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What is Formative Assessment?

Uncategorized Nov 02, 2021

By. Robin Satty, Ed.D.

Wouldn’t it be convenient if we could read our students’ minds and see exactly what they were thinking? Exactly what they know and what they don’t, exactly where the made the error, and exactly what was holding them back?


We haven’t (yet) developed the technology to do that, but formative assessment is the next best thing. Formative assessment “provides information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are happening” (Garrison and Ehringhaus, 2011).


In order to understand what formative assessment is, it’s helpful to understand what it’s not. It is not summative assessment, which is data collection after material is taught. Summative assessment can include a standardized test, a final exam, or a unit project. Summative assessment provides data, but not data that will be used to help the students who have taken the assessment.


Formative assessment, on the other hand, provides data than can be used to adjust instruction while it is still going on. It allows the teacher to identify gaps and determine the best way to close them (Ramaprasad, 1983; Sadler, 1989).


Formative assessment can be formal, like a mid-unit quiz or even a unit assessment, that will identify needs for revisiting material within upcoming units. It can also be informal, like asking students questions directly (verbally or in writing) or asking them to complete a reflection.


Not only can formative assessment help accelerate learning, especially in low-scoring students and students with learning disabilities (Black and William, 1998) , but it can also help boost students’ confidence! It helps students see that improvement is possible (Ames, 1992).


So how do we do it? Here are some ideas for formative assessment:

  • Assign a scaffolded practice worksheet

  • Monitor students’ “scratch paper” work

  • Ask students follow-up questions about specific details

  • Have students reflect on the process they followed


Let’s say students are struggling to consistently use the Pythagorean Theorem to find the measure of an unknown side of a right triangle. Formative assessment can help us figure out whether students don’t know the theorem, can’t identify the legs and hypotenuse, get stuck using exponents, or are making mistakes solving an algebraic equation. A scaffolded formative assessment can help us tease out the details, especially if it provides opportunities to perform each of these tasks explicitly. Then, we can decide whether we need to review identifying the hypotenuse or solving basic algebraic equations.


To learn more about formative assessment, check out the links below and stay tuned for more ideas for specific strategies.






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