Formative Assessment – What Is It And Why Is It Important?

What is formative assessment? Why is it so important?

Carol Beaton
Carol Beaton
Jennifer Glasheen
Jennifer Glasheen

By Carol Beaton, SEEC Beginning Teacher Network Coordinator, and Jennifer Glasheen, SEEC Director of Teaching & Learning, &


The job was to outline the flower bed with brick pavers. My instruction came (of course) from a YouTube video on the subject. Armed with my new “extensive” knowledge, the tools of the trade, and a stack of red brick, I began the process.   After placing a few of the pavers, I reached for my tools: a straight edge and a level. I would check periodically both the straightness of my line of brick and the height above the surrounding area with the level. I occasionally found my line was a bit off, but could be corrected with a few taps with a mallet applied in the right direction. Or, my bricks were too high or too low, which I corrected with the addition or subtraction of sand beneath the bricks. Once in a while, I would find I had gotten off track so much that I needed to remove a section of the bricks and redo them completely. Ultimately, my brick edging proved to meet my expectations in both appearance and function. I had achieved my goal.

As I was doing the landscaping in our yard, I couldn’t help it… I caught myself thinking about the classroom and formative assessment and how my process with learning a new technique related to what I did in the classroom to formatively assess my students’ learning. (Alright, I ‘m an assessment geek.) The similarities were just too obvious.

Landscaping Project Formative Assessment in the Classroom
Measurement with straight edge and level occurred while the work was in progress Formative assessment occurs during the learning
Tools (level and straight edge) used frequently along the way Formative assessments happen at points in the learning progressions
Sometimes a tap of the mallet fixed the problem Small adjustments made in teacher strategies or students’ learning tactics
Way off, redoing is necessary Re-teaching needed
Changed the way in which I was proceeding Making adjustments that improve learning
Result: a well done brick edging for the garden Success for all students


So, what is formative assessment? Why is it so important?

“Formative assessment is a planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status is used by teachers to adjust their ongoing instructional procedures and/or by students to adjust their current learning-tactics. — James Popham, MN ASCD, 2011

Research findings conclusively substantiate that formative assessment improves learning. In fact, the gains in learning triggered by formative assessment were amongst the largest reported for educational interventions. When implemented well, formative assessment may double the speed at which students learn. — Wiliam, Educational Leadership December 2007/January 2008

“There is now a strong body of theoretical and empirical work that suggests that integrating assessment with instruction may well have unprecedented power to increase student engagement and to improve learning outcomes.” — William, D., 2011, Studies in Educational Evaluation

What gives formative assessment this incredible power?

There are five applications of formative assessment that allow for teachers and students to adjust what is happening in the classroom.

  1. Formative assessment offers the opportunity for immediate instructional adjustments. Teachers gather and analyze evidence about where their students are in their learning. Or, students may signal their level of understanding about the material being presented. Within that same class session, the teacher can change their teaching tactics.
  2. Instructional adjustments may be made in the near future. Teachers may need several days to consider the adjustments that will be most beneficial to student learning.
  3. Formative assessment information may be gathered just before the summative assessment – the last chance. Final adjustments are made to help students master the content.
  4. Students may adjust their learning tactics based on assessment evidence and feedback. This is particularly meaningful, because it involves the students in their own learning.
  5. Formative assessment can shift the entire climate of the classroom. Formative assessment may impact the three prominent aspects of classroom climate: learning expectations, responsibility and the role of classroom assessment. Both students and teachers expect that all students can learn, meet standards and be successful. Although teachers assume the major responsibility for the learning that takes place in their classroom, students take on responsibility for their own learning. Formative assessment shifts the role of assessment from a method of comparison and grade assignment to one of providing evidence to both teachers and students on how to improve the learning.

Back to my garden.

My landscaping tools were relatively simple, but I used something other than an “eye-ball” to look at my work. How often do we ask, “Everybody got that?”, “Any questions?”, “OK?”

Our classroom formative assessments don’t have to be elaborate. They can be simple and quick, but most often prove to be pretty revealing in terms of where our students are in their learning:

  • 3-2-1 Example: At the end of a class period have students list: three things I learned today; two questions I still have; one thing that confuses me.
  • 1 Minute Write example: Give students one minute to tell the most important ideas from class today.
  • Stop Light: Put green, yellow and red cards in the hands of our students to be a stop-light check of their understanding.
  • Letter cards: Cards (A, B, C, D) are given to student to be used to respond to multiple choice questions.
  • Individual White Boards or Smart Phone Surveys: Giving each student an individual white board or using a smart phone survey can be used as quick checks for understanding.

Formative assessments may be WRITING, it may be responding (SAYING), or it may be DOING a project or performance. It actively involves students in the process.


  • about the complexity.
  • about how many questions we create.


  • about planned, systematic and formative checks for understanding.
  • about giving kids what they need by reacting to the information.

The process of formative assessment empowers both students and teachers, giving both the evidence they need to modify their practice. Ultimately, the result is increased student learning!


Transformative Assessment in Action, W. James Popham

A Sampling of Types of Formative Assessment, Illinois State Board of Education

56 Different Examples of Formative Assessment, David Wees, New Visions for Public Schools


Related articles:

Helping Students Understand Assessment – Jan Chappuis

Formative Assessment that Empowers – Susan Brookhart, Connie Moss and Beverly Long




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