Formative assessment

Teaching strategies

Formative assessment

Plain speaking information and practical applications for teachers and teacher aides.

Formative assessment – techniques used by teachers to gather information about a student’s progress in order to make teaching and learning adjustments.

A image of a primary school classroom with a teacher working with a small group of five students.

Formative assessment is a central technique used by high-performing teachers in almost all interactions with students. It is the ongoing evaluation of progress against the lesson’s goals and student progress. The teacher can then determine if the current activity, resources and strategies are working or if a new approach is required. Formative assessment can be as simple as asking questions or as complex as conducting targeted diagnostic tests.

It is the ongoing evaluation of progress against the lesson’s goals and student progress.

Teachers ask hundreds of questions every day to check if a student’s learning trajectory is in line with the goals of the lesson. These goals are set at the start of the lesson or during the planning process. Teachers want to know ‘how students are travelling’ so they can make adjustments: this is formative assessment. Teachers can make adjustments during a lesson in a multitude of ways such as by:

  • adjusting the level of difficulty and complexity (both up and down)
  • adjusting the speed and pace of an activity
  • adjusting resources and technologies
  • adjusting the structure and sequence of learning
  • adjusting teaching and learning strategies
  • adjusting the goals of the lesson.

Hint: think of formative assessment as ‘informal’ and its opposite – summative assessment – as a final ‘summary’. You could also use the lesser-known term ‘formative evaluation’ instead of formative assessment.

These adjustments are only possible when the teacher is aware of the issues and problems that students are experiencing. Formative assessment is the name given to the various things that teachers do to find out this information. Experienced teachers are constantly looking for clues and hints about what students are thinking, feeling and doing. They ask questions, they look at student work and their progress, they look at their body language and they listen to what students are saying to each other. For example, the teacher introduces an activity and soon realises that many students are confused. The teacher decides to model several questions on the board and then re-checks for understanding.

Experienced teachers are constantly looking for clues and hints about what students are thinking, feeling and doing.

Hint: formative assessment is not only relevant to students who struggle. Teachers should also evaluate the needs of more advanced students who may be capable of additional challenges.

Some of the most common formative assessment techniques include:

  • asking questions to the class in general or to individuals. For example:
    • ‘are you stuck on Q4?’ (Asking students to analyse their own progress.)
    • ‘how did you get that answer?’ (Asking students about the topic or content.)
  • using quizzes and games (a quiz is basically an assessment but a bit more fun)
  • collecting work products (for example, students handing in their short story)
  • observing work products (the teacher wanders around the room looking at student answers, workings and the processes that they use)
  • listening to conversations between students
  • observing one-to-one (teachers sit with a student and observe)
  • using diagnostic tests and assessments (such as practice tests).

You may be wondering why a diagnostic test is considered to be a formative assessment. Firstly, let’s look at the 2 types of diagnostic tests. The first type is used at the start of a course, lesson or academic year. Early in the year, a teacher may set a diagnostic test for a student who needs to be placed on an individual education plan. This provides information about where a student is at in terms of reading, writing, numeracy, general knowledge or whichever topic or skills the teacher wishes to test. This type of diagnostic assessment is formative because the results are used to inform future teaching and learning (strategies, resources, support, sequence, pace of the program etc.). If it was a summative assessment, no action would be taken following the test except to record a score (it is not used to inform follow-up teaching, new strategies or adjustments, and is usually the final activity before moving to a new topic). Summative assessment is explained in more detail in the next strategy in this book.

The second way that diagnostic tests are used is to assess student progress during a program. These are sometimes called ‘interim tests’. They are also formative assessments because the results are used to inform future teaching and learning. However, there is a grey area when interim assessment scores are also used for calculating a final mark. Teachers should think very carefully before recording a score as students may implement superficial learning strategies (such as memorising the process and answer for likely exam questions instead of concentrating on deep learning).

Hint: some experts believe that formative assessment can take the form of peer assessment, peer modelling or some other collaborative student-centred activity. However, formative assessment can only occur if the information is collected by the teacher at some point in order to inform potential teaching and learning adjustments. A peer assessment activity is therefore only a formative assessment activity if the teacher collects the assessment results (such as by speaking with one of the students or observing from afar).

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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