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Classroom Management: Best Uses of Formative Assessments

Jordan Catapano

A “formative assessment” is a test that is typically given mid-year to measure how student learning has progressed and to guide future instructional decisions for the remainder of the year. It does not represent the cumulative product of learning, but is rather a snapshot of the learning in progress. In most cases, many formative assessments take place intermittently throughout a year.

The opposite of a formative assessment is a “summative assessment” that measures the sum of a student’s learning at the end of a unit or year. Where formative assessments are used to measure progress, summative assessments measure the end point—thereby revealing more about outcomes instead of where to go in the future.

Most effective teachers well-versed in classroom management utilize a combination of these assessments. While summative assessments (like unit tests or final exams) are familiar curricular tools, it is imperative that teachers properly employ formative assessments to most powerfully impact their students’ learning. Here’s how.

Formative Assessments:

  • Allow for recalibrating. As you examine the strengths and weaknesses of individuals and classes, let the students’ results contribute to how you design the next phase of instruction.
  • Give insights to differentiate instruction. In addition to guiding your instruction, take it a step further by considering the unique needs of each student the assessment might reveal. You can differentiate your instruction to target students’ weaknesses and bring them all up to par.
  • Allow students to revise and reflect on formative assessments. In addition to giving you insights into your next steps, formative assessment results must be examined by students as well. Students ought to be part of the reflection process, recognizing how they performed to properly outline a strategy to improve their performance.
  • Show students what success looks like. Students can see their own performance, but a formative assessment is also an opportunity for students to see what success at that particular task should look like. Then they can compare their own skill level to the standard.
  • Come in a variety of forms. There’s no single way to assess student learning, and formative assessments can assume formal or informal shapes. See the “Types of Formative Assessments” below section for ideas on different strategies you can use. It is essential that you collect a variety of evidence to give a well-rounded impression of student performance level.
  • Should track the data. Since you’re giving multiple formative assessments throughout the year, it is important that you’re able to demonstrate progress. To do this, keep track of student scores and compare their performance on one assessment to their accomplishments on another.
  • Alert for intervention or remediation. Formative assessments might reveal more than weaknesses—they might show a glaring deficiency in student performance. If special interventions or remediation are necessary beyond the normal curricular allowances, now is the time to make those adjustments.
  • Are thought of as practice. If summative assessments are the “big game,” then formative assessments are the scrimmages preceding them. We want our students’ final products to be stellar; so just like athletes preparing for a championship, our students need to hone their skills through practice. Consider formative assessments as their opportunity to play, experiment, fail, and figure out what it takes to get stronger. In many cases you may have students revise their formative assessment.
  • Are graded differently from summative assessments. Because formative assessments are practice, we don’t need to grade them the same way as their summative counterparts. Summatives are naturally going to carry more weight in a student’s overall grade; formatives will be more frequent but present a lighter impact. In fact, in some cases you might give a score, but not a grade at all for formative measurements.

Types of Formative Assessments

As stated above, there’s no single way to assess students. In fact, the more diverse your assessment approaches, the better idea you have of student performance capabilities. Let’s take a look at a few types:

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Student Reflections. Simply giving students an opportunity to reflect on their learning can give insight into their capability. This can be done in something like a formal journal, or something informal like an Exit Slip. Students can perform a reflection or summary of recent content by responding to a class activity, assignment, or direct instruction.

Discussion. This can be a very informal process, but just giving students a chance to talk to one another about the content through guided discussion can go a long way in determining how well they understand the material. Whole class, small group, or partner discussions are great ways to gain insight into how they are processing content.

Traditional Homework and Quizzes. Infinite varieties of homework and quizzes exist, but if you utilize some of these, you will have a fairly concrete, measurable product that indicates student learning.

Test-like Preparations. If there is an upcoming summative assessment, then perhaps design quasi-formal formative assessments modeled off of the summative. This will show students exactly what they’re expected to perform on the end of year (or unit) test and help prepare them to do well.

Collaborative Activities. In addition to discussions, having students work with one another to create a concrete product helps students solidify their learning and demonstrate their proficiency.

As you more frequently implement formal and informal formative assessments along the above guidelines, you will be able to better respond to student progress. While we commonly rely on summative assessments to determine what students have learned, the better we can utilize formative assessments along the way will help students perform more proficiently in the long run.

What are different formative assessment strategies you have, and how you use them to guide instruction in your classroom? Share your experiences in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website ACTWritingTips.com.