• To describe formative assessment
  • To provide examples of formative assessment


“Assessment is a critical tool for advancing and monitoring students’ learning in school. When grounded in well-defined models of learning, assessment information can be used to identify and subsequently narrow the gap between current and desired levels of students’ learning and performance.” (p. 7)

The quote above from the report How do People Learn II: Learners, Contexts and Cultures, highlights the importance of formative (low-stakes, ongoing) feedback to help both students and instructors monitor the progression of learning (NASEM, 2018). One analogy that can perhaps capture the essence of formative assessment involves a GPS. Similar to how a GPS assists a traveler in reaching a destination, formative assessments help students reach particular learning goals. If a driver starts progressing down an incorrect path, the GPS identifies this error and “recalculates” to help the traveler get back on track.  Likewise, low-stakes assessment can reveal that a particular concept still needs to be mastered, and encourage a different learning approach.

Formative assessment is often considered “assessment for learning” rather than “assessment of learning.” When implemented regularly throughout a course, formative assessment has the potential to advance student achievement. Instructors can consider breaking up their summative assessment into smaller components. Instructors can use these smaller components as practice rounds for students to receive feedback and revise. Breaking up summative assessments gives more opportunities for formative assessment and can enhance student learning. 

Examples of Formative Assessment: 

In-Class Retrieval Practice Activities – At anytime during class, instructors can pause and ask students to close their notes and book to see if they can reproduce what they learned that day or in previous classes. Instructors should provide immediate feedback if possible so that students know what they got correct and what they still need to work on in the course. 

Active Learning – Classroom polling, think-pair-share and other active learning activities can help students to formatively assess themselves and grapple with material in-class so that they can receive feedback from the instructor.

Drafts of Papers Paired with Writer’s Workshop – Have students bring in drafts of writing or sections of writing (e.g. literature review, data analysis) and work in groups to get feedback from peers and feedback from the instructor. 

Discussion – Instructors can facilitate both small and large group discussion around course materials and concepts. Checking in with student groups allows instructors to see if students are on the right path or need assistance or clarification. Instructors can also facilitate discussions through an online platform (e.g. moodle). 

Ungraded Problem Sets – Students can try their hand at class problems individually or in groups and then receive feedback from peers or the instructor. 

Practice Tests and Practice Quizzes – Ungraded practice tests and quizzes are great opportunities for students to test what they know and what they still need to study. It also gives them a chance to see the quiz or exam format so that they feel more confident when they take an actual graded assessment. 

Break down summative assessments into formative parts – Instructors who have summative assessments may benefit from breaking down the larger, higher-stakes assessments into smaller formative pieces so that students can try their hand at course material before being graded. These shorter assessments allow for feedback and better success in a course. 

Case Examples:

Active Learning and Retrieval Practice: Before class begins, the instructor asks students to take out a piece of paper and write two memorable concepts down from the previous lecture. They then encourage students to talk to the person sitting next to them and try to add a third concept to each list. The groups then share out and the professor writes down the ideas on the board, providing feedback and elaboration where necessary. 

Drafts of Papers with Peer Feedback: Instead of having one larger paper at the end of the semester, the professor decides to break the paper down into smaller components (e.g. the literature review, analysis, etc.). They make time in class for peers to read their papers aloud to one another and ask their peers the following questions for feedback: 

  1. What was most striking or memorable in the writing? 
  2. What was not clear or needs further explanation?
  3. What would you want to know more about? 

Students use the feedback to rewrite their sections before turning it into the instructor. 


National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24783.