Formative Assessment: Why Is It Still Important For Your Teaching?

Formative assessment is an essential tool for any teacher. It is not a new concept in education and it has been the focus of considerable research, with widespread agreement that this form of assessment is a key factor in improving learning and teaching.

In this blog we will be exploring formative assessment, looking at what it is, how it differs from other types of assessment, where it originated and what the key principles and features are.

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment occurs at every stage of the learning process, with effective feedback used to improve students’ performance. Formative assessment is therefore different from assessment of learning, or ‘summative assessment’, where teachers collect information about the students’ attainment, often through an exam or test, at the end of a learning period.

The formative purpose is to close the gap between where the learner is then, to where they want to be. Teachers use assessment information to adjust their teaching strategies, with an emphasis on learning progress and achievement, rather than failure.

Read more: Adaptive teaching

An example of a formative assessment technique is the use of traffic light cards, in which learners are each provided with a red, amber and green card, to represent their level of understanding. At any point in the lesson, you can gauge the student’s responses as they can put down a card, with red to show they don’t understand, amber for partially understanding and green for fully understanding.

This is a very simple, but effective assessment the children can use, to be involved in the assessment of their learning and for the teacher to quickly, formatively assess student understanding and learners’ progress at that point in time.

How is formative assessment different from other forms of assessment?

The key difference between formative assessment and assessment of learning, or formative and summative assessment, is that the goal of formative assessment is to monitor student’s learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by the teacher to improve their teaching and by the students to improve their learning. In contrast, the goal of assessment of learning is to evaluate the student’s learning at the end of a block of work, against a standard benchmark.

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In formative assessment, students are encouraged to take an active role and become fully involved in the learning process and their progress, through answering questions, peer and self-assessment. 

In assessment of learning, the student takes a passive role and the teacher takes on the main role, for example, through the marking of formal essays and tests.

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Where did formative assessment come from and why is it important?

In 1989, a group of educational assessment researchers formed the Assessment Reform Group, with one of its members, Caroline Gipps, first introducing the term ‘Formative Assessment’ in 1994. A clear link was made between summative assessment and formative assessment. The concepts of summative and formative assessment have been around much longer, having been first introduced by Michael Scriven in 1967.

Following this, UK professors, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam reviewed assessment practices across all sectors of education. In their 1998 publication, Inside The Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment, Black and Wiliam likened the classroom to a black box (an object which can be viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs, without any knowledge of its internal workings). They investigated what was happening in classrooms and discovered that students who learn in a formative way achieve much better results than students who do not.

More recent research continues to focus on the importance of assessment and feedback. In his book, Visible Learning for Teachers (2011), John Hattie looked at the attributes of schooling that would truly make a difference for student learning. He ranked feedback strategies 10th out of 150 factors that significantly improve learner outcomes, particularly if the strategies involved feedback about the learner’s work.

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Third Space Learning’s online one-on-one math tutoring program is structured in a way so that all students attempt a question so the tutor can assess their understanding. If the student is struggling, they can give the student feedback and use the support slides. If they understand it, they can try another similar question. If students do use the support slides, they also try another question so that they can apply the skill they’ve just developed further in a different context.

Formative assessment is important not only because of the adjustment teachers can make in their teaching but also because formative assessment supports students’ development of metacognitive strategies and helps them to take a more active role in their learning.

Research shows that learners who take part in self-assessment can better identify what they have done wrong which enables them to review, edit and improve their work. This in turn boosts the learner’s confidence and achievement. 

Read more: Growth mindset in the classroom

Formative assessment, responsive teaching and assessment for learning

The terms ‘formative assessment’, ‘assessment for learning’ and ‘responsive teaching’ are often used synonymously. Some writers see a distinction between assessment for learning and formative assessment, such as Dylan Wiliam, but others do not. Some researchers argue that responsive teaching incorporates research findings from cognitive science.

However, they all refer to the wide variety of methods teachers use to assess students’ understanding, the identification of students who are struggling and the adjustments a teacher makes in response.

Below, we’ve listed the key principles of formative assessment, many of which are shared by responsive teaching and assessment for learning.

10 key principles of formative assessment

The Assessment Reform Group (2002) identified 10 principles of formative assessment:

  1. Effective planning.

A teacher’s planning should provide opportunities for both the learner and teacher to obtain and use information about progress towards learning goals. Planning should include formative assessment for learning strategies to ensure that learners understand the goals and the criteria being used to assess their work.

  1. Central to classroom practice.

A lot of what teachers and learners do in classrooms can be described as assessment. Learners demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and skills. These are observed and judgements are made on how they can be improved.

  1. Promotes understanding of goals and criteria.

For effective learning to take place, learners need to understand what they are trying to achieve. When learners have some part in deciding the goals and identifying criteria for assessing progress, they are more likely to have greater understanding and commitment.

  1. Sensitive and constructive.

Teachers should have an awareness of the impact that comments and grades can have on learners’ confidence and enthusiasm. Feedback should be as constructive as possible, focusing on the work, rather than the person.

  1. Fosters motivation.

Motivation is fostered through the emphasis of achievement rather than failure. Comparison with others who have been more successful is unlikely to motivate learners and can lead to them withdrawing from the learning process.

  1. Recognises all educational achievements.

Formative assessment should be used to enhance all learners’ opportunities to learn in all areas of educational activity, enabling all learners to achieve their best and be recognised for their efforts.

  1. Focuses on how students learn.

The teacher and the student should be thinking about the process of learning. Learners should be as aware of the ‘how’ of their learning as they are of the ‘what’.

  1. Helps learners know how to improve.

Learners need information and guidance to plan the next steps in their learning. Teachers should focus on the strengths and be constructive with any areas to improve and how students can do this.

  1. Develops the capacity for peer and self-assessment.

Children should be able to engage in self-reflection and peer feedback and be able to identify the next steps in their or their peer’s learning. Teachers need to support students through developing their skills of self-assessment.

  1. Formative assessment is a key professional skill.

Teachers need to have the professional knowledge and skills to: 

  • plan for assessment; 
  • observe learning; 
  • analyze and interpret evidence of learning;
  • give feedback to learners;
  • support learners in self-assessment. 

Teachers need initial support and continuing professional development for this.

Examples of formative assessment

There are a wide range of assessment activities and assessment tools that teachers can adopt to ensure effective ongoing monitoring of the whole class. If students have a clear understanding of the learning intentions, they are able to have full involvement in the assessment process.

Read more: Formative assessment examples

The use of strategic questioning

Questioning helps teachers to identify and correct any misconceptions the students may have. It provides teachers with information about student thinking and what they know and understand. Effective questioning requires the use of open questions, which encourage the use of thinking skills, whilst closed questions only ask learners to recall.

Here are some open question sentence stem examples:

·   Can you explain…..?

·   Why is X important?

·   What if…..?

·   How would you…..?

At Third Space Learning, our online one-on-one math tutoring offers a unique opportunity for individualized, focused math talk. Our tutors are trained to ask questions that encourage students to explain their thinking around a method used or an answer to help the tutors understand if the pupil has truly understood the topic they are learning about.

Read more: Differentiated instruction

Peer and self-assessment

Use a range of strategies to make sure children have a clear understanding of the learning objectives. For example, use WILF (What I’m looking for) or success criteria; negotiate or share the criteria and write these on the board for children to see clearly.

Two stars and a wish is a simple way for introducing self and peer assessment, with children assessing their own or another student’s work, giving two things that were good and one thing which could have been improved. This needs to be modeled by the teacher the first time children are exposed to this form of assessment.


Regardless of the term being used by teachers and senior leaders, whether it be formative assessment, assessment for learning or responsive teaching, it is clear that the use of assessment and assessment strategies are a key component in ensuring student success for all in the classroom. 

School leaders and teachers need to evaluate whether what is currently happening in their schools and in their classrooms is having a genuine impact on their teaching practice, student progress and student achievement.

If teachers are spending huge amounts of time filling out spreadsheets to show the progress the children are making, but this evidence isn’t being used to impact teaching and learning, then the spreadsheets are meaningless. All they are doing is providing information on what the students do and do not know.  Real impact only occurs when this information is used effectively to improve the learning outcomes of all students.

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