Too many teachers feel that they don’t have time in their classroom schedules to give formative assessments. They require too much thought, planning, and work to fit into the already overburdening routine. But what if the students don’t comprehend or haven’t mastered what they are being taught? How will the teacher know and, thus, make sure the kids “get it”?

Rick Stiggins defines assessment as “the process of gathering information about student learning to inform instructional decision-making.” Formative assessment is an instructional strategy for using assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status to decide if adjustments are needed in the teacher’s ongoing instructional procedures and the students’ current learning methods.

Formative assessment is a process, not a test.

There are obstacles to getting educators to use, or make greater use of, formative assessment, the foremost being the challenge of getting them out of their set ways. Most teachers are convinced that their established, long-used instructional techniques work well and benefit their students. So it is difficult to get them to implement a procedure that is so very different. But it needn’t be an earth-shaking adjustment, and it can pay off significant dividends.

A Formative-Assessment Procedure

Using Formative Assessment to Improve Instruction

Here are some basic steps for the full-cycle of a formative assessment:

  • Become assessment literate. The teacher learns about formative assessment and the variety available and is able to create assessment exercises and scoring procedures that accurately measure the student’s current learning status.
  • Begin the planning process. Careful thought must be given to the possible instructional adjustments, the kinds of evidence that could be gathered about the need for the adjustments, and the types of assessments that could be used to gather the evidence.
  • Discuss with students the reasons for and benefits of assessment. The teacher should explain what a formative assessment is and why it would be given. The students should be made to understand that it will help them learn better, and that the score will not be used toward their report-card grade (it’s a process, not a test). If the students know the purpose of the assessment and that it will not be conventionally graded, they will feel less pressured and more willing to invest in the process.
  • Involve the students in designing the assessment. There are a variety of ways the students could help develop their own assessments, and this would help them understand the process better and take ownership of their learning. So, the teacher should ask them their preferences for the kinds of assessments to be used.
  • Administer the assessment. The assessment could be given as part of the warm-up at the beginning of class, during the lesson, or at the end during the exit procedure. The first and third options would make it seem less like a test and thus would diffuse some of the pressure.
  • Examine the results. The teacher would study the results of the assessment and look for patterns to decide what is needed for each student in terms of new or adjusted instruction.
  • Share the results with students. Translating the assessment results into information feedback for the students would allow them to see where they are in their learning and give them insights into how to improve their tactics.
  • Students make adjustments. Using the information gathered from the assessment as well as the teacher’s input, the students would change or adjust the methods by which they learn.
  • The teacher makes adjustments. Using the assessment data and the information gathered from discussions with the students, the teacher would now adjust and improve his/her current instructional techniques.

How Much Formative Assessment?

Formative assessment should be a routine part of the classroom culture. How routine, though, is up to the educator.

There is a school of thought that says to use formative assessment very selectively, not continuously. Properly conceived, it requires much thinking and planning by the teacher, as well as the collection of data and the resulting changes. Perhaps formative assessment should only be used for really challenging goals, that involve higher-thinking skills, or as the closing to a long unit or period of time.

On the other hand, formative assessment needn’t be formal of lengthy; it could be something as simple as an exit card with one or two questions. It can measure learning as the class moves through a unit to provide feedback about strengths and weaknesses in student performance before a summative exam.
By using formative assessment frequently, the teacher can develop an ongoing dialogue with the students about what they are learning. Not only can formative assessment help make learning better, it can also make teaching better.