Formative Assessment Strategies: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

How can you move learning forward using formative assessment strategies in your classroom?

What are Formative Assessment Strategies?

Formative assessment is an ongoing process used by teachers and students for teaching and learning; to improve student understanding of planned disciplinary learning outcomes and help students to become self-directed learners. The main purpose of formative assessment is to monitor the process of learning and to provide ongoing feedback that can help learners to improve their learning and help instructors to improve their instructions. More precisely, formative assessments:

  • help learners recognise their weaknesses and strengths and work on areas that need improvement;
  • help instructors identify where learners are struggling and dealing with the problems.

Hattie (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of over 800 studies investigating factors that influence student attainment and found feedback to be the most influential factor. This finding has often been wrongly used to justify teachers needing to spend more time marking.  However, this is just one of three forms of feedback that Hattie was referring to.  He also considered the impact of feedback from students to teachers and from one student to another. 

Feedback is evidently an important part of learning.  This article provides an overview of Dylan Wiliam’s secrets to effective feedback (Wiliam, 2016).

Feedback is only successful if students use it to improve their performance and we cannot take it for granted that feedback of any type will achieve this.  Research has shown that it is possible for feedback to be detrimental to learning when compared to students receiving no feedback at all.  To avoid this situation, Wiliam (2016) shares the following advice.

In most cases, unlike summative assessments, formative assessments in schools are low stakes, having low or no point value; however, these ungraded assessments are considered to be highly valuable to help students enhance their performance and to help teachers identify what students understood, and what they didn't. Often, the purpose of feedback is to enable a student to achieve something in the future that they are currently not able to achieve. In this case, feedback should focus on improving the student rather than the piece of work. Sometimes, the purpose of the feedback may be to inform the teacher about what their class knows and to influence their lesson planning. In this case, notes in the teacher’s planner may be more appropriate than notes on every individual piece of work. The time spent marking work and giving feedback can be much more productive if you consider the purpose of the feedback before you decide the best approach to take.

Examples of Formative Assessment Strategies

Use students’ work to understand where they are starting from and give them feedback that they can use from this starting point. The effectiveness of feedback will be limited by the task that has been set; if it is cleverly designed to illuminate students’ understanding, the feedback that can be given will be more effective and more accessible for the student. Formative assessment strategies help teachers determine if more instruction is needed. Using formative assessments in the classroom prevents both teachers and students from getting any surprises in the form of poor final grades. Some of the most significant formative assessment strategies are:

1. Analysis of Students Work

Students' homework, quizzes and standardised tests can be used as evidence of student learning. When teachers carry out the analysis of student performance they get knowledge about:

A student's current level of skills, attitude and knowledge about the subject matter;

A student's strengths and weaknesses;

A student's need for special assistance; and

How to modify their teaching methods and make their teaching more effective in the future.

Visual tools as a formative assessment strategy
Visual tools as a formative assessment strategy

2. Strategic Questioning Strategies

Strategic questioning methods can be used with the students as daily classroom practice. The main aim of questioning is the academic progress of students. Effective formative assessment practices involve asking learners to answer higher-order questions such as “how” and “why.”

3. Think-Pair-Share

It is one of the simplest formative assessment strategies. As a classroom practice, the teacher asks a question, and students write down their responses. Then students sit in pairs to engage in effective classroom discussions about their answers. The teacher moves around the classroom and gains insight into the student learning process by listening to students' responses. Then, the students share their answers with the whole class.

Students engaged in a formative assessment strategy using the thinking blocks
Students engaged in a formative assessment strategy using the thinking blocks

4. Admit/ Exit Tickets

An Admit / Exit Ticket provides a simple but useful formative assessment type. An Exit Ticket is a small index card or piece of paper, on which they provide an accurate interpretation of the current topic taught in the class, and then they discuss more of the topic. The learners deposit their exit slips when leaving the classroom. Admit Tickets are used as the students enter in the class. They are used to check student learning by answering questions about the homework or what was taught the day before.

Exit tickets as a formative assessment strategy
Exit tickets as a formative assessment strategy

5. One-Minute Papers

One-minute papers are mostly carried out before the day ends. They provide an opportunity for students to answer a brief question. Then, these papers are collected and assessed by the teacher to gain insight into the student learning process. One-minute papers provide the formative assessment practices that are found to be more beneficial when done on a regular basis.

Dylan Wiliam's Formative Assessment Strategies

According to a well-known British educationalist and Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the University College London, Dylan Wiliam, 'formative assessment' defines all the processes by which learners and teachers use information about the achievement of students to make changes in the students learning that enhance their achievement. Some of the great formative assessment strategies proposed by Dylan Wiliam are:

1. Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentions

Research suggests that the teachers need to:

  • Describe learning intentions at the beginning of the lesson.
  • Provide success criteria and learning intentions in the simple language.
  • Use keywords on posters to explain, describe, discuss and evaluate learning.
  • Use writing frames and lesson plans judiciously.
  • Use annotated examples of various standards to “flesh out” rubrics for the chapter tests.
  • Give opportunities to the students to construct their interim tests.

Solo Taxonomy used to share learning intentions
Solo Taxonomy used to share learning intentions

2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning

It means that the questioning in the classroom must encourage the process of thinking and provide evidence to inform teaching. Teachers can improve the process of questioning through:

  • Attending specialised training for educators and generating questions with their colleagues;
  • Thinking low-order vs. high-order, not open vs. closed;
  • Giving sufficient wait time to the students.

Teachers need to discourage the I-R-E (initiation-response-evaluation) by:

  • Regularly using student response techniques through mini whiteboards, ABCD cards, and exit passes.
  • applying the 'no hands up' rule (except to ask a question).

Providing feedback that moves learners forward

Dylan Wiliam gave practical advice to educators that their feedbacks are said to be successful only if they improve students’ learning process. Then, it depends upon students' capacity to understand and accept the feedbacks and show a willingness to act on them. Successful feedback has a motivational and interpersonal element. Effective feedback suggests actions learners can apply rather than providing a negative retrospective critique.

A common goal of feedback must be to improve the students’ capacity to create high quality work,  not just to improve their task. This characteristic of formative assessments connects it to self-regulation and metacognition and Rosenshine’s concepts about switching from guided practice to independent practice. Successful learners possess the ability to link their task with the success criteria and create their regular self-improvement feedback narrative. Provide feedback in the form of a task to ensure that students actively engage with the feedback they have been given. For example, give students just enough information about an error they have made so that they can identify it for themselves (e.g. ‘one of the causes you identified is incorrect’, or ‘there are three incorrect answers’). Students should spend at least as much time responding to feedback as the teacher has spent providing it; making feedback into detective work can ensure students take time to reflect on their original piece of work.

Activating students as learning resources for one another

This is an important formative assessment strategy proposed by Wiliam. According to Wiliam's advice for teachers, the frequency, quality and ratio, of student interactions with the knowledge in hand can significantly increase if teachers create strong routines in which students help other students to learn in a serious structured way. It is not easy for the teachers to engage in conversations on the performance of students in each class but students can be engaged in meaningful conversations with one another to support the process of learning. At this stage of formative assessment activities ‘think pair share‘ becomes very strong. A high volume of peer feedback and peer-to-peer interactivity is found to be very useful if teachers apply a strong process to evaluate students’ responses for quality and accuracy. There are so many ways of activating students as learning resources for one another. Some of these ways are:

  • learners checking answers of their partner,
  • learners using the structured dialogues for rehearsing explanations and arguments and practising the use of language.
  • Students' pairs verify the work of their partner using a factsheet, mark schemas and exemplars as reference.

Activating students as learning resources for one another using mind mapping
Activating students as learning resources for one another using mind mapping

Activating students as owners of their learning

Owning one's is an important part of metacognition and strong self-regulation. Like any other developmental process, these traits of effective learning can be nurtured in students by creating expectations and good routines. Teachers can play a crucial role in making students understand where they are on the curriculum planning and where they want to be. Teachers can do this by:

  • providing students with access to the plan of instruction, syllabus and long-term topic plans before teaching them the details;
  • setting milestones to check pupil progress. By doing so, teachers enable students to plan their next steps and make them increasingly independent.
  • demonstrating performance exemplars at different levels of success up to a high level so learners can compare their levels and move forward to achieve their learning targets.
  • setting clear relational models for building conceptual schema.

If a student understands for himself what he must do to improve himself and knows that he can achieve success by applying effort to his self-determined objectives, then he can gain confidence that brings him even more success. Dedicating time to equip students with the skills of self-assessment is likely to be more productive in the longer term, save teachers’ time, and improve students’ ability to reflect and learn independently. The skill of self-assessment can be scaffolded: starting with feedback on anonymous work, then peers’ work, and then the student’s own work. The type of feedback required will depend on the subject, the task, and the purpose of the feedback.

Embedding formative assessment with the Universal Thinking Framework
Embedding formative assessment with the Universal Thinking Framework

Embedding formative assessment tools

Many of the schools that we work with have been utilising the mental modelling technique to find out what pupils know. The block structures allow children to dig deeper into the curriculum and figure out how all the parts fit together. As they build, they articulate their understanding to one another. This opens up opportunities for responsive teaching. The block structures reflect what the students think which means that we now have access to their mental models. Teaching staff can use these block structures for higher-order questions. Using big picture questions, educators can use the models as a launchpad for deeper thinking. Unlike standardised tests, the mental models are malleable and change as the students understanding progresses. Embedding these opportunities into curriculum design means that educators always get the inside picture of what a pupil really knows. Instructors can use these insights to provide detailed, actionable feedback when the learner needs it most. The added benefit of this pedagogy is that it promotes rich classroom dialogue which over time, builds a positive classroom environment.

 formative assessment strategies in action
Formative assessment strategies in action