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Instant Feedback: Principles of, and Techniques for, Formative Assessment

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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The bowling analogy in my previous post is an illustration of the misunderstanding about the true purpose of formative assessments. Assessment provides needed information for the teacher to adjust instructional activities, but that is a by-product of the real reason for doing it. True formative assessment engages students and puts them in charge of their own learning, much as a bowler is in charge of how she bowls.

Formative assessment is not for the teacher; it is for the student -- the student is the one "forming" herself; the opposite is summative, or "game over," assessment. The role of the teacher is to provide the student feedback and the opportunity to improve by repeating the task. (Grant Wiggins wrote an excellent article for Edutopia explaining the need for more formative assessment.)

In order for an assessment to be formative, students must be able to

  • see what they are aiming at (a clear expectation).
  • see immediately if their actions meet the target (detailed and timely feedback).
  • make corrections on their next turn (multiple opportunities for success).

What kinds of formative assessment can a teacher create to provide immediate feedback to students? Having students do a rough draft is a perfect example of a formative assessment. The students get feedback on their writing, and they get to make corrections and then submit it again. A quiz is not formative unless the students get the results back promptly and have a chance to take the quiz -- the same one or a version of it -- again.

Asking a verbal question in class and hoping some student will answer it is not formative assessment, because the students are not in charge and it does not provide individual feedback to each student. However, there are ways to make verbal questioning an excellent formative-assessment method by getting all the students to answer the same question at the same time, and then provide individual feedback.

For example, you could have students give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down gesture in response to a statement you make. They can touch the correct word on a display. They can stand up if they think the answer you've given is correct or sit on the floor if they have an answer different from the one you gave. They can stand in one corner if the answer is A or in another corner it it's B. They can lift their right hand for true or left for false. There are many other creative ways to have them show they understand.

A side product of these techniques is that students get feedback from looking at what other students are doing and usually correct their choices automatically. Then the correct answer from the teacher simply reinforces what they've already learned just moments before.

A similar method makes use of individual electronic keypads, computer programs, or even small whiteboards, similar to the slates each student had in classrooms long ago. Students write their answers and hold them up so the teacher and all the other students can see.

Giving our students true formative assessments means that after we have taught our students, we have to set clear expectations, provide detailed and timely feedback, and give them multiple opportunities to show what they have learned, which also helps them learn from their own mistakes. As teachers, we must provide frequent formative assessments to students so they can see well enough to quit bowling gutter balls and start throwing strikes.

Please share some of the true formative assessments you are using.

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Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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guide's picture
Counsellor with a passion to build world class assessments

One formative assessment system being used is Self Assessor module on The site is still not complete but is evolving. It has both formative assessments - objective and subjective . The range is good

Formative assessments can be taken on number of subjects, their topics and key concepts. Students can self create tests drawn from a vast knowledge pool based on question types, level of questions, number of questions, allocate time and assign marks. Based of the selected criteria tests are created instantaneously and randomly from knowledge pool. The results are also instantaneous and are stored in test history of each student for future analysis and monitoring progress

Smilarly also has a summative assessment system where you can take test after a period (say 6 months or year) on set number of topics or can take pre created summative tests based on previous exam patterns or created by subject matter experts.

The site is evolving with daily contributions to its knowledge pool and feed back on existing knowledge pool

Hope this will be useful

Reed Gillespie's picture

Adding to "they can stand in one corner if the answer is A or in another corner it it's B," if they have the answer incorrect they sit down; play continues until one person is left standing.

I also liked to provide students with laminated cards (A-D) and then show a "test" question on the overhead and have students show their answers. The follow-up questions are equally important (explore why an answer is right/wrong and from my perspective see why students get a question wrong). Other ideas: student white boards, creating summaries, interactive clickers (if your school has the $). Group work and partner assignments are also great (mini-discussions), as long as you circulate through the room to listen to the students.

Jen Stewart's picture

Thank you for the tips on how to use some formative assessments in the classroom. It is nice to see that they can be done in a large group, yet I can see what each child may, or may not know. The instant feedback is so important for student learning. As I think about stratigies that I have used in my own classroom this comes to mind: I use a find it, hide it, show it using number strips 1-10 (I teach kindergarten). I am thinking I could also adapt this with letters and sounds.

sarita hood's picture
sarita hood
Ninth and tenth grade social studies teacher from India

i like the method you have adopted of cards think i will try it in class and see how i can work it out in school for the classes i teach and would love to sahre my experience with others

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