5 Key Ideas Underlying Effective Formative Assessment


The practice of formative – or “informal” – classroom assessment has been around for years, but it was probably the research of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam (1998) that made educators stop and think more deeply about what makes an assessment formative – more specifically the purpose and potential impact that the use of assessment evidence can have on future learning. While there are a variety of definitions of formative assessment in the literature, most agree that formative assessment is assessment FOR learning – assessment that provides information about what students know now in relation to where they are going and used to help them get to the intended learning target.  Black & Wiliam’s research highlighted that students who learn in a formative way achieve significantly better than matched control groups receiving more traditional approaches to teaching and testing.


Several key ideas emerge from the last two decade’s research on effective uses of formative assessment.


Key Idea #1: Authentic assessment is continuous. Formative assessment is both integral to the cycle of learning and part of a balanced assessment system. The success of formative assessment use within a local assessment system (formative assessment + interim assessment + summative assessment) is highly related to the quality of student involvement and how effectively teachers plan for and use assessment data to adjust instruction.


Key Idea #2: Formative assessment may take different forms, but should always inform instruction and learning. Feedback from formative assessment is based on different sources of observable evidence (written, oral, visual, kinesthetic, etc.) and used to guide next steps in instruction and learning. Formative assessment is constantly occurring. It may be (a) “in-the-moment” (e.g., quick checks for understanding, probing questions during instruction based on what was just heard/observed), (b) designed with a specific purpose and learning target in mind (exit card, pre-assessment, conferencing, planned formative “probe”), or (c) curriculum embedded, such as formatively using interim assessments (mini summative assessments, such as performance tasks) to monitor student progress across the school year.


Key Idea #3: Feedback is multi-faceted and used to gauge how close a student is to the intended learning target. A balance of feedback coming from three key sources - from teachers, from peers (e.g., peer tutoring, peer editing, peer conferencing), and self-assessment tools (e.g., Hess’ ‘what I need to do & what I did’ rubrics) - has been proven to enhance effectiveness of formative assessment use.

  • Assessment evidence can be based on a variety of observable artifacts (e.g., portfolios, works in progress, systematic observations of individual or group activities, classroom discourse, performance tasks coupled with scoring guide or rubric based on intended learning targets and success criteria).

  • Feedback to the student is primarily descriptive. Feedback emphasizes strengths, identifies challenges, and points to possible next steps in learning based on intended learning targets.


Key Idea #4: Students are actively involved in formative assessment. Active involvement means students use assessment evidence to set and monitor progress towards learning goals, reflect on themselves as learners, and evaluate the quality of their performance.  Valuing both one’s struggles and successes accomplishing smaller learning targets over time has been proven to have a profound influence on deepening motivation, developing independence as a learner, and building what we have come to know as “a growth mindset.”


Key Idea #5:  All high-quality assessment utilizes three key components – understanding how one learns, how one demonstrates what was learned, and how we interpret/measure the evidence observed. The concept of the Assessment Triangle, first presented by Pellegrino, Chudowsky, and Glaser in Knowing What Students Know/KWSK (NRC, 2001) is shown below. “The assessment triangle explicates three key elements underlying assessment: ‘a model of student cognition and learning in the domain, a set of beliefs about the kinds of observation that will provide evidence of students’ competencies, and an interpretation process for making sense of the evidence’ (NRC, 2001, p. 44). KWSK uses the heuristic of an ‘assessment triangle’ to illustrate the relationships among learning models, assessment methods, and inferences one can draw from the observations made about what students truly know and can do” (Hess, Burdge, & Clayton, 2011, p. 184). Assessment design (formative-interim-summative) and planning should consider all three.
















Learning progressions offer a coherent starting point for thinking about how students develop competence in an academic domain over time and how to observe and interpret the learning as it unfolds (Hess, 2010; Hess, 2011).


PAGE 2...


Karin Hess, Ed.D, is a recognized international leader in developing practical approaches for using cognitive rigor and learning progressions as the foundation for formative, interim, and performance assessments.



  • Facebook Social Icon
  • Twitter Social Icon
  • LinkedIn Classic

© since July 2014 Karin Hess, Ed.D.