Formal vs. Informal Assessments: Similarities and Differences

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In my first year as a high school English Teacher, I allowed my 11th grade American Literature students to select from a variety of assessment options as the culminating task at the end of a novel we had just finished reading. I applauded my own creativity because of the range of projects that were submitted: some students worked in groups to create videos that reenacted key scenes in the novel, other students wrote songs and poems, and one group even recreated the novel as a scrap book, complete with photos, captions, and stickers. Although I had created a detailed rubric to evaluate the projects, I sat at my desk after school realizing that I made a huge tradeoff in assessment: although the projects were student-centered, undeniably more fun and informal, my choice of assessment was ill-equipped to actually measure students’ comprehension of the key characteristics and literary elements of the novel. —Michael

What Is Educational Assessment?

Educational assessment is a process of gathering information for the purposes of inferring what students know and how well they know it. As such, assessments are an essential part of any learning environment. It is important to understand the differences between formal and informal assessments, as each of these assessment types differ in critical ways that matter for instructional decision making. For example, entry slips are an example of an informal assessment that can activate learners’ prior knowledge about a topic and provide teachers with quick information that can be used to guide the direction of a lesson in the moment; however, this same assessment would be an inappropriate choice if used to determine which students should be placed into an accelerated course of study.

In this article, we will focus on the differences between formal and informal educational assessments, as well as explore the potential benefits for teaching and learning of each. Before diving in, it is important to note that all assessments, including both formal and informal assessments, tend to fall into one of three categories: formative, summative, and diagnostic. To read more about the differences among these three assessment types, check out this article by Dr. Julie Miles.

What Is Formal Assessment?

When thinking about assessments, formal assessments are typically what first come to mind: images of students on laptops answering multiple choice questions on a test or filling in bubbles with number 2 pencils. Formal assessments are administered to evaluate or monitor students’ knowledge at a point in time. Some formal assessments are given before learning occurs to help teachers identify areas of instruction to focus on, for example, while other formal assessments are administered after learning has occurred and are designed to understand students’ performance in relation to other students or to assess individual student’s performance. For example, quizzes, exams, and standardized tests are all familiar examples of formal assessments. Some formal assessments, such as those designed to measure progress on learning standards over time, are administered multiple times over the course of an academic year to accurately measure student growth between administrations.

What Is Informal Assessment?

Conversely, informal assessment methods involve evaluating students’ performance with other types of data that typically do not have standardized grading criteria, often in more qualitative ways. Informal assessments are regularly utilized by teachers and better positioned to be used for providing immediate feedback which allows the teacher to make decisions and modifications to instruction immediately. For instance, exit tickets, project-based assessments, and choice boards are all examples of informal assessments that can be administered to evaluate student learning.

As well, informal assessments can also afford students the opportunity to demonstrate what they know and are able to do in ways in more disciplinarily authentic ways. For example, having students read and discuss a primary historical source in small groups can be an effective informal way to gauge students’ sourcing abilities, a key part of historical reasoning. This can be especially valuable for multilingual learners, as the alternative writing tasks—which can be either formal or informal—often assess a student’s writing abilities more than students’ ability to reason historically. Further, this type of informal assessment is also immediately formative, as it supports the opportunity for the teacher to provide feedback during the learning process.

Why Does the Formal/Informal Distinction Matter?

If we are not clear about the purposes of an assessment as we design or implement it, we are in danger of using an assessment that does not serve any single purpose adequately. Similarly, understanding the goal of administering an assessment in any instructional content will help determine whether a formal or informal assessment is more appropriate. Despite the distinction, formal and informal assessments both attempt to collect data to make inferences about what learners know and are able to do.

Affordances and Limitations of Formal and Informal Assessments

Beyond knowing the differences between formal and informal assessments, it is also important to consider the affordances and limitations of each in order to make a well-informed assessment decision. The table below provides an overview of the typical affordance and limitations of formal and informal assessments, in addition to providing examples of both.

One of the primary affordances of formal assessments is that they tend to provide more reliable data, and in some cases, can be psychometrically validated. Formal assessments of this type are able to be used to compare groups of students and are useful for monitoring progress on specific targets over time. However, one of the primary limitations to consider when utilizing formal assessments is the socioemotional impact these assessments may have on students, especially if the assessment is considered high stakes. Because of the important information that these assessments can provide teachers, administrators, and other stakeholders, over-testing and testing fatigue are certainly limitations to consider when considering additional formal assessments.

Informal assessments can be especially useful for teachers to plan future instruction and for planning for differentiation in the moment. For example, informal observational checklists with behaviors and grade level expectations can be an effective informal assessment tool for teachers seeking to identify students that may need additional support.

Formal and Informal Assessment Examples





  • Ability to compare across students, classes, and schools
  • Efficient or automated scoring
  • Can be designed for progress monitoring and placement assessment situations
  • Yield more reliable data
  • Often longer to administer
  • Can be costly to develop
  • More stressful for students
  • Can contribute to testing fatigue
  • Often less timely
  • End of lesson or unit quizzes/tests
  • Standardized assessments
  • Placement exams
  • Accreditation exams


  • Shorter time to administer
  • More student-centered
  • Teachers can provide more immediate feedback and can plan and modify instruction
  • Less burdensome for students
  • Flexibility in design and administration
  • Data are not as reliable and more prone to bias
  • Difficult or inappropriate to use for comparing groups
  • Can involve more labor- intensive scoring
  • Choice boards
  • Brain drains
  • Entry/exit Tickets
  • One-minute essays

Finally, both formal and informal assessment methods are critical for effective instruction and student learning. As such, when selecting or designing assessments, begin with understanding and articulating the purposes for the assessment before you consider whether a more or less formal assessment is appropriate.

Although the projects my 11th grade students completed did not actually assess my students’ understanding of the specific literary elements in the text, the projects did serve as evidence of my students’ understanding of the novel’s plot and what they viewed as significant in the text, all the while providing them the agency to demonstrate that understanding in a method of their choosing. —Michael


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