Teacher Education

Effective Formative Assessment for Educators

Effective Formative Assessment for Educators

Formative assessment is one of the most exciting developments in teaching and learning.

With the potential to deliver a positive transformation in student achievement and rooted in research-based innovation, formative assessment has been described as “at the heart of effective teaching.” (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, you aren’t alone. The world of higher education is enormous, can be overly political at both macro and micro levels, and sometimes moves at a glacial pace. Even the most obvious ideas, innovations, and improvements can disseminate slowly.

Don’t worry, we’ll cover formative assessment top to bottom. Because this is a little long, here’s what’s covered. (Feel free to jump ahead if you like.)

Table of Contents

What is Formative Assessment?
Why is Formative Assessment Important?
How To Do Formative Assessment Right
Assessing and Adapting to Learner States
Tips for Employing Formative Feedback
Using Technology to Make Formative Assessment Easier

Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, key researchers on formative assessment, lamented that reform initiatives were too often not “aimed at giving direct help and support to the work of teachers in classrooms.” We’re looking to sidestep that pitfall. We’re intentionally silent on policy or larger-scale concerns. Instead, we’re focused on just the pragmatic practice of the best understanding of how students learn within a classroom, program, department, or university.

In addition to the research, innovative new tools like GoReact are allowing assessment techniques to catch up with the science.

What is Formative Assessment?

Formative assessment has been called “assessment for learning” as opposed to “assessment of learning.” (Stiggins, 2006) Also termed formative evaluation or classroom assessment, this is an assessment that happens mid-stream during instruction, not just at the end. Formative assessment focuses on opportunities for improvement rather than merely identifying what students did well or performed correctly. (Watanabe-Crockett, 2017)

Because the assessment is made in the middle of the course, there is still time to affect the outcome. In this way, formative assessment goes beyond just assessing and requires that instruction undergo adaptation to match the needs of students. “Formative” means adjustments are made to teaching and learning based on the results. (Black & Wiliam, 1998) This adaptation is transforming assessment into an “instructional intervention” where students gain more learning, more motivation, and more confidence. (Stiggins, 2006)

Why Is Formative Assessment Important?

Interest in the impact of formative assessment has grown as the role of education has evolved.

Historically, schools delivered the same lessons to all students, who were then sorted via summative assessment into high and low achievers. Some students succeeded, while others became chronic failures. But today, every student is expected to meet academic standards that are increasingly rigorous. (Stiggins, 2006)

Rather than a comparative model measuring students achievements against each other, now we look to see which students have met predetermined learning standards. (Stiggins, 2006)

Formative Assessment Has The Most Impact

Hundreds of studies around the world have shown that formative assessment produces significant, unprecedented, substantial and profound learning outcome improvements, especially for low achievers. (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Stiggins, 2006)

In fact, evidence suggests that no other method has more promise for raising achievement standards. Plus, formative assessment has especially strong results with struggling students. Because feedback concentrates on specific problems and delivers specific and clear visibility into how to improve, it is an essential component in closing the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

How big are the impacts of formative assessment? Black and Wiliam reported the statistical effect sizes they observed to be between 0.4 and 0.7, which is huge for education interventions.

They illustrated the impact of these gains stating, “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.”

The numbers are in and the results are big time.

Why Formative Assessment Need to Be Done Right

Formative and summative assessment can be done wrong.

Risks of Improper Execution

When assessments are done wrong they can cause more harm than good. 

For instance, an accurate score that ultimately causes a student to give up or believe there is no hope can’t genuinely be regarded as a value add to the education of that student. When students lose faith in themselves and surrender in futility, things go haywire. (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Stiggins, 2006)

According to Black and Wiliam, “There are clearly recorded examples of such discussions in which teachers have, quite unconsciously, responded in ways that would inhibit the future learning of a pupil. What the examples have in common is that the teacher is looking for a particular response and lacks the flexibility or the confidence to deal with the unexpected. So the teacher tries to direct the pupil toward giving the expected answer. In manipulating the dialogue in this way, the teacher seals off any unusual, often thoughtful but unorthodox, attempts by pupils to work out their own answers. Over time the pupils get the message: they are not required to think out their own answers. The object of the exercise is to work out—or guess—what answer the teacher expects to see or hear.”

Formative assessments should produce positive reactions from both teachers and students. If they’re done wrong, results leave teachers without any clue what to do next. Teachers should feel instead that the assessment has revealed the next step for moving learning along. For students, bad assessments create counterproductive confusion, frustration, and hopeless abandonment. While good assessments instill confidence and willingness to keep trying. (Stiggins, 2006)

Stiggins goes on to say, “The role of formative assessment in student motivation cannot be overstated. No matter how influential instructors may be, students ultimately have the power to render all adult influences in their education impotent and ineffective. If the student decides to check out of their education for any reason, thinking the material is out of reach, the risk of failure and embarrassment are too great, etc., educators will be left helpless and learning will be forestalled.”

The role of formative assessment in student motivation cannot be overstated. Students ultimately have the power to render all adult influences impotent and ineffective. @rstiggings on #formativeassessment #education #pedagogy #edtech Share on X

Properly implemented, formative assessment helps students keep learning with the confidence that they can reach their goals if they keep trying. They’re an inoculation against students abandoning their education in hopelessness or frustration. (MDK12, 2016)

How to Nail Formative Assessment

Instituting formative assessment in education is not trivial. In fact, Black, Wiliam, and Shephard all emphasize that successful implementations involve “cultural change” within organizations. So, we’ve included a few tried and true ideas to increase your chances of success.

Integrate formative assessment with curricula

Assessment should be occurring as often as we expect learning to occur. Formative assessment should happen constantly and be interconnected so that student learning patterns are manifested. Teachers and learners both need to perceive how students’ skills or understanding has improved. Seeing their own progress is a huge motivator and confidence builder for students. (Stiggins, 2006)

Formative assessments are not something one can simply bolt on to the status quo. They cannot function in isolation. They’ve got to be integrated and aligned with instruction along the whole curriculum to maximize learning support. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001)

Skip Fennell, President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics said, “In short, assess as you teach: observe, ask questions, look for representations and responses that demonstrate understanding.… Whatever formative assessment tactics you use should provide accurate information about students’ progress—they should reveal students’ misconceptions, help you pace the lesson, change topics, and offer remediation or enrichment when it’s needed. Formative assessments must be a routine part of classroom activity, not an interruption.”

Tips for Motivating Student Progress

Here are four suggestions for deploying formative assessment in order to invoke student motivation.

1. Self-assessment provides forward momentum. By including regular self-assessment activities, while maintaining clear and constant awareness of the desired future state, students chart their progress over time and feel ownership of their own success. (MDK12, 2016)

2. Use descriptive rather than judgmental feedback. By delivering formative assessment results to students as frequent descriptive feedback, instead of judgmental feedback, insights into how to improve are made more emotionally accessible. (MDK12, 2016)

3. Open communication between instructors, students and families. Involving students with the feedback and communication regarding their progress and improvement (and families of minor children) helps students articulate their understanding and own the results of their education. (MDK12, 2016)

4. Use formative assessments to build student confidence. Confidence in themselves, taking responsibility for their own learning, and laying a foundation for lifelong learning is built as formative assessment results are gathered and shared consistently with students. (MDK12, 2016)

Assessing and Adapting to Learner States

Learning requires an understanding of fundamental states.

A. The desired outcome or goal. This is the intended future state that includes mastery of the skills or content being taught.

B. The student’s present position or progress toward that goal. This is the student’s current state.

C. 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) 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.”

Remember that progress toward the future state is the intent. Is the future state clear to both teachers and students? Has the instructor provided any exemplars to model what success achieving the objective looks like?

Clearly identify your states

Not only do formative assessments inform teachers on how to adapt instruction, but they should provide rich descriptions of the student’s current state and include details on how they can do better next time. (Stiggins, 2006) Essential for maximizing the learning of this type of assessment is providing students with information about particular qualities of their work and about what they can do to improve. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001)

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.” This reinforces the importance of knowing what the desired outcomes are because learners can only assess their current state accurately when they see clearly how it compares with the goals of the instructor. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

Absent a clear understanding of current and future states and the necessary steps to get from here to there, Black and Wiliam say,

“Furthermore, pupils who come to see themselves as unable to learn usually cease to take school seriously. Many become disruptive; others resort to truancy.cease to take school seriously. Many become disruptive; others resort to truancy. Such young people are likely to be alienated from society and to become the sources and the victims of serious social problems… Pupils who encounter difficulties are led to believe that they lack ability, and this belief leads them to attribute their difficulties to a defect in themselves about which they cannot do a great deal. Thus they avoid investing effort in learning that can lead only to disappointment, and they try to build up their self‐esteem in other ways.”

Once current and future states are known by teachers and learners alike, then appropriate strategies can be chosen to support students achieving the goal. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001) The entire course of instruction can be altered to better help students achieve competence in the course material. (Hall, 2014) Ideally sharing of future state goals is accompanied by examples of student work displaying the full range of quality. Quality should be taught one facet at a time and students should be taught and encouraged to focus on improving one facet at a time. (Stiggins, 2006)

The Role of Feedback and Communication

The process of instructors responding to the current state of students with input designed to help them improve is called formative feedback. It’s a teaching method where formative assessment and subsequent discussion between teachers and learners creates a feedback loop which both shapes future teaching and reinforces progress in learning. (Hall, 2014)

According to Pelligreno, et al., “Students need feedback if they are to become aware of their progress and gain the benefits…. Practice and feedback are critical aspects of the development of skill and expertise. One of the most important roles for assessment is the provision of timely and informative feedback to students during instruction and learning so that their practice of a skill and its subsequent acquisition will be effective and efficient.”

Classroom discussions are a key part of formative assessment. It becomes essential for educators to establish patterns for communicating feedback to students. The more communication happens between teachers and learners, the deeper the understanding, and the greater the opportunities for students to discuss their thinking. One-on-one student interviews can help teachers divine student progress. Interviews can be particularly helpful in identifying misconceptions early on. (Fennel, 2006)

More courses are being taught online in the “flipped classroom” style. With practice occurring outside of class, in-person feedback can be difficult to deliver. The use of software like GoReact that is designed to create a platform for feedback over the Internet and asynchronously can overcome some of the insufficiencies of old methods. A benefit of asynchronicity is that students can be more contemplative in forming their responses as well as allowing each student to respond to questions individually without being preempted by their peers (such as in a class discussion).

Interestingly, formative feedback delivers to students the tools they need to assess how they are doing on their way toward the established learning goals. (Hall, 2014) This means that the ultimate user of assessment is actually the student. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)


Not all assessment of student progress comes from teachers.

Some feedback is available from peers and even the students themselves through self-assessment. Current state awareness and evaluation independently by students can be highly valuable. Black and Wiliam address self-assessment saying, “Self-assessment by pupils, far from being a luxury, is, in fact, an essential component of formative assessment.”

From @dylanwiliam and Paul Black, Self assessment by pupils is an essential component of formative assessment. #formativeassessment #education #edtech #learning Share on X

Stiggins also weighed in saying, “Another important feature [of formative assessment] is its reliance on repeated self-assessments, each of which instructs the learner on how to improve performance on the next one…. This feedback builds progressively over time and thus helps students continue to believe that success is within reach if they keep trying.”

Pellegreno, et al., said, “Students learn more when they understand (and even participate in developing) the criteria by which their work will be evaluated, and when they engage in peer and self-assessment during which they apply those criteria. These practices develop students’ metacognitive abilities, which, as emphasized above, are necessary for effective learning.”

Formative assessment has been enhanced in students as young as five years old by incorporating self- and peer-assessment. This underscores the inevitability of the link between formative assessment and self-assessment. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

If self-assessment is, therefore, so important, then it stands to reason that students need training in it. They need instructions about how to assess themselves so that they can independently understand the desired future state and fathom what they need to do to get there. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

Teacher Education

Formative assessment in tomorrow’s classrooms begins with today’s teacher candidates. Is formative assessment part of the education of the next generation of teachers? Is formative assessment being modeled by supervisors and field experience coordinators in teacher ed programs?

According to Stiggins, “Preservice teacher preparation programs must provide foundational training in sound assessment practice. As preservice teachers come to understand the nature of the achievement targets their students need to master, so too must they learn how to use classroom assessment to track progress. This can be accomplished with sound coursework, but it would be even better if professors in teacher education courses would model sound assessment for learning practices.”

Teacher education programs committed to formative assessment often turn to technology solutions like GoReact to institutionalize these assessment practices and deliver the best-qualified teacher candidates.

Tips for Gaining Formative Assessment Skills

Mastering formative assessment requires deliberate practice and effort.

Educators can learn to better analyze student work, the repertoire of assessment types (a creative list of ideas is provided here), and techniques for delivering effective formative feedback.

Over time, proper questions and the skills to read a classroom or an individual student become second nature.  Teachers become more familiar and comfortable with formative assessment techniques and even develop special expertise in being able to perceive when instruction is going well. They gain a sense of when to stop and review material, when to stretch lessons into another day, when to probe with additional questions, etc. The skill to modify on the fly has been called a key trait for “highly qualified” teachers. (Fennel, 2006)

Here are five tips for gaining formative assessment skills:

1. Learn analysis techniques. Learning to analyze student work opens instruction up to modification and continuous gains in effectiveness. (Watanabe-Crockett, 2017)

2. Become assessment literate. Becoming assessment literate will empower instructors to deploy assessments that accurately reflect student progress, i.e., current state. (MDK12, 2016)

3. Learn to communicate feedback. Effective formative assessment strategies include communication techniques for offering continuous descriptive feedback, encouragement to improve, and thoughtful open-ended “why” and “how” questions that require deeper responses from students. (Watanabe-Crockett, 2017; Stiggins, 2006)

4. Include peer- and self-assessment. Instructors can crowdsource feedback to peers and teach skills that allow students to contribute more fully to their own formative assessment. For example, students should learn how to generate their own descriptive feedback, and how to effectively self-reflect on their progress and skill development. (Stiggins, 2006)

5. Use asynchronous communication. Another strategic questioning strategy used in formative assessment is to give the students a “wait time” to respond. Studies have found that most students become more engaged in classroom dialogue when higher-order questions are combined with a wait period. (Watanabe-Crockett, 2017)


Technology opens the door to more assessment methods.

Assessment practices of the past have faced limitations. But new software and technology innovations are helping to eliminate these shortcomings.

Some of the most interesting new technologies extend the nature and type of problems that can be presented and the learning that can be assessed. Technology assistance holds great promise for enhancing formative assessment on multiple levels and empowering teachers to go beyond the old paper-and-pencil approach. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001)

Traditionally, scoring rubrics used by teachers are heavily quantitative in nature. Qualitative assessments may deliver more accurate evaluations of the depth of understanding students have of the material. (MDK12, 2016) New technology is making it possible to collect more data about learners, their participation among their peers, and their understanding than existed before. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001)

For example, using new technologies (like GoReact), students can be presented with interactive, rich media, stimuli to respond to. These applications make it possible to assess skills and understanding—making visible the actions of students as they solve problems and reckon with complex scenarios and simulations. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001)

According to Pellegrino, et al., “A significant contribution of technology has been to the design of systems for implementing sophisticated classroom-based formative assessment practices. Technology-based systems have been developed to support individualized instruction by extracting key features of learners’ responses, analyzing patterns of correct and incorrect reasoning, and providing rapid and informative feedback to both student and teacher.” It is precisely this type of formative assessment scenario that GoReact was designed to facilitate, which is one reason the software is so popular in teacher education programs.

Technology-enabled tools need to be designed with the latest understanding of how students learn. No matter how sophisticated the tools, if the techniques employed are based on impoverished models of learning, the results will have limited impact. But conversely, the right tools are able to deliver and interpret the most current understanding of what assessments mean. Many highly effective tools exist for evaluating a person’s knowledge and for assessing the contents and contexts of learning. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001)

New technology is incorporating sophisticated assessment methods in interfaces easy to use and understand. With tools like GoReact, teachers can capture and replay students’ performances as well as model correct performance and thereby glean essential information about student competence. (Pellegrino, Chudowski & Glaser, 2001)

Of course we’re biased. But GoReact has been designed with many of these issues in mind. If you’re teaching a performance- or competency-based discipline, we think you owe it to yourself to evaluate whether or not GoReact would be a fit for your program.


As William Gibson said, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Even though formative assessment is not yet a universal component of course curricula, educators are finding it much easier to deploy techniques that reflect the most current science around student learning and cognition by implementing formative assessment in their courses.

Formative assessment elevates the importance of students and teachers working together making instructional decisions. By providing timely real-time information formative assessment allows teachers and students to both understand what comes next. (Stiggins, 2006)

By using technological “force-multipliers” like GoReact, educators can more easily and confidently deploy formative assessments in their respective disciplines and roles. As Black and Wiliam stated, “Indeed, it is clear that instruction and formative assessment are indivisible.”

In other words, formative assessment is teaching.

If you’re ready to take a deeper look at starting to use, or deepening your use of formative assessment, check out our digest of 30 of the most popular formative assessment techniques for your students.