What Is Formative Assessment: A Practical Guide To When And How To Use It

Read this guide to formative assessment to find out what it means, how to use it most effectively and what challenges and pitfalls to look out for.

Dylan Wiliam has described formative assessment as a cornerstone of outstanding lessons and an essential area for ongoing professional development. So, if you are keen to unlock the full potential of your teaching and help your students excel, it’s time to embrace the power of formative assessment!

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is the process of monitoring and assessing students’ learning and understanding in order to adapt your teaching methods to better address students’ individual needs. The result of this continual formative feedback is that both teacher and student know the areas of greatest strength and the areas for improvement. Formative assessment is by its nature a low stakes form of assessment.

One way to view formative assessment is that it is a way for pupils to provide feedback to their teacher about whether they are on track to achieve the learning outcomes for the lesson. 

Although the feedback is provided by pupils, it is the responsibility of the teacher to ensure that pupils are given access to formative assessment opportunities that provide the teacher with accurate and ongoing feedback. The feedback must then also be used carefully to inform the teacher’s next steps.

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Formative assessment is often, but not always relatively quick and in the moment eg asking children to hold up mini whiteboards to assess their understanding of a concept; it can also be much more extensive such as a diagnostic maths test.

Some people will use the term formative assessment as synonymous with assessment for learning or assessment as learning because it utilises assessment to ultimately help the learning process.

Formative assessment vs summative assessment

The difference between formative assessment and summative assessment is best seen in terms of their goals.

The goal of formative assessment is to guide the next stage of teaching and learning and inform the teacher and student on their gaps in skills knowledge. 

In contrast, the goal of summative assessment is a snapshot or record of what a pupil has learnt by a particular point in time, often benchmarked against school, trust or national standards.

Formative assessment strategies offer assessment for learning; they provide teachers with the information they need to enhance and track student progress. It is a great starting point to implement differentiation in teaching accurately.

Summative assessment provides an assessment of learning and a measure of student performance. 

Summative assessments are more likely to take the form of high stakes classroom assessments like SATs, GCSEs or even end of year tests in a school. Examples of formative assessments will include low stakes quizzes or exit tickets. However, you cannot rely on the format of the assessment alone – it’s all about how it’s used.

Read more: Formative and Summative Assessment: The Differences Explained

What are the benefits of formative assessment?

Wiliam and Leahy (2016) conducted a two-year study in 57 schools to measure the impact that formative assessment has on students’ learning experience. At the end of the study, students in 85% of the schools were responding significantly more to their teachers’ feedback than before the study started. 

The five strategies promoted by Wiliam and Leahy were:

  1. Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions and success criteria
  2. Engineering effective discussions, tasks, and activities that elicit evidence of learning
  3. Providing feedback that moves learners forward
  4. Activating students as learning resources for one another
  5. Activating students as owners of their own learning.

The benefits of formative assessment include:

  • Encourages a culture of reflection and adaptation in students, empowering them to reflect on and adapt their own learning.
  • Facilitates teachers in evaluating and refining their teaching strategies based on formative assessment insights.
  • Promotes self-evaluation and metacognition, enabling students to effectively plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning progress.
  • Improves students’ academic performance by providing teachers with valuable feedback on student understanding.
  • Enables teachers to implement whole class or small group interventions as necessary, ensuring personalised instruction and enhanced learning outcomes.

How formative assessment raises student achievement

1. Formative assessment raises student achievement by allowing more targeted teaching

By analysing the results of carefully planned formative assessment, teachers can develop an accurate picture of their pupil’s current understanding of a given topic. Using this information to inform the next steps in the lesson and future lesson planning can allow gaps in understanding to be closed and improve pupil outcomes.

2. Formative assessment can raise pupil achievement by improving their self-evaluation

If the results of formative assessment are shared with pupils and appropriate targeted teaching strategies are implemented, they can begin to identify whether a solution is accurate, which methods are most effective and when it is appropriate to use them. However due to the Dunning-Kruger effect – a cognitive bias causing students to overestimate their own achievement – it is vital that the ability of a student to accurately self-evaluate their understanding is itself continually assessed and monitored.

3. Formative assessment encourages students metacognitive skills

As they receive ongoing feedback they are exposed to a range of formative assessment techniques and become more involved in their learning; metacognition is a proven technique to raise student achievement.

Examples of formative assessment 

The formative assessment technique you choose will depend on the situation, your current knowledge of the student, and what outcome you require from your assessment. The most reliable information about pupil knowledge comes from formative assessment activities consciously designed to uncover what students do and don’t know and and expose misconceptions.

Some of these formative assessment examples by their nature will be diagnostic i.e. with the primary goal of identifying and evaluating students’ current knowledge and understanding in a specific content domain.

The most effective examples of formative assessment are:

Read more: The best formative assessment examples.

How to use formative assessment as part of your intervention

We recommend every intervention should have some level of formative assessment at the end or beginning to inform the next lesson. This is because the best interventions by their nature are targeted and focused on an individual student’s needs as is the case for our one to one online maths tuition.

At Third Space Learning, pupils complete post session questions after their online one to one maths tutoring sessions. Pupils will be asked questions related to the Learning Objective(s) they’ve covered with their tutor in that session, as well as Learning Objectives they’ve not yet covered. This helps us understand both how well they’ve understood the content of the lesson, and which Learning Objectives they still need to cover in future tutoring sessions. Teachers can access the results of pupils’ post session questions anytime on our online platform.

sample formative assessment question
An example of a Third Space Learning post session question

The importance of formative feedback

The success of formative assessment relies on teachers being able to give clear and concise feedback that helps students move from their current level of understanding to the next level. 

When feedback gives pupils explicit instructions that move their learning forward, it is called formative feedback. Formative assessments that are not followed by effective formative feedback will not improve student attainment. 

Examples of formative feedback

Formative feedback is crucial for students to improve their academic performance by gaining insights into their strengths and weaknesses.

This can be given on an individual basis, either verbal or written, or it may be given to a whole class following a low-stakes quiz or at the start of a lesson in response to the information gained from the previous lesson’s exit ticket. 

The following examples illustrate the types of formative feedback seen in maths lessons:

1. Verbal formative feedback

A teacher explains to a student that they have mixed up the definitions of factors and multiples. 

They might remind the pupil that the word multiple means ‘lots of’ something to help them remember that they can use their times tables to identify the multiples of a number.

2. Written formative feedback

In response to the work shown below in a student’s exercise book, a teacher writes:

‘Remember that the denominators do not need to be the same when multiplying fractions. Try this question again by multiplying the numerators and denominators together for the original question’. 

formative assessment multiplying fractions

3. Whole class formative feedback

Following the completion of the nth term exit ticket shown in the examples above, the teacher begins the next lesson with a recap for finding the nth term of a quadratic sequence emphasising the need to divide the common difference by two.

Challenges associated with formative assessment processes 

Formative assessment is a crucial aspect of evaluating student work and adjusting instruction to meet their needs. Nevertheless, teachers encounter challenges in implementing effective practices:

1. Ensuring accurate reflection of student learning

David Didau has argued that there must be a period of time between the new knowledge acquired and the formative assessment. Otherwise the assessment becomes a measure of student performance rather than student learning.

He argues that when students are shown a new method during a lesson, say expanding double brackets, any assessment of their ability to do that during the same lesson is a measure of memory and performance rather than learning and understanding. 

If we consider learning to be a permanent change in students’ long-term memories, then it is difficult to argue that any assessment completed soon after a new method has been taught can accurately predict whether it has been successfully learnt.

As Wiliam and others have pointed out, the point of eliciting evidence of learning via formative techniques is to incrementally increase the probability that the learning that has taken place matches the initial learning intentions – the more you check and correct, the more likely this becomes. No formative assessment technique can definitively confirm that learning has occurred.

Despite this criticism, it is still important to know whether pupils can independently reproduce a new method during the lesson in which it has first been taught. 

Even if we are only measuring performance at this stage in the learning process, being able to successfully perform a new skill is still a prerequisite to being able to do it at a future date. 

If a student is not able to demonstrate understanding of a new topic during the lesson it is important that the teacher has that information and adjusts their teaching strategy accordingly.

Testing previously learnt material through a low stakes quiz at the start of a lesson is likely to be an accurate assessment of learning rather than performance, particularly if the material being tested was taught in the previous month or term. 

Providing students with retrieval practice in this way will strengthen the connections in their long-term memory, activate prior knowledge, and allow teachers to know whether previously learnt material needs to be retaught. 

2. Selecting effective questions to identify specific learning gaps

Another challenge associated with formative assessment is selecting the right questions to include in the assessment materials. 

Poorly chosen questions can identify that a student has not fully understood a topic but will not be able to identify which specific part has been misunderstood. 

It is much more effective to include diagnostic questions when creating formative assessments. Diagnostic questions are specifically designed to give a greater insight into students’ cognitive processes and produce answers that allow the teacher to know which specific part of the topic has not been understood. 

In the example below, each incorrect answer will reveal the nature of students’ misunderstanding.

formative assessment diagnostic questions

B is the correct answer. Each incorrect answer reveals the learner’s misconception:

  • Answer A: triangle is isosceles.
  • Answer C: 85° and x add to 180.°
  • Answer D: 105° and x are corresponding angles.
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Formative assessment FAQs

What is the difference between formative and summative assessment?

Summative assessments produce a measure of student attainment; they are usually presented in the form of a high-stakes assessment. The results have little or no impact on subsequent teaching. Formative assessments produce a measure of attainment and are designed to identify students’ misconceptions. Teachers use the results of formative assessments to adapt their teaching and improve pupil progress.

What are the benefits of formative assessment?

Formative assessment allows teachers to quickly check their pupils’ understanding and identify how they should adapt their teaching to improve student attainment. Ongoing formative feedback also helps pupils to develop metacognitive skills which supports them to become self-regulated learners.

What can I do to make formative assessment most successful?

Use formative assessment to test prior knowledge to ensure you are testing learning rather than performance. Design your formative assessment questions so that each incorrect answer reveals students’ specific misunderstanding. 

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