How can I use formative assessment to plan instruction and help students drive their own learning?

teacher giving student a high five

What is formative assessment?

A formative assessment is a teaching move -- a question, an activity, or an assignment -- that a teacher performs to gain information about student learning. It is formative in that it is intentionally done for the purpose of planning or adjusting future instruction and activities. Like we consider our formative years when we draw conclusions about ourselves, a formative assessment is where we begin to draw conclusions about our students' learning.

Formative assessment moves can take many forms and generally target skills or content knowledge that is relatively narrow in scope (as opposed to summative assessments, which seek to assess broader sets of knowledge or skills). Common examples of formative assessments include exit tickets, fist-to-five check-ins, teacher-led question-and-answer sessions or games, completed graphic organizers, and practice quizzes.

In short, formative assessment is an essential part of all teaching and learning because it enables teachers to identify and target misunderstandings as they happen, and to adjust instruction to ensure that all students are keeping pace with the learning goals. As described by the NCTE position paper Formative Assessment That Truly Informs Instruction, formative assessment is a "constantly occurring process, a verb, a series of events in action, not a single tool or a static noun."

What makes a good formative assessment?

As mentioned above, formative assessments can take many forms. The most useful formative assessments share some common traits:

  • They assess skills and content that have been derived from the backward planning process. They seek to assess the key learning milestones in the unit or learning sequence.
  • They are actionable. They are designed so that student responses either clearly demonstrate mastery of the skills and content, or they show exactly where mastery is lacking or misunderstanding is occurring.
  • When possible, they are student-centered. Using an assessment where students measure themselves or their peers, or where they're prompted to reflect on their results, puts students in charge of their own learning. It allows students to consider their own progress and determine positive next steps. Unfortunately, student-centered formative assessments don't always yield the easiest and most actionable information for teachers, so their benefits have to be weighed against other factors.

How should I use formative assessment results?

Formative assessments are generally used for planning future instruction and for helping students drive their own learning. In terms of future instruction, how you use assessment data most depends on what kind of results you get.

  • If 80% or more demonstrate mastery, you'll likely want to proceed according to plan with subsequent lessons. For individual students not demonstrating mastery, you'll want to find ways to interject extra support. This might mean a differentiated assignment, a guided lesson during independent work time, or support outside of class.
  • If between 50% and 80% demonstrate mastery, you'll need to use class time to have structured differentiation. You'll need to build this into the next lesson(s) if it isn't already planned. This means different activities or guided instruction for different groups of students. Students who've demonstrated mastery could engage in an extension activity or additional practice, or serve as support for other students. Students still attempting mastery could receive additional guided practice or additional instructional materials like multimedia resources or smaller "chunks" of content.
  • If fewer than 50% demonstrate mastery, you'll need to do some whole-class reteaching. There are many approaches and concrete strategies for reteaching. Check out this article from Robert Marzano as well this blog post from BetterLesson for ideas.

The above recommendations are general rules of thumb, but your school or district may have specific guidelines to follow around teaching and reteaching. Make sure to consult them first.

Also, it's important to remember that building differentiation into the structure of your class and unit design from the beginning is the best way to make use of formative assessment results. Whether this means a blended or flipped classroom or activity centers, structuring in small-group, student-directed learning activities from the outset will make you more willing -- and better prepared -- to use formative assessment regularly and effectively in your class.

How do I know what type of formative assessment to use?

This is perhaps the most difficult question when it comes to formative assessment. There are so many different methods -- just check out this list from Edutopia -- that it's easy to get lost in the sea of options. When it comes to choosing, the most important question is: What type of skill or content are you seeking to measure?

  • Content knowledge ("define," "identify," "differentiate") is generally the easiest to assess. For less rigorous objectives like these, a simple fist-to-five survey or exit ticket can work well. An edtech tool can also work well here, as many of them can score and aggregate multiple-choice responses automatically.
  • Higher-order thinking skills ("analyze," "synthesize," "elaborate") are generally more difficult and time-consuming to assess. For this, you'll likely use a different question type than multiple choice and need to allow more time for students to work. A good option here is to have students do a peer assessment using a rubric, which has the double benefit of allowing them to reflect on their own learning and cutting down the time you need to spend assessing the work. This can be done through an LMS or another project-based learning app, or through old-school paper and pencil; it just depends on your preference. Because students -- and adults, too -- often don't know what they don't know, self-assessments may be less accurate and less actionable for these types of skills.
  • Process-oriented skills ("script," "outline," "list the steps") also tend to be more difficult to assess. Graphic organizers can work well here, allowing teachers (or peer reviewers) to see how students arrived at their results. STEM apps for higher-order thinking and coding apps can also make this assessment information more accessible.

What are the benefits of using an edtech tool for formative assessment?

As mentioned above, one of the big benefits of using a tool for formative assessment is that it allows teachers to more efficiently use their time. Apps like Quizlet and Formative use a quiz format to provide real-time feedback to both students and teachers, and -- in their premium versions -- provide aggregate qualitative and quantitative assessment data. Other apps, like Kahoot! or Quizizz, provide these features with the added engagement of game-based competition. Apps like Flipgrid (video-based) and Edulastic (tracks against standards) provide assessment data with other additional perks. Check out our list of top tech tools for formative assessment to see a range of options.

Finally, if you're already regularly teaching with technology, using an edtech tool fits seamlessly into the daily activities your students already know how to do. It can be an independent activity that students do as part of a blended classroom, or an outside-of-class activity that's part of a flipped classroom. In this context, both students and teachers will get the most out of the time-saving and student-centered benefits that edtech tools provide.

Jamie K.

As an education consultant, Jamie created curriculum and professional development content for teachers. Prior to consulting, Jamie was senior manager of educator professional learning programs at Common Sense and taught middle school English in Oakland, California. For the 2016–2017 school year, Jamie received an Excellence in Teaching award and was one of three finalists for Teacher of the Year in Oakland Unified School District. While teaching, Jamie also successfully implemented a $200,000 school-wide blended-learning program funded by the Rogers Family Foundation and led professional development on a wide range of teaching strategies. Jamie holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Eugene Lang College and a master's degree in philosophy and education from Teacher' College at Columbia University. Jamie currently lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil with his 4-year-old son, Malcolm, and his partner, Marijke.