Science Formative Assessment: Assessing with Purpose

7 Min Read
Science Formative Assessment: Assessing with Purpose

What Is Formative Assessment in Science?

According to the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), formative assessment is defined as a process used during instruction to elicit evidence of learning to improve student understanding. Specifically in the science classroom, formative assessment impacts student learning.

HMH’s senior assessment specialist Amanda Bratten describes it like this: “Formative assessment allows teachers to collect real-time data to inform next steps. It’s low stakes (no grades), timely (happens in the middle of learning), and helps to improve the teaching and learning process.” It’s a continuous process that teachers conduct during instruction as frequently as daily or weekly—throughout the year. Teachers can use in-the-moment insights gained through assessment (like the examples we’ll share in this article) to assess learning and get students back on track.

Why Is Formative Assessment Important in Science?

One key purpose of formative assessment is that teachers receive student data in real time, which allows them to adjust their instruction as needed. There are various assessment types that accomplish different goals, and formative and summative assessments exist on opposite ends of the assessment spectrum. Unlike summative assessment, which is an assessment of learning that happens after a unit, formative assessment occurs throughout instruction, focuses on assessment for learning, informs ongoing instruction, and covers a skill or concept. There is also research into assessment as learning, which is also an aspect of formative assessment and refers to students assessing and monitoring their learning. Read more about formative vs. summative assessment.

Though state-level assessments, unit tests, and final exams are essential, classroom-level formative evaluations provide vital information pertaining to teaching and learning throughout the year. Formative assessments help teachers plan their instruction and allow students to reflect on their thinking; they are rarely graded, whereas summative assessments typically are.

According to a white paper by Dr. Marcella L. Bullmaster-Day, formative assessment can be effective in science if it has the following essential characteristics:

  1. Clear learning goals: Students understand and explain the targeted understanding, performance, or skill they’re working toward, how they’ll know when they’ve reached that target, and how to gauge their progress.
  2. High-quality, goal-aligned learning tasks at appropriate levels of challenge: Formative assessment learning tasks (such as problem-solving challenges, writing projects, and quiz items) should be differentiated by content and process according to student responses and readiness levels. These tasks should also provide information about students’ understanding and skills.
  3. Timely, substantive feedback: In-the-moment feedback should allow students to evaluate their learning needs. Students can become self-managing learners, determine whether they’re on the right track, and plan their next steps accordingly.
  4. Responsive adjustment of instruction and student practice: Ongoing formative assessment insights allow teachers to guide their instruction; students also use these insights to support their learning and understand what they need to do next to improve their outcomes.

Formative assessment practices can increase student engagement with scientific topics and allow students to apply their knowledge of scientific concepts. Finally, formative assessments provide a safe space for students to make mistakes, learn, and grow, which is crucial for scientific inquiry.

What Are Formative Assessment Examples for Science?

There are many formative assessment strategies teachers can use in the classroom. Consider the following science formative assessment examples.

Exit Tickets/Slips

Exit tickets or slips are commonly completed via a slip of paper or through digital tools. Exit tickets, administered after an in-class activity or class, allow students to reflect on their learning and think critically. For teachers, exit tickets act as an efficient way to gauge student understanding; this strategy should take only a few minutes to conduct. The article “Developing a Student Exit Slips Strategy for Formative Assessment” delves into how teachers can effectively use exit tickets.

In the science classroom, exit tickets can be used to check for students’ understanding of science ideas, experiences related to the unit being studied, or comfort level using skills. For example, an exit ticket can be as general as “Why do you think we create models in science?” or as specific as “What can a model of the solar system help to explain?”

Low-Stakes Assessments

As a formative assessment strategy, low-stakes assessments evaluate student progress but aren’t necessarily graded or meant to affect the final grade. Low-stakes assessments can look like using clickers in class, completing an assessment with a partner, or self-assessing using a rubric.

Many educational programs have built-in digital assessments. For example, in HMH Into Science, the assessments require students to make sense of phenomena or design solutions to problems. Additionally, these assessments serve as an interactive way for students to test their knowledge of scientific concepts.


A poll is a quick way to check student knowledge and is administered during or after a lesson—using technology or manually. A poll can simply be conducted by asking students to raise their hands. Additionally, there are digital tools that can facilitate on-the-spot polls. Questions administered as a poll don’t always have to have a right or wrong answer.

Teachers can ask questions that have correct answers to check for misconceptions. Teachers can also ask a metacognitive question as straightforward as “Do you feel you’re on the right track?” that supports student self-reflection and next instructional steps.

Evidence Notebooks

Students can engage in reflective writing by using evidence notebooks as a type of formative assessment. Evidence notebooks allow students to record observations and predictions, make sketches, and note questions. These notes help students gather evidence related to specific claims about the scientific topics they are evaluating. Additionally, teachers can review the notes to gauge student understanding and inform the focus of their instruction. Learn more about evidence notebooks here.


The think-pair-share technique is a common formative assessment strategy that lets students reflect individually on a posed question or prompt, discuss their thoughts with a partner, and share their ideas during a whole-class discussion. Teachers listen closely to students’ responses to determine how well they understand the topic at hand.

The resource below offers a guide for students to write their responses that they’ll later discuss with a partner.

Hands-On Science Activities

Hands-on activities increase retention, develop critical-thinking skills, and provide a sense of accomplishment. Read more about the benefits of hands-on science activities here.

Hands-on activities are also a great way to check for understanding of scientific topics. These are activities that force students to confront scientific ideas and bring them to life in some way. They can look like creating a physical or digital model or role-playing (for example, one student acting as Earth while another playing the role of the sun to model the Earth-sun system).

In-Class Discussions

Informal class discussions are a common way to check for student understanding. Evaluating classroom discourse provides teachers with observations they can use to guide their instruction. Plus, discussions provide students with a chance to listen to the ideas of their peers, building their communication skills.

In the science classroom, teachers can ask open-ended questions to initiate the discussion and allow students to discuss. For tips on guiding discussions in the science classroom, download the resource below from HMH Into Science.

Using Formative Assessment to Impact Student Learning

The importance of technology in assessing students formatively cannot be overstated. Many of the formative assessment examples in this article touched on using digital tools to check for student understanding. Technology provides educators with a quick and effective way to evaluate student learning. Digital tools can capture, store, and analyze students’ interactions in real time. Additionally, programs can provide the ability for educators to customize learning goals and content for students.

There are plenty of other formative science assessment practices, such as quick-writing assignments, interviews, or Venn diagrams. Ultimately, gauging student understanding and progress in the moment can shape learning and effectively inform instructional decisions.


Learn more about HMH’s science programs, designed to encourage student-directed learning and open students’ minds to a world of scientific thinking.

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