Formative Assessments: Essential Tips for Educators

Formative Assessments: Essential Tips for Educators

How do you ensure that your instructional methods are effective? If you wait until it’s time to administer an important test, it may be too late. A poor grade or standardized test score can throw a student off track. This is why regular assessments are so important. Educators use both formative and summative assessments to help ensure that students are truly mastering concepts.

It is formative assessments in particular that can help gauge a student’s understanding as they are in the learning process. This is when instructors can best adapt their methods to get a better grasp of what’s working and what’s not.

In this blog post, we’ll explore this important method of measuring student’s mastery, as well as provide several strategies for maximizing the efficiency of formative assessments. But first, let’s recap the basics.

What is a Formative Assessment?

Formative assessments are any type of testing or other evaluation methods that take place throughout the learning process. They help teachers ensure that students are mastering concepts along the way.

In contrast, summative assessments are given at the end of an instructional unit to test overall mastery. As you can imagine, formative assessments happen more frequently. They are often shorter in nature than summative assessments as well.

It may be helpful to remember that formative assessments focus on the learning process, and summative assessments focus on the products of learning.

Why And When to Use Formative Assessments

Instructors rarely have time or resources to repeat entire units, let alone semesters or terms of tuition. If they find out that students have not mastered what they are teaching after a final exam or end of unit test, it is usually too late to provide struggling students with additional help and motivation. It’s certainly too late to use another instructional method that might be more effective.

By using formative assessments, teachers can better understand how well students are learning the subject matter. They can then use the obtained information to make adjustments to their instruction and curriculum along the way.

For example, if you pass out a brief worksheet to test students’ understanding of condensation, you might find that more than half don’t get the concept. In that case, you could review the subject in class again. Without that formative assessment, you might continue with the next lesson in your rain cycle unit, leaving students confused and struggling.

Many teachers use formative assessments before moving onto a new subject. This is especially helpful in areas where knowledge is cumulative, and failing to master one concept could cause failure to master the next. Think the majority of STEM subjects, business classes and so on.

Formative assessments can also benefit future students. For example, if it becomes clear that a particular method of teaching a concept has ‘crashed and burned’, the instructor knows to try a different method with future students.

The Main Types of Assessments

There are several types of formative assessment. They range from the very common, but not so creative chapter quizzes to elaborate games played in class.

Before a teacher can administer a formative assessment, they must decide exactly what they want to measure, and the method they will use to give the assessment. Finally, they must either create or find the instrument for giving the assessment.

Like anything else related to instruction, innovative methods lead to better student engagement. Here are some formative assessment examples that are creative and effective at the same time:

  • Writing Summaries of Varying Lengths: This can help instructors to measure a general understanding of a topic, then more detailed.
  • Self Grading/Assessment Based on Lesson Rubrics: While they may not always be completely accurate, it’s important to understand how students perceive their mastery.
  • Have Students Highlight or Underline What They Believe to be The Key Themes in Readings: Simply completing a required reading does not guarantee understanding. Have students indicate what they believe are the main concepts and ideas.
  • Pair Students Together to Answer an Assessment Question or Create a Brief Presentation on a Topic: Teamwork is key to fostering understanding and revealing gaps in knowledge.
  • Give Students Red And Green Cards to Display; Green = I Understand Red = Stop! I’m Confused: This is a great tool for students who may be too shy to speak out in class.

Formative vs. Summative Assessment: What’s the Difference

Both formative and summative assessments are an important part of the instructional process. In fact, they are not competing with one another. Ideally, both should complement one another.

Simply put, a formative assessment evaluates how well students are learning as a lesson or unit progresses. A summative assessment captures how well they have mastered a subject once the lesson is complete. A formative assessment might be a quiz, in-class project, group work, question and answer sessions, class presentations, etc.

In many instances, formative assessments are given regularly. For example, the teacher may have a quiz every morning to measure students’ understanding.

When compared to summative assessments, formative assessments are often less formal. In fact, they often happen verbally, or simply by observing students. Games and experiential learning activities are two other common methods of  formative assessments.

Formative assessments can be administered to entire classes. Teachers can also give them to groups, even to individual students.

This flexibility in the way that formative assessments can be designed and delivered is quite important. You can tailor them to meet the needs of groups of, even individual students. The variety also helps with engagement. For instance, to steer up the competition a bit you may want to dole our simple certificates of achievement to students who participated in the activity and gained a passable score.

In contrast to this, summative assessments tend to be more formal. They are often used to measure understand and assign a score or grade relative to that. Standardized tests, final exams, final projects, and achievement tests. The results of these are often added to the students’ permanent records.

Sometimes teachers are able to design their own summative assessments, but these are frequently created by the school district, state, or other entity. This is to ensure that summative assessments are consistent in what they measure and how.

Finally, most teachers give out summative assessments after the instructional process is complete. Students who have undergone effective formative assessments are more likely to succeed when they are facing summative assessments.

Different Approaches to Giving Formative Assessments

Now that we’ve reviewed the concept of formative assessments, we can get into the different approaches you can take.

Ensure That Students Understand Objectives And Criteria

When students understand exactly what they should be learning, they are better able to assess their own progress. This helps with formative assessments that require students to give teachers feedback with regard to their own understanding. Instructors should be encouraged to provide students with statements on learning objectives, and criteria that they will be expected to meet.

Creating Question-Based Assessments

Teachers can deliver question-based assessments orally or through written instruments. They can be delivered before introducing a topic to set a baseline and get insights into students’ understanding going into the lesson. You can administer such assessments during and after a lesson.

Good, question-based assessments help to create a better learning environment. They keep students involved and engaged. They also encourage students to debate and defend their ideas. Not only does this help the instructor measure understanding, but it also builds good critical thinking skills.

Assess Understanding Frequently

Students must understand what you are teaching them. Checks for understanding are methods you can use to assess how students are doing as a lesson is progressing. Try these examples of formative assessment: 

  • Require that students articulate examples
  • Use thumbs up or down or red and green cards
  • Let students act as instructors to explain the concept to others
  • Give open-ended questions

Assess Using Observation

Students don’t always articulate when they don’t understand. Instead, other behaviors can indicate that they are struggling. Students who avoid answering questions, or tune out of lessons altogether may actually be confused by the material. Students who are bored or disruptive may not be engaged. All of these can be taken as indicators that something needs to be changed with the way the lesson is being delivered.

Encourage Students to Use Self- And Peer-Assessment

The technique of passing papers from one student next to have them grade one another’s work is very time tested. When students engage in some form of peer review, they learn from the knowledge and insights of other students.

Self-assessment is also key. It’s very helpful to learn what students perceive they understand, and what they do not.


Teachers use formative assessments to capture insights about students’ understanding as a lesson is in progress. These assessments, which are often informal, can help teachers alter their instructional approach on the fly. The result is fewer students stay behind because they simply do not understand something. Because this is a generally informal means of measuring student progress, instructors enjoy quite a bit of flexibility.

Formative assessments can take shape of a simple observation, gameplay,  or happen verbally, or with written instruments. The important thing to keep in mind is that these assessments are intended to improve instruction, and keep students engaged!

Photo by Brodie Vissers

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