Pedagogical Principles

Formative Assessment: Tracking Student Learning in Real Time

Dr. Natalie Saaris
March 30, 2017

Here at Actively Learn, we mention “formative assessment” routinely in our PD sessions, and we’ve discovered that many teachers do not entirely understand what formative assessment is, why it matters, and how they can include it in their instruction. Formative assessment is key to helping students improve their learning, and it’s one of the pedagogical foundations of our reading platform. In this post, we’re going to illuminate this term and share some tips on how formative assessment can improve your instruction.

What is formative assessment?

A great deal of classroom assessment focuses on evaluating student learning in order to give students a grade. This assessment reflects whether or not the student has succeeded in mastering a particular skill or concept. This is valuable data, but in and of itself it does not really inform learning and teaching. For example, a grade can be interpreted as a reflection of a student’s intelligence or effort (and many students and teachers do see it that way). Grading often entails high stakes for teachers and students as it judges their skill level and performance.

Formative assessment, on the other hand, is intended to modify teaching and learning. It’s more of a check-in to figure out the best strategy to improve performance. The goal is to help students become better learners and to help teachers improve their instruction. Formative assessment entails less pressure for students and teachers because it’s a way to guide them forward rather than a final determination of skill or competence. Formative assessment occurs regularly in the learning process (usually on a daily basis) and thus does not carry the weight of something like a final exam or paper.

“Educators need to understand what each student already knows, and where that student needs to go next in the teaching process." 

— John Hattie

Let’s look at two different scenarios to demonstrate this difference:

Scenario 1 (non-formative assessment): A student receives a grade and comments on a writing assignment. There is no opportunity to revise the assignment and the teacher moves on to the next lesson, hoping that the student will use the comments to improve his future performance.

Scenario 2 (formative assessment): A student receives feedback on the ungraded draft of his writing assignment. The teacher has asked the student to rewrite the assignment, giving him an opportunity to put her advice into practice. The teacher has also decided to devote some extra time in class to talking about writing structure, as this is an issue that has come up in several students’ papers and should be addressed.

As you can see, formative assessment leads to a change in behavior for both student and teacher. It encourages the student to improve his writing by retrying the assignment using a different strategy, and it informs the teacher that writing structure has not been effectively communicated and needs to be reinforced.

Notice also that the formative assessment is ungraded. Once an assignment has a grade on it, it shuts down the learning process for the student (Wiliam 2011). This is the case even when the grade also includes ample comments on how to improve. While it’s acceptable to give some evaluation of quality so that the student knows where she is relative to the learning goal, that evaluation needs to be separate from a grade.

Why does formative assessment matter?

Teaching and learning are imperfect processes. There is no magic formula that will ensure that students will learn everything they need to for every class and for every lesson. There are times when a terrific teacher does not manage to convey an idea effectively to a group of students. This could be because the students have a misconception about the topic that is distorting their understanding of the material, or because the teacher mistakenly assumed the students had grasped the idea and moved on too quickly. There are times when terrific learners do not master the material presented—perhaps they had a big exam in a previous class and were too distracted and mentally exhausted to process the lesson. Because teaching and learning rely on dynamic interactions between human beings, it's impossible to assume that the intended learning objective was achieved without some form of verification. The only way to know that learning is successfully occurring is to solicit evidence of it and evaluate it.

Teachers who use formative assessment are able to deliver targeted instruction that addresses the immediate needs of their students. These teachers do not wait until the next exam or essay to find out if their students are achieving mastery; they know whether their objectives for the day have been achieved based on what students have demonstrated in their work.

Formative assessment has consistently been associated with improved student outcomes. In their meta-analysis of over 250 studies on assessment, Black and Wiliam (1998) note:

“The research reported here shows conclusively that formative assessment does improve learning. The gains in achievement appear to be quite considerable, and as noted earlier, amongst the largest ever reported for educational interventions."

The Hattie effect size for formative evaluation is .90, making it one of the top five most impactful teaching interventions.

How can teachers integrate formative assessment into their instruction?

The goal of formative assessment is to understand what students have already mastered and where they are struggling. This ensures that teachers do not waste time teaching concepts that students already know, and that they take the time to emphasize skills and knowledge that students need more help with. Ideally, formative assessment will also reveal how students are thinking about the material. For example, if a student is not performing well on graded assignments, is it because he lacks the background knowledge to understand his reading or because he cannot navigate the structure of the text? These are important insights that will help direct the teacher’s instruction.

Here are three ways to integrate formative assessment into instruction:

1. Strategic multiple choice questions

Formative assessment can take the form of a multiple choice question that illuminates students’ knowledge and misconceptions. For a question to truly reveal how students are thinking, however, teachers need to have a good idea of all the possible ways a student might misunderstand the material and incorporate those as tempting (but ultimately incorrect) responses.

For example, a teacher who has just presented a lesson on astronomy might ask this check-in question:

What explains the existence of seasons?

The elliptical path of the earth’s orbitThe sun’s off-center position in the earth’s orbitThe change in the angle of the earth’s tiltThe tilt of the earth as it revolves around the sun

The first three answers take advantage of popular misconceptions about the seasons. Were a student to answer b, for instance, the teacher would know exactly what the student had misunderstood about the lesson (the basic structure of the solar system).

Asking a question like this at the end of a lesson helps the teacher understand if students have grasped the material or reasons why they haven’t grasped it.

2. Writing extensively

Another way to integrate formative assessment is to have students elaborate their ideas in writing and see how they are constructing knowledge. This could be done via short-answer questions or assigned annotations. Teachers can then scan students’ writing and know if the material they are presenting is resonating with their students based on the quality and accuracy of the responses.

3. Cold calling

Teachers can also get a snapshot of student learning by asking strategic questions in class. The questions need to reveal student thinking by requiring explanation and analysis. So rather than asking students what the Bill of Rights is (recall), it's better to ask them to explain the primary interests represented in the Bill of Rights (analysis). To get an accurate assessment of the group, teachers need to call on students randomly; this ensures that students who are uncertain of the answer reveal their thinking as well.

Finally, formative instruction depends on the willingness of students and teachers to take action based on the information from their assessment. Teachers need to take the time to provide feedback to students: if the student is not successfully meeting the learning goals, what needs to happen to change course? Teachers also need to see student performance as a critical piece of feedback for their instruction: What was not thoroughly explained? What could they re-teach in a more effective way?

Formative assessment recognizes that effective instruction is not about feeding content to students and hoping that they absorb it. The learning process is a dynamic interaction where the only way to figure out what students know is to seek evidence of their knowledge and evaluate it.


Data-Driven Instruction: Using Insights into Student Habits to Improve Teacher Practice


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 7–74.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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