What is Formative Assessment?

Formative assessment, according to research, is one of the most effective education innovations to hit modern classrooms. Its impact on student learning is just huge. So, what exactly is formative assessment?

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What’s the Definition of Formative Assessment?

formative feedback one on one

A student teacher giving one on one formative feedback.

Here’s exactly what formative assessment is and why it’s so important.

If this is new to you, you’re not alone. Formative assessment (also called classroom assessment or formative evaluation) is assessing a learner’s progress in the middle of instruction rather than at the end. That way instruction can adapt or “form” to students needs. And educators can ensure understanding for all students is “formed” to the desired learning outcome.

Rick Stiggins is the founder and director of the ETS Assessment Training Institute. He describes formative assessment as “assessment for learning” as opposed to “assessment of learning.” This is an assessment that happens in the mid-stream during instruction, not just at the end. 

Because the assessment happens during instruction, there is still time to affect the outcome. “Formative” means adjusting to teaching and learning based on the results. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

Essential Framework

Learning requires that teachers and learners share an understanding of three fundamental concepts.

  1. The desired outcome or goal. This is the intended future state that includes mastery of the skills or content being taught.
  2. The student’s present position or progress toward that goal. This is the student’s current state.
  3. And finally, some idea of how to close the gap, to make headway toward achieving the goal.

All three of these details need to be understood before action can be taken to improve the learning. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

Assessment of Learner States

Future State

Stiggins says, “to assess student achievement accurately, teachers and administrators must understand the achievement targets their students are to master. They cannot assess (let alone teach) achievement that has not been defined.”

Current State

One aim of formative assessment is for instructors to determine how well students are learning. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001) It reveals the thinking and learning within students to instructors. (Fennel, 2006)

But the goal is not to reveal a student’s current state to the teacher alone. Clarity around current and future states is essential for both teachers and learners.

The goal of formative assessment is not to reveal a student's current learning state to the teacher alone, but to the student themselves. #formativeassessment #edtech #education Click To Tweet

According to the authors of Knowing what Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment, “Assessments should focus on making students’ thinking visible to both their teachers and themselves.” 

Progress Closing the Gap

First current and future states are discerned by teachers and learners alike. Then appropriate strategies are chosen to support students achieving the goal. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001) The course of instruction can be altered, in order to better help students achieve competence. (Hall, 2014)

To get the most from formative assessment, students need feedback about the quality of their work and information about what they can do to improve. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001) This type of feedback is called formative feedback. It’s a teaching method where formative assessment and discussion between teachers and learners creates a feedback loop. This in turn shapes future teaching and reinforces progress in learning. (Hall, 2014)

Why Is Formative Assessment Important?

Hundreds of research studies show formative assessment produces outsized improvements in learning outcomes, especially for low-achieving students. (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Stiggins, 2006)

In fact, research suggests that no other method has more potential for improving student learning. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

Black and Wiliam described the statistical effect sizes of formative assessment as between 0.4 and 0.7. They stated that “An effect size of 0.4 would mean that the average pupil involved in an innovation would record the same achievement as a pupil in the top 35% of those not so involved. An effect size gain of 0.7 in the recent international comparative studies in mathematics would have raised the score of a nation in the middle of the pack of 41 countries (e.g., the U.S.) to one of the top five.”

Where Can You Learn More?

There’s a lot more to formative assessment than just this simple definition. There are specialized tools and technology designed for making formative assessment easier. Check out the research-packed deep dive, Effective Formative Assessment for Educators. You may also enjoy 30 Fresh Ideas for Adding Formative Assessment to Your Teaching.

Additional Reading: For feedback research and ideas, see The Ultimate Guide to Feedback for Educators. Plus, if you’ve always struggled to keep formative and summative assessment straight, check out What Is Summative Assessment?

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