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Formative assessment

3 min read

What is assessment? While we often use “test” and “assessment” interchangeably, it’s important to differentiate the two. A test is an assessment, but an assessment isn’t necessarily a test. Tests are usually timed and result in marks or grades. Assessments can take many other forms, however.

Hill and McNamara (2012) talk about assessment opportunities, which they define as ‘any actions, interactions or artifacts... which have the potential to provide information on the qualities of a learner’s... performance’. It’s important to note that these can be unplanned, unconscious and embedded, and therefore can take place anytime in class, and these days, out of class as well.

Assessment opportunities are particularly useful for formative assessment. Black and Wiliam, who have written extensively on this topic, say that assessment is formative only if the evidence about student achievement obtained is actually used to make decisions about the next steps in instruction.



Formative assessment is often known as Assessment for Learning. The Assessment Reform Group came up with this diagram (above) to illustrate the importance of formative assessment. I think it shows the different dimensions of formative assessment very well. I particularly like the point about developing the capacity for self-assessment, which is critical to the development of self-directed learners. In their definition of AfL, the 3 aims are to find out where the learners are, where they need to go, and how best to get there.



Wiliam usefully unpacks formative assessment in the chart above, which shows us the respective roles of teacher, peer and learner in achieving the 3 aims I’ve just mentioned. As you can see, formative assessment, done right, ought to cultivate active and collaborative learners.

So what’s the difference between formative assessment and its opposite, summative assessment? In a nutshell, they have different functions and result in different things. Summative assessment is used to rank or certify, and for accountability purposes, while formative assessment is actually used to meet learner needs. Summative assessment typically ends with grades or marks, while formative assessment produces feedback for the learner instead.

Black and Wiliam have noted that when students are given both, they tend to ignore feedback and focus solely on their grades or marks. This is a habit that’s hard to break, and makes marks and grades doubly un-useful for learners.

What are some other reasons formative assessment is important? Black and Wiliam have reported significant learning gains as a result, noting that it helps low achievers in particular.

So often, however, teachers think of formative assessments as little tests that result in marks or grades, which don’t tell the teachers nor the students much about the learning that’s going on, or what to do next.

Formative assessment can be embedded into our class activities. Take a look at this page by the Northwest Evaluation Association for some ideas.

What formative assessment activities do you use? How do you and your students use them to inform teaching and learning? Please share with us on Twitter