Formative Assessment Essentials


In formative assessment, teachers and students repeatedly collaborate to evaluate students’ learning by collecting and analyzing evidence in various forms including conversations, observations, and student work and then use that evidence to modify classroom activities to enhance student achievement.1, 2, 3 Students’ knowledge of targeted skills is verified dynamically throughout instruction rather than only at the conclusion of learning periods. Such verification necessitates judgment from teachers about whether the evidence indicates the need for instructional adjustments and what those adjustments should be.4, 5

The Enhanced Learning Maps digital library includes an interactive graphic interface packed with research-based instructional tools to help teachers make those judgments.

Key Benefits of Formative Assessment

  • Reassures students that they can and will reach their academic goals6
  • Invites students to demonstrate how they have organized their knowledge7 so that teachers can effectively help them achieve full understanding of subject matter
  • Engages students to own and direct their learning through self-evaluation and self-awareness8, 9

Components for Success

  • Clearly defined learning goals that are shared by all stakeholders
  • Latitude for teachers to revise daily plans and deviate from pacing guides to revisit topics their students struggle to learn
  • Carefully designed opportunities for students to demonstrate their knowledge
  • Non-threatening feedback to students that shows them how to close the gaps between their current performance and their learning goals10

Pieces of the Puzzle

Defining Success
When students are fully aware of how success is defined in their classroom, they are better able to self-evaluate the measures they must take to achieve their learning goals. As such, teachers should clearly communicate from the outset of each learning period the criteria against which students’ work will eventually be evaluated.11, 12, 13

Evaluating Progress
To be able to appropriately judge students’ progress, teachers must create conditions that are conducive to observing students in the process of developing understanding. To unveil students’ thinking, teachers should strive to conduct rich activities that require students to demonstrate what they know and can do. Classroom conversations around those activities may then provide opportunities for students to indicate their strengths and weaknesses, informing the feedback teachers can provide.14

Providing Feedback
Students should receive and apply feedback to begin filling in the gaps between what they know and their learning goals. This feedback should be specific, descriptive, and non-judgmental and should directly relate students’ current progress with the success criteria defined at the outset of the learning period. The best feedback will focus on correcting errors and misconceptions related to the original task and also provide quality information that students can use to decide what steps they need to take next to accomplish their goals.15, 16

Fostering Achievement
In order to realize the full potential of the formative process, teachers must establish non-threatening classroom environments, where students are not afraid to make mistakes or show their flawed knowledge and are able to accept constructive feedback without perceiving it as condemnation.17

Such safe learning environments promote authentic learning, but not all students are ready to expose themselves to such environments without adequate support. As such, teachers must make doubly certain to engender students’ trust by

  • Encouraging students to be willing to make mistakes and explaining that those mistakes will not be punished;
  • Ensuring classmates are supportive of one another by creating a culture in which students help their classmates correct their errors and overcome their misconceptions; and
  • Adopting a grading scheme that does not punish mistakes made during the learning process.18

Responsive Instruction
To provide students with truly actionable feedback, teachers must respond to students promptly, while students are still in the learning process, with responses that are personalized for each students’ progress. Teachers should leverage their pedagogical expertise as well as gathered evidence of student understanding to identify and describe the errors students may be making or misconceptions students may hold.19

Teachers engaged in a robust formative assessment process must fluidly transition between activities that allow them to evaluate students’ progress and teaching moments that address any limitations in students’ knowledge and abilities. Through this exercise, teachers can push students further down their unique learning paths and advance their achievement.20, i

Using formative assessment opportunities to generate grades may contradict the very purpose of formative assessment, which is to repeatedly evaluate where students are in their learning and help them close any gaps. Focusing too closely on students’ abilities at any individual point in time often produces unintended negative consequences including decreased motivation, anxiety, lower effort, and decreased self-confidence, particularly in weaker students.21 Additionally, when grades are introduced into the formative assessment process, they can inhibit student success by decreasing students’ willingness to expose their flawed knowledge.22

Teachers should be mindful of their purpose when conducting classroom assessments so as not to erode the quality of the learning environment nor discourage active student engagement by introducing grades into the mix.

Rather than focusing on grades, formative assessment contends that as long as teachers and students are engaged in a feedback loop, their focus should remain on movement toward students’ learning goals rather than any artificially imposed stopping point along the way.23

  1. Vygotsky (see reference 20) refers to this process as an expansion into proximal development zones – abstract levels of achievement just beyond students’ current independent abilities, constantly evolving as students learn new material and develop new skills.
  1. Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5-31. doi: 10.1007/s11092-008-9068-5
  2. Heritage, H. M. (2010). Formative assessment: Making it happen in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  3. Popham, W. J. (2011). Transformative assessment in action: An inside look at applying the process. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  4. See reference 3.
  5. Wiliam, D. (2011). What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37(1), 3-14. doi: 10.1016/j.stueduc.2011.03.001
  6. Stiggins, R.J. (2015).…
  7. Cizek, G.J. (2007). Formative classroom and large-scale assessment: Implications for future research and development. In J. McMillian (Ed.), Formative classroom assessment: Theory into practice (pp. 99-115). New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
  8. See reference 2.
  9. Wiliam & Thompson (2008). Integrating assessment with instruction: What will it take to make it work? In C.A. Dwyer (Ed.). The future of assessment: Shaping teaching and learning. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 53-82.
  10. See reference 1.
  11. See reference 1.
  12. See reference 2.
  13. See reference 6.
  1. Smith & Stein (2011). 5 Practices for orchestrating productive mathematics discussions. Reston, VA. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.
  2. Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.
  3. See reference 5.
  4. Leighton, Chu, & Seitz (2012). Errors in student learning and assessment: The learning errors and formative feedback (LEAFF) model. In R.W. Lissitz (Ed). Informing the practice of teaching using formative and interim assessment: A systems approach. University of Maryland: Maryland Assessment Research Center for Education Success.
  5. See reference 6.
  6. See reference 1.
  7. Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  8. Crooks (1988). The impact of classroom evaluation practices on students. Review of Educational Research 58: 438-481.doi: 10.3102/00346543058004438
  9. Filkins, as quoted by Heitin, Edweek (2015).…
  10. See reference 6.