Formative assessment is a dynamic, learner-centred process
that enhances both teacher pedagogy and student learning.
Formative assessment—often referred to as “assessment for learning”—is a powerful method for improving student learning. It is a process that takes place continuously during the course of learning to determine where the students need to go, where they are in the “developmental corridor” of their learning, and how best to get there (Heritage, 2010).
Formative assessments make students’ thinking visible when they help students answer three questions: Where am I going? Where am I now? and How can I close the gap? (Chappuis, 2005). Feedback that helps learners move forward is central to formative assessment. The strategies described here can foster student involvement in the formative assessment process (Heritage, 2010; Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis, & Chappuis, 2004).
Where am I going?
Students need to know what learning outcomes they will need to achieve. Marzano (2005) notes that students who can identify what they are learning significantly perform better than those who cannot.
Strategy 1: Determine learning outcomes and define criteria for success
Before the lesson(s) begin, teachers share with the students learning outcomes and success criteria. They provide students the learning outcomes in language they can understand (Chappuis, 2015). For example, when introducing a reading comprehension unit which requires inference, they might say, “We are learning to infer. This means we are learning to make reasonable guesses on the basis of clues.” Or they may provide students with a written list of learning outcomes described in student-friendly language, such as: We are learning about fractions and decimals. We are learning to: (a) read and write fractions with halves, thirds, fourths, and tenths; (b) read and write mixed numbers (whole numbers plus fractions); and (c) change fractions written as tenths into decimals (Chappuis, 2005).
Success criteria are the guide to learning while the students are engaged in the learning tasks. Teachers use rubrics which are a coherent set of criteria for students’ work that includes descriptions of levels of performance quality on the criteria (Brookhart, 2013). Rubrics can be used to assess the process and product for an activity completed by a particular student. For example, when creating an open ended numeracy task, a rubric could be used to clearly state the criteria the teacher is looking for and what a ‘sound’ achievement would look like. A rubric should be unpacked with students before they begin an activity, during the activity, and as a summative assessment tool.
Strategy 2: Use examples of strong and weak work
To know where they are going, students must know what excellent performance looks like (Chappuis, 2005). This involves sharing both strong examples or exemplars, and weak examples of student work. When students engage with weak examples, they learn to identify their own weaknesses and develop a better understanding of composing quality work.
Where am I now?
Students need to know what learning outcomes they will need to achieve. Students who can identify what they are learning perform significantly better than those who cannot (Marzano, 2005).
Strategy 3: Give students descriptive feedback
Providing regular, descriptive feedback to the students about the status of their learning in relation to the success criteria improves student learning. Hattie and Timperley (2007) suggest that feedback in relation to goals must focus on (a) what progress students have made towards the goal (i.e., How am I going?), and (b) what students can do to progress and close the gap (i.e., Where to next?).
Reading conferences, for example, can provide meaningful opportunities to gather formative assessment data of students’ reading. Reading conferencing can be one-on-one or with an ability based group. Teachers can collect information on students’ reading habits and interests, as well as strategies for reading and comprehension. Future learning goals can be created in collaboration with students and form an integral part of teaching and learning experiences.
Strategy 4: Teach students to engage in self- and peer-assessment
Teachers are not the only ones to provide feedback. Peers can also provide feedback which helps their classmates improve learning (Heritage, 2010). In addition to external feedback from teachers and peers, teachers can encourage students to engage in self-assessment about how their learning is progressing. For example, a teacher might ask students questions such as: What was the problem or task about? What steps did you take? What kinds of problems are still difficult for you? Such questions encourage students to engage in assessment of their own learning. Peers can also offer constructive feedback about student work in relation to the criteria.
By engaging in self-assessment, students make adjustments to their own learning. This is important because when students monitor their learning, they are engaged in metacognition (i.e., thinking about thinking), which is important to effective thinking and competent performance so they can be active agents of their own learning (Shore, 2000). When students develop metacognitive awareness, they learn to reflect on their learning processes and gain a better understanding of how successful learning takes place.
How can I close the gap?
The final critical step in the process of formative assessment is to keep students in touch with what can do to close the gap between where they are now and where they need to be (Chappuis, 2005).
Strategy 5: Use evidence of student learning needs to determine next steps in teaching
When teachers teach thoughtfully, they actively seek evidence of what students do not understand. As a result of the feedback about learning that teachers receive from formative assessment, they plan learning activities that will match their students’ learning needs. If students have not mastered the intended learning goals, teachers either reteach the lesson, or figure out what their students’ learning needs are in relation to the target and teach to those specific learning needs.
Teachers select learning experiences that will place appropriate demands on the students and lead to closing the gap between where they are currently in their learning and where they need to go.
Strategy 6: Teach students focused revision
When evidence gained from Strategy 5 tells us that students need more work with a learning target, we move into Strategy 6 – focused instruction followed by practice with feedback. Scaffolded, differentiated learning (Tomlinson, 2014) and deliberate practice (Ericsson, 2002) help students achieve their goals.
Strategy 7: Engage students in self-reflection and let them document and share their learning
Self-reflection deepens learning by providing students the opportunity to look back and see progress (Chappuis, 2005). For example, teachers could use “3-2-1” exit slips for student reflection. The exit slips are written responses to questions that a teacher poses at the end of a lesson to assess student understanding of key concepts. The slips should only take a few minutes to complete and are used by the teacher to determine which students require further instruction on concept/s. A commonly used exit slip for student reflection would ask: 3 Things I learned today…. 2 Things I found interesting….1 Question I still have….
Student portfolios can also promote student self-reflection. Involving students in parent-teacher meetings can promote self-reflection. They gain insight from explaining to their parents/carers the learning that their work represents, and what they plan to do next. Further, concept maps could be used to identify students’ understanding of their progress in numeracy or textual concepts and how students are linking their ideas. Graphic organisers can allow students to express their understandings, recognise the relationship among ideas, and record their reflections.
The strategies described above can help students understand their learning goals, recognise their skill level in relation to the success criteria, and take responsibility for achieving their goals. By engaging students in the process of formative assessment, teachers can transform students to become active collaborators in enhancing their learning (Chappuis, 2005).
Chappuis, J. (2005). Helping students understand assessment. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 39-43.
Chappuis, J. (2015). Seven strategies of assessment for learning (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
Ericsson, K. A. (2002). Attaining excellence through deliberate practice: Insights from the study of expert performance. In M. Ferrari (Ed.), The pursuit of excellence through education (pp. 21-56). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81-112.
Heritage, M. (2010). Formative assessment: Making it happen in the classroom. London, UK: Corwin.
Marzano, R. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Shore, B. M. (2000). Metacognition and flexibility: Qualitative differences in how gifted children think. In R. C. Friedman & B. M. Shore (Eds.), Talents unfolding: Cognition and development (pp. 167-187). Washington, DC: APA.
Stiggins, R. J., Arter, J., Chappuis, J., & Chappuis, S. (2004). Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right – using it well. Portland, OR: Assessment Training Institute.
Tomlinson, C.A. (2014). The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.