George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A photo of a teacher helping an elementary-school student.

I think formative assessment is one of the single most important things that teachers can do -- and already do -- for their students. In fact, great teachers use formative assessment whether or not they know it. Formative assessment may not be new, but it certainly has begun to crystallize into particular elements and components that are currently in the spotlight. When teachers practice great formative assessment, it can be a transformational experience for them as practitioners and, more importantly, for their students.

Grading Transformation

When teachers check for understanding, they are doing so as a means to ensure that students are successful in the summative assessment. It's important to remember that formative assessments are for learning, not necessarily of it. Summative assessments, on the other hand, are often assessments of learning. Consequently, the teacher's grade book is transformed. I wrote about this personal transformation in a previous blog post. By embracing formative assessment, teachers are awarding students at their best, not at their worst. The grade book more accurately reflects student competency of content and skills. Formative assessment leads to more equitable and fair grading practices.

Teaching Transformation

Teachers work smarter, not harder, when they use formative assessments. One of the biggest mistakes a teacher can make with formative assessment is to over-simplify the process of using it to adjust instruction. Formative assessment is actually more nuanced. For example, a teacher collects an exit ticket and discovers that about a third of the class missed a concept. Because of this, she returns the next day and reviews the content with the whole class. Pardon me, but I think that is crazy! Why would you do that? Only a third of the students need that review -- the rest are ready to move on.

Here, formative assessments must be used in making decisions to "feed forward," or make the right decision in terms of instructional next steps. Teachers also need to probe whether or not the mix-up was truly an error or instead just a mistake. A mistake implies that further instruction on that content may not be needed, while an error indicates that instruction must happen, as there are gaps in the learning. These instructional next steps might indeed be whole-class instruction, but they also include one-on-one support, small group instruction, and other important differentiation decisions. Overall, a teacher can give the right instruction at the right time as his teaching becomes responsive to students, rather than responsive to other forces.

Student Learning Transformation

Teachers use formative assessment to let students know where they are in the learning journey. Assessment is no longer a surprise! Student learning becomes transparent and also personalized. In addition to just-in-time learning, students get just-in-time feedback. Teachers rely on formative assessment to give students specific, actionable feedback that they can use to refine their work, seek out resources, and engage in learning that is specific to their needs. Because of this, all students increase their capacity for success. All students are getting what they need when they need it, as opposed to when the teacher guesses they need it. What happens next? Increased engagement! Students are more engaged in the learning because it is relevant and meaningful to them.

Classroom of Empowerment

Another big transformation that occurs when teachers practice formative assessment is a classroom of empowerment. Students are empowered to take ownership of the learning process. They know where they are and can set goals for next steps. They are given the power to "fail forward" and know that it's never too late to learn. Teachers are also empowered to make the right decisions in meeting their needs of their students. In fact, I would take this a step further -- remember that a formative assessment isn't formative until you decide it is. Similarly, a summative assessment isn’t summative until you decide that it is. You, as the teacher, use your professional judgment and are empowered to make the right decisions for your students as individuals and your classroom of learners as a whole.

Remember, formative assessments look and sound different -- and frankly, they should. Formative assessment includes oral language and questions, projects or performance assessments, written components, movement and gesture activities, technology tools, and more. These assessments are not always intended to be large assignments, but rather can be quick and efficient ways to check for understanding. I hope my comments here serve to affirm that which you're already doing well. Great teachers know their students, make adjustments, reflect, and honor the learning process. When teachers embrace and regularly use components of formative assessment, they are truly transformative teachers!

How is formative assessment transforming you, your students, and your school?

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Dan Adiletta's picture
Dan Adiletta
Teacher & Technologist

The sense of student ownership is one of the most satisfying things to see result from implementing a formative assessment solution like When students see how they're performing within each of their class's concepts or skills it's transformative. I can react to trends right in the moment. And that I was able to freely use the system while reducing the papers I graded made it a big win for me.
Thanks for a great read!

David Platt's picture

Student ownership and empowerment is so crucial. Assessment need and should not be a 'shaming' issue. Learning is social and when students are working in a network with one another, they feed off one another and help one another in their learning.

When using formative assessment, use it often, change it up, making it interesting, make it social. Most important from what I've learned - formative assessment need not and likely should not be graded. Students like the feedback good formative assessment provides, but feedback is not a grade. Students who need intervention on a concept should not be punished for not getting a concept, but rather worked with by the teacher and their peers to help them attain mastery.

Thank you for the awesome article!

May Voltz's picture

I have recently been introduced to a fabulous web based tool that allows me to do meaningful pre-assessments, exit tickets and differentiated tasks. GoFormative allows me to see live-results during pre-assessments and I can also leave comments and/or grade work or exit tickets. I leave comments for students and have them check them when they come in the next day with suggestions and ideas for next steps in their learning. The feedback option is an incredible tool! I can immediately react to students needs based on their responses. Formative assessments allow for more time doing, learning, and engaging learners in the learning process.

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