assessments are especially helpful for online courses, as professors cannot see confusion on students’ faces. It is critical for instructors to be aware of struggles or glitches in online courses, so consistently giving students opportunities to give feedback can drastically improve the outcomes of the course while expanding the instructors knowledge for the future (Baleni, 2015).  

Why is it significant?

Weurlander, Sӧderberg, Scheja, Hult, and Wernerson (2012) found formative assessments to be important for student learning in three different ways; motivation to study, awareness of their own learning, and the effects on learning. They suggest that students felt pressure to be prepared for assessments, and the deadline gave them motivation to study. There was also a sense of intrinsic motivation when students became increasingly interested in a topic from extra studying. When students became more interested in a topic, they retained more information. Assessments gave students feedback on their progress, making them more aware of their own learning and how much they understood, or where improvements were necessary. Students became aware of their strengths and weaknesses. During their study, Weurlander et al. (2012) found that the assessments contributed to students’ learning by influencing how they learned along with affecting what they learned.

Boston (2002) stated that formative assessments were particularly beneficial for students with learning disabilities, as this type of assessment “emphasizes students can improve as a result of effort rather than be doomed to low achievement due to some presumed lack of innate ability” (p. 2). The learner and educator can determine where gaps in knowledge or difficulties in comprehension exist and adjust accordingly. She also suggested that the most helpful feedback on homework and tests includes specific comments regarding errors or suggestions for improvement, allowing the student to learn and understand why their answer was marked incorrect.

Lastly, Ives (2014) recommended using formative assessment as a tactic to increase student participation, and gave a variety benefits she has seen in her own classes:

  • Encourages attendance
  • Allows shy students to earn participation points
  • Increases participation and effort because activities are worth points
  • Allows learners to demonstrate knowledge in variety of ways
  • Provides concrete evidence of student learning and engagement
  • Encourages students to reflect on their own learning
  • Provides instructor feedback to gauge comprehension of material

What are the downsides?

For educators, formative assessment has the potential to be time consuming. For large classes, providing detailed feedback on multiple assignments for every student can be a lot to accomplish. The most effective feedback is specific and detailed, which requires a lot of dedication and effort from the instructor. As more and more educators are pressured to get through a specific amount of material and require graded assessments, ungraded assessments can often get pushed to the side or even forgotten about.
(Spira, n.d.)

Where is it going?

With increasing technology, formative assessment is becoming easier to complete with the help of different tools and programs. Clickers and Plickers allow instructors to create surveys or quizzes that are projected in front of the class and students choose their answer by a tool (remote for Clickers, QR code for Plickers) they each have assigned to them. When their answer is submitted, it displays on the screen for the instructor and allows them to judge how well the class understands a concept.

As more students come to class with laptops, tablets, or even smartphones, apps have been created to make formative assessments easy to complete virtually. Holly Clark describes four tools she finds particularly helpful in her post Four Powerful Formative Assessment Tools for the Chromebook Classroom.

What are the implications for teaching and learning?

Formative assessments are learning opportunities for educators and students. They provide opportunities for educators to see how well they are explaining content and if students are learning from their techniques. Students are able to receive constructive feedback on assignments, in order to see where they could use improvement and what they do well. By incorporating formative assessments multiple times during a course, instructors can implement changes to help improve students’ comprehension, ensuring they are getting the most out of that course. When it comes time to plan for the following semester, instructors have something to reflect back on to see what worked well and what did not, making it easier to determine what they should include and what they should do away with. 

Want to learn more?

Better Student Feedback with Classkick
Dr. Oliver Dreon, Associate Professor & Director for the Center for Academic Excellence

Reflecting on the Top Tools for Learning
Dr. Oliver Dreon, Associate Professor & Director for the Center for Academic Excellence

The 2015 Top Tools for Learning
Jane Hart, Founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies (C4LPT)

Are Your Assessments SMART?
Dr. Oliver Dreon, Associate Professor & Director for the Center for Academic Excellence

Assessment Resources
CAE Reference Library


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         Journal Of E-Learning
13(4), 228-236.

Boston, C. (2002). The concept of formative assessment. ERIC digest. ERIC Digests, 1-6. Retrieved
         March 24, 2016. 

DiVall, M. V., Alston, G. L., Bird, E., Buring, S. M., Kelley, K. A., Murphy, N. L., & ... Szilagyi, J. E.
         (2014). A faculty toolkit for formative assessment in pharmacy education. American Journal Of
         Pharmaceutical Education
78(9), 1-9.

Garrett, J. M., & Camper, J. M. (2015). Formative assessment as an effective leadership learning
         tool. New Directions For Student Leadership2015(145), 97-106. doi:10.1002/yd.20127

Ives, C. (2014, March 24). Daydreaming or deep thought? Using formative assessment to evaluate
         student participation. Retrieved March 17, 2016, from articles/

Weurlander, M., Söderberg, M., Scheja, M., Hult, H., & Wernerson, A. (2012). Exploring formative
         assessment as a tool for learning: students’ experiences of different methods of formative
         assessment. Assessment & Evaluation In Higher Education37(6), 747-760.