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What Is Formative Assessment And How Can You Best Use It To Improve Student Outcomes

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.

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

Formative assessment is also referred to as assessment for learning because it utilises assessment to ultimately help the learning process.

Diagnostic Year 6 Maths Quizzes

Diagnostic Year 6 Maths Quizzes

Identify and plug gaps with your Year 6 class on key maths topics with these formative diagnostic quizzes

Formative assessment vs summative assessment

The difference between a formative assessment and a summative assessment is that 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, whereas a summative assessment is a snapshot assessment of what a pupil has learnt by a particular point in time, often benchmarked against school, trust or national standards, like SATs, GCSEs or even end of year tests in a school.

Looking for your own summative maths tests?

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A single assessment can be used both for summative assessment and formative assessment. However, the purpose and the consequences of the two assessment methods are very different. 

Formative assessment strategies offer assessment for learning; the goal is to provide teachers with the information they need to enhance and track student progress

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, while 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. 

Effective formative assessment can:

  • Encourage a culture of reflection and adaptation in students, empowering them to reflect on and adapt their own learning.
  • Facilitate teachers in evaluating and refining their teaching strategies based on formative assessment insights.
  • Promote self-evaluation and metacognition, enabling students to effectively plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning progress.
  • Improve students’ academic performance by providing teachers with valuable feedback on student understanding, which allows for targeted interventions and support.
  • Enable 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 from the more targeted teaching that is possible with an accurate understanding of pupils’ current knowledge in relation to the learning goals of a lesson. Without this, it is impossible to effectively meet the pupils’ learning needs.
  2. Formative assessment also raises student achievement through their own learning as they have a much better and more accurate understanding of they are progressin. Students’ self-assessment of their learning is often unreliable due to the Dunning-Kruger effect – a cognitive bias causing many students to overestimate their achievement and expertise. However, incorporating formative assessment methods into every lesson can increase the accuracy of learners’ self-evaluation of their own learning. 
  3. Formative assessment encourages students metacognitive skills as they receive ongoing feedback as 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 students’ comprehension and expose misconceptions. It is also advisable to use a range of formative assessment techniques to get a full picture of student learning.

Here are three of the most popular formative assessment techniques that every teacher should have in their toolkit: 

1. Low stakes quizzes 

These are a fantastic way to build in retrieval practice of previously learnt material. They can take as little as ten minutes at the start of a lesson and can be marked using peer-assessment or self-assessment to avoid adding extra workload.

Low stakes quizzes can be designed to help inform revision plans by giving a greater weighting to material that has been taught in a previous term. The results can be used to determine which topics need to be revisited in a future lesson.

2. Benchmark assessments 

This type of assessment provides information about learners’ relevant prior knowledge at the start of a new topic. Without this benchmark data, a teacher may set students’ work at a level inappropriate for their current level of understanding. 

For example, when introducing the nth term of quadratic sequences, it is essential to know whether pupils can remember how to calculate the nth term of a linear sequence.

3. Exit tickets 

These are handed out in the last five minutes of a lesson and answers are collected by the teacher as each student leaves the classroom. 

The purpose is to assess whether pupils have met the learning outcomes of the lesson and to plan the next lesson in response to this information. In the quadratic sequences lesson, the exit ticket could be:

purpose of formative assessment is to assess the students

For more examples of formative assessment techniques from problem pairs to metacognitive prompts and open ended questioning read this related article: 19 of 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

One of the greatest challenges associated with formative assessment is ensuring that the information that teachers gain from the assessment activities is an accurate reflection of student learning. 

David Didau has argued that any formative assessment testing new knowledge during the lesson when it has been acquired is 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.

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 mastery 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, 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:

  • Answering A: triangle is isosceles.
  • Answering C: 85° and x are allied angles.
  • Answering 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. 

Do you have student who need extra support in maths?
Every week Third Space Learning’s maths specialist tutors support thousands of pupils across hundreds of schools with weekly online 1-to-1 lessons and maths interventions designed to plug gaps and boost progress.

Since 2013 we’ve helped over 150,000 primary and secondary school pupils become more confident, able mathematicians. Learn more or request a personalised quote for your school to speak to us about your school’s needs and how we can help.

Subsidised one to one maths tutoring from the UK’s most affordable DfE-approved one to one tutoring provider.

Zoe Benjamin
Zoe Benjamin
Zoe is a secondary maths teacher with responsibility for whole-school teaching and learning. She has previously been Head of Maths in a secondary school and international school. She now enjoys studying the science of learning and writing blog posts for Third Space Learning.
Diagnostic Year 6 Maths Quizzes

Diagnostic Year 6 Maths Quizzes

Identify and plug gaps with your Year 6 class on key maths topics with these formative diagnostic quizzes

Download FREE Now!

Diagnostic Year 6 Maths Quizzes

Downloadable resource

Identify and plug gaps with your Year 6 class on key maths topics with these formative diagnostic quizzes

Download FREE Now!

FREE Guide to Hands on Manipulatives

Download our free guide to manipulatives that you can use in the maths classroom.

Includes 15 of the best concrete resources every KS1 and KS2 classroom should have.

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