Formative Assessment

GuidelineUse formative assessment during instruction for feedback on effectiveness of teaching strategies.

An assessment activity can help learning if it provides information that teachers and their students can use as feedback in assessing themselves and one another and in modifying the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes “formative assessment” when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2003). The nature and value of formative assessment for learning. Improving Schools, 6, 7-22.

…Classroom Assessment is good for both teachers and students. As a feedback strategy that provides teachers with data on teaching effectiveness and student comprehension, Classroom Assessment also involves students in active mental processing of new information and makes them more aware of themselves as learners.

Steadman, M. (1998). "Using classroom assessment to change both teaching and learning." New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 75, 23-35.

Many strategies that promote active learning and student self-assessment can also provide formative feedback to the instructor about teaching effectiveness. By tracking student responses to clicker questions given during class or monitoring students’ responses during group work and peer discussion, instructors can gain important information regarding students’ understanding of the content to be learned. Similarly, information obtained from techniques used to promote students’ self-assessment, such as MUD cards, one-minute papers, or reflection questions, can provide information regarding students’ level of understanding and misconceptions.

Questioning and classroom discussion can serve as opportunities to assess students’ knowledge in order to make instructional decisions. To promote optimal learning from this process, however, teachers need to ask thoughtful, reflective questions rather than simple, factual ones and then give students adequate time to respond. In order to involve everyone, Black and Wiliam (1998) suggest strategies such as the following:

  • Invite students to discuss their thinking about a question or topic in pairs or small groups; then ask a representative to share the thinking with the larger group (think-pair-share).

  • Present several possible answers to a question, then ask students to vote on them.

  • Ask all students to write down an answer; then read a selected few out loud.

  • Have students write their understanding of concepts before and after instruction.

  • Ask students to summarize the main ideas they've taken away from a lecture, discussion, or assigned reading.

  • Have students complete a few problems or questions at the end of instruction and check answers.

Boston, C. (2002). The concept of formative assessment. ERIC Digest ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation (pp. 8). College Park, MD 20742. 

Additional references

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139-148.

Bruff, D. (2011). Classroom response systems (“clickers”) bibliography,

Caldwell, J. E. (2007). Clickers in the large classroom: Current research and best-practice tips. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 6(1), 9-20.

Shute, V., & Kim, Y. (2014). Formative and stealth assessment. In J. Spector, M. Merrill, J. Elen & M. Bishop (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (pp. 311-321). New York: Springer.

Stull, J., Varnum, S., Ducette, J., & Schiller, J. (2011). The many faces of formative assessment. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23(1), 30-39.


Examples of Implementation from MIT

William Kettyle, head of MIT Medical Department and Assistant Professor of Medicine in the Health Sciences and Technology Division, explored innovative directions for his endocrinology class. In order to move away from lecture format and towards more opportunities for student participation, Kettyle introduced teaching modalities designed to vary the in-class experience. One of these new modalities was a teaching tool called a ‘quickie’ – short medical vignettes intended to assess students’ knowledge in particular disease areas. Using clickers, Kettyle was able to quickly determine whether the students grasped the basic concepts portrayed in the vignettes. He did not record individual responses, but he recorded how the class collectively performed on a question. The results were used to tailor subsequent class sessions to address any deficiencies in understanding.

In 8.01, Physics faculty routinely use clicker questions to gauge student understanding when new concepts are introduced. Additionally, during the class period, students work together in groups of three to solve problems on whiteboards. During these problem-solving exercises, the faculty circulate around the room to observe students’ interaction and problem solution. This provides the opportunity for faculty assessment of students’ understanding as well as appropriate scaffolding.


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