4 Keys to Effective Formative Assessment in the Classroom

In the classroom, how can you, as a teacher, determine what students already know about an area of focus? How can you better understand how they are progressing through the curriculum, and how do you measure student success?

It starts with assessment.

Instructional assessment takes three basic forms.

  • Diagnostic assessment determines baseline knowledge and skills for purposes of appropriate placement within an academic program.
  • Summative assessment provides information about which learning goals have or have not been achieved at the end of each unit of study.
  • In between these measures, dynamic, ongoing formative assessment monitors student progress.

The three assessment types are not mutually exclusive; diagnostic assessments can serve formative purposes. Similarly, formative assessments can also be diagnostic.

What Is Formative Assessment? 

Diagnostic and summative assessments are measures of what has already been learned. Dynamic formative assessment in the classroom is the assessment of learning—it’s a process that provides teachers with critical, real-time data to inform their further actions, enabling them to offer immediate substantive feedback, differentiate instruction, and group students for further practice. Therefore, a coherent process-based system of low-stakes assessment of, as, and for learning provides students, teachers, school leaders, parents, and policymakers with the information they need to improve the processes of teaching and learning.

When Is Formative Assessment Most Effective?

Effective formative assessment processes help the student to answer three key questions: Where am I going? Where am I now? How can I close the gap? While a variety of factors contribute to an effective formative assessment process, four key elements are essential:

  • Learning goals that are clear to the student
  • High-quality, varied learning tasks aligned to the goals at appropriate levels of challenge
  • Timely, focused feedback
  • Responsive adjustment of teacher instruction and student practice

Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.

1. Clear Learning Goals

The very first step in dynamic formative assessment is ensuring that students understand exactly what they are working on. It’s not enough for the teacher to simply identify learning outcomes—if students are to persist in working toward a targeted understanding, performance, or skill, they must be able to explain what the target is, how they will know when they have reached it, and how to gauge their progress along the way. Showing students exemplars or creating descriptive rubrics for what the end product should include can help to clarify learning goals. 

2. High-Quality, Goal-Aligned Tasks at Appropriate Levels of Challenge

Well-designed learning tasks and activities that embody the learning target provide the practice that’s essential to students’ academic success. Types of learning tasks include problem-solving challenges, writing projects, and quiz items. Never one-size-fits-all, formative assessment learning tasks should be differentiated by content and process according to student responses and readiness levels. Effective learning tasks motivate students to engage with the material at their own pace and level of difficulty, and provide information about student understanding and skill. 

3. Timely, Substantive Feedback 

Research shows that students who receive focused, helpful comments about their performance learn to better evaluate their own learning needs, readjust their strategies, develop critical thinking skills, engage more productively in their work, and become reflective, self-managing learners. Clear, positive, low-stakes feedback affirms the ways in which students are on the right track and where they have improved, while guiding them to correct their misperceptions, plan their next steps, or think about alternative strategies. In-the-moment feedback is most useful because it’s offered while the student is still focused on the learning goal and motivated to reach it.

4. Responsive Adjustment of Instruction and Student Practice

No two students are exactly the same. They differ in learning readiness and pace, and in which concepts and skills they still need to master. So following the same sequence and emphases in instruction and practice never benefits each student equally. Ongoing formative assessment evidence from students’ learning tasks guides teachers as to how to re-teach, re-direct, or move students on to the next learning goals, and it helps students understand what they need to do next. 


Learn more about how Waggle, the award-winning personalized learning program, addresses formative assessment for all students in Grades 2–8.

The information in this blog post originated from a white paper by Marcella L. Bullmaster-Day, EdD.

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