What Is Formative Assessment? The Key To Student Success

Formative assessment, or assessment for learning is widely recognised by teachers and schools as a vital tool for teaching and effective learning. Over the past few decades, it has been subject to extensive research so will not be new to many educators. However, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics found that many teachers and schools find it challenging to implement

In this blog, we detail everything you need to know about formative assessment for successful implementation and continued success in your classroom.

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is the use of assessment to improve learning. The purpose of formative assessment is to gather information about a learner’s current understanding and to close gaps between where they currently are and where they want to be.

Teachers do this by adjusting their teaching strategies, including: 

  • reteaching;
  • providing scaffolding and support;
  • addressing misconceptions;
  • adding stretch and challenge.

Teachers can use formative assessment to empower students to reflect on their own learning and to understand and take the necessary steps to reach their learning goals themselves. This supports the development of students’ metacognitive strategies and helps them to take a more active role in their learning.

Over the past few decades, several researchers have investigated formative assessment and its impact on student achievement. This includes the work of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam who focussed on formative assessment in the classroom in their research, “Inside The Black Box”. Another notable figure in formative assessment is John Hattie who recognised feedback as a strategy that brings about significant improvements in student performance, especially when feedback was about the student’s own work.

Read more: What is assessment for learning?

How is formative assessment different from other forms of assessment?

The purpose of formative assessment is different from assessment of learning, or summative assessment. Summative assessments are usually administered at the end of a learning period with the aim of evaluating students’ learning progress and include end of year tests and exams. In contrast, formative assessment can occur at any stage of the learning process.

Formative assessment is similar to other forms of assessment, such as assessment for learning and responsive teaching. Some writers use these synonymously while others see a distinction between them. What is similar about formative assessment, assessment for learning and responsive teaching is that they all refer to the use of assessment to guide learning, not simply to evaluate it. All emphasize the importance of effective types of assessment and feedback processes that help learners reach learning outcomes. 

Read more: Formative and summative assessment

What does formative assessment look like in the classroom?

Formative assessment can take place at different stages of the learning process and with different stakeholders actively involved.

It’s important that teachers use a range of formative assessments and progress monitoring strategies and examples and use them at different stages of the learning process to gain greater insights into their students’ understanding.

Many teachers are well aware of the importance of effective questioning on student outcomes and it is no doubt an important aspect of formative assessment. However, the most successful classrooms will use questioning among a range of other formative assessment strategies, including:

  • Direct observation
  • Feedback
  • Self-assessment
  • Peer feedback
  • The formative use of summative assessment
Lesson slide on dividing using the partial quotient method
A slide from a 5th grade, Third Space Learning one to one tutoring program session

In Third Space Learning’s online one to one math sessions, one way we use formative assessment is through our introductory slides. These prompt students to begin expressing themselves mathematically as soon as the session begins. Tutors are able to listen, observe and question students to gain insights into their level of understanding and adapt and personalize their learning as a result.

There are many different ways teachers can conduct classroom assessment and it will depend on the developmental stage, needs, strengths and weaknesses of your cohort.

Examples of formative assessment include:

For over 20 more formative assessment to try out and adapt for your classroom, read our blog.

Whichever formative assessment tool you use, it is important that it is carried out with purpose, and that the information gathered from student responses is used to adapt the learning experiences and opportunities that you are providing to each individual child. The information obtained from formative assessment can help you understand the children’s learning and adapt to this in future lessons to increase student progress.

Benefits of formative assessment 

  1. Greater insight
    Teachers can gain insights into the level of understanding across the class at any given point in the lesson. This enables teachers to address misconceptions and fill gaps as they occur.
  2. Deeper understanding
    Observing how students cope when working alone, in pairs and in groups can provide the teacher with a wealth of information. Teachers are able to not only see the students responding to a task but also listen to their reasoning and discussions to gain a deeper understanding of where each child is and what misconceptions they may still have.

The one to one nature of Third Space Learning’s online one to one math tutoring means purposeful talk for math is at the core of our tutoring. Students have their own dedicated tutor and are able to explore their understanding in a nurturing low stakes environment. It’s one of the things the schools we work with love about our program.

Students are encouraged to reason, debate, explain and evaluate their thinking. Tutors facilitate this by asking open-ended, varied questions that reveal the students’ understanding and possible misconceptions. Tutors can then adapt the teaching and flow of the lesson in response to the student, ensuring a truly personalized programme.

“I really like the way that the programme can be personalized to meet the needs of the individual and that as it is 1-1 they get immediate feedback. I also like how it enables pupils to develop communication skills as well as reasoning skills as they have to talk through the problems and explain their thinking.”

UK Headteacher, Teesside

  1. Empowers students
    Children are involved in their own learning. This greater control helps them to understand what they are aiming for and how they will go about achieving that aim, therefore ensuring they are better focused on the aims of the lesson.
  2. Engaging
    Students are more involved in their learning and classroom practice. They have a clearer understanding of what they need to do to achieve success because they receive effective feedback from their teacher. This increases their motivation as they are more aware of their own progress.

Limitations of formative assessment

  1. Time consuming

    Formative assessment is usually carried out during lesson time and assessment activities don’t need to add to a teacher’s workload. However, it can become a time consuming task if a school requires data to be collected frequently.

    It also takes time to ensure that the information collected is utilized appropriately to have a real impact on student outcomes.
  1. Requires training

Teachers need support to ensure they receive the appropriate training to be able to carry out effective formative assessment. Continued professional development needs to be ongoing to ensure all teachers within a school have the same shared understanding of what they are doing and why.

  1. Risks turning into mini summative assessments

Teachers need to take care to not go down the route of turning formative learning into mini assessments of learning. Formative assessment should be used regularly in teaching practice through different types of assessment, taking care not to over use strategies such as mini quizzes. 

  1. Negative impact on the effectiveness of larger accountability systems

When formative assessment is assimilated into larger accountability systems, such as state standardized testing, it can have a negative impact on the effectiveness of such systems.

Misconceptions of formative assessment

  1. Formative assessment is an event.

    Formative assessment shouldn’t be classed as a single event, but as an on-going process which teachers are involved with throughout every lesson.
  2. Assessment results can discourage children. 

    If the formative assessment is good, it keeps children believing that success is within reach and develops a growth mindset.
  1. Formative assessment  doesn’t result in a numerical score.

    It is not the score or lack of score which makes the assessment formative or summative. It is possible to have a summative assessment with qualitative descriptors and a formative assessment with numerical scores
  2. Multiple choice and selected response tests are always summative.

    How this form of assessment is used determines whether it is formative or summative, not the assessment itself.

What is meant by formative assessment?

Formative assessment is the use of assessment to improve and guide learning. It’s different from summative assessment, also known as assessment of learning, which evaluates a students’ understanding or learning at the end of a learning period.

What is an example of formative assessment?

An example of formative assessment is the use of mini whiteboards to quiz students on key concepts and ideas during a lesson. Teachers can use these to assess the understanding of their class, identify and address misconceptions and adjust their teaching to support learners.

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The content in this article was originally written by former Deputy Headteacher Emma Johnson and has since been revised and adapted for US schools by elementary math teacher Christi Kulesza.


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