If research driven evidence is a prerequisite for using strategies in enhancing learning, using formative assessment fits the requirement precisely. In fact, according to W. James Popham, in his book Transformative Assessment, “formative assessment is given credit for gains in student learning, amongst the largest ever reported for educational interventions.”

We all know that formative assessment is often contrasted with summative assessment. Formative assessment takes place throughout instruction. It’s an observation, a snapshot of where one is at a given moment in time. This snapshot helps us to adjust both our learning as students and our instruction as teachers.

Characteristics of Formative and Summative Assessment

Formative Assessment
for Learning)

Summative Assessment (Assessment of Learning)

Purpose: To improve learning and achievementPurpose: To measure or audit attainment
Carried out while learning is in progress—day to day, minute by minute.Carried out from time to time to create snapshots of what has happened.
Focused on the learning process and the learning progress.Focused on the products of learning.
Viewed as an integral part of the teaching-learning process.Viewed as something separate, an activity performed after the teaching-learning cycle.
Collaborative—Teachers and students know where they are headed, understand the learning needs, and use assessment information as feedback to guide and adapt what they do to meet those needs.Teacher directed—Teachers assign what the students must do and then evaluate how well they complete the assignment.
Fluid—An ongoing process influenced by student need and teacher feedback.Rigid—An unchanging measure of what the student achieved.
Teachers and students adopt the role of intentional learners.Teachers adopt the role of auditors and students assume the role of the audited.
Teachers and students use the evidence they gather to make adjustments for continuous improvement.Teachers use the results to make final “success or failure” decisions about a relatively fixed set of instructional activities.

Here are some examples:

  • Pair and share while teacher observes, then students present their findings
  • Story map used by students to organize their thoughts and tidying their writing
  • Simple feedback and strategies with the teacher and student, one on one
  • Rubrics designed for student self assessment
  • Students are asked to paraphrase the goals of the lesson

In a nutshell, formative assessment answers 3 questions:

  • Where am I going?
  • Where am I now?
  • How will I get there from here?

Digging Deeper

So that’s it for the FA 101. Now we turn to a book by W. James Popham who takes formative assessment to the next level. Here he is clarifying and expanding its definition, giving us some real points to consider when using formative assessment. Popham starts by citing the formal definition by a group of professionals called FAST SCASS:

  • Formative assessment is a process, not any particular test.
  • It is used not just by teachers but by both teachers and students.
  • Formative assessment takes place during instruction.
  • It provides assessment-based feedback to teachers and students.
  • The function of this feedback is to help teachers and students make adjustments that will improve students’ achievement of intended curricular aims.

Now this is all fine and good, but not enough for Popham. He expands these definitions with caveats:

  • Again, formative assessment is not a test but a process—a planned process involving a number of different activities.
  • One of those activities is the use of assessments, both formal and informal, to elicit evidence regarding students’ status: the degree to which a particular student has mastered a particular skill or body of knowledge.
  • Based on this evidence, teachers adjust their ongoing instructional activities or students adjust the procedures they’re currently using to try to learn whatever they’re trying to learn.

And to be even more specific:

  • Planned processPopham warns, “An educator who refers to “a formative test” has not quite grasped the concept, because there’s no such thing. There are tests that can be used as part of the multistep formative assessment process, but each of those tests is only a part of the process.”
  • Assessment-elicited evidenceThe aim of assessment is to garner “evidence of the student’s’ current level of mastery with respect to certain skills or bodies of knowledge.”
  • Teachers’ instructional adjustments“It’s worth stressing that because the formative assessment process deals with ongoing instruction, any teacher-made modifications in instructional activities must focus on students’ mastery of the curricular aims currently being pursued. It’s not a matter of looking at test data and deciding to try a new approach next time; it’s a matter of doing something different (or differently) now.” In other words, adjustment happens in real time in the classroom.
  • Students’ learning tactic adjustmentsStudents also take a look at assessment evidence and adjust their learning strategies as needed. Says Popham: “The decisions to adjust or not to adjust, and the decisions about the nature of any adjustments (the what and the how) need to be made on the spot or almost on the spot—when there’s still instructional and learning time available.”

The basic thing to remember is that when we consider using formative assessment, we must remember that it is “a multistep process” and not a particular assessment tool.

So there you have it—some of the most important things to remember about formative assessment. It must be planned, it must generate evidence, and that evidence must lead to instantaneous adjustment of teaching and learning strategies thereof.

And Popham’s just getting started. Check out his book for more examples and specifics.


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