Unit 1- What Is Formative Assessment?


Unit 1 - What Is Formative Assessment?


Unit Objectives:

After completing this unit, the learner will be able to:

  • Understand the difference between formative and summative assessment
  • Learn the elements that comprise formative assessment
  • Consider the beneficial reasons to use formative assessment

We will begin this course with a definition of formative assessment. Margaret Heritage provides a simple definition in that “Formative assessment is a systematic process to continuously gather evidence about learning.” (Heritage, 2007) She provides a down to earth concise approach to formative assessment and she offers 3 broad types of assessment to gain feedback on student learning which are "on-the-fly" assessment, planned for interaction, and curriculum embedded assessments. Similarly, Heritage offers 4 core elements of formative assessment as "identifying the gap, feedback, student involvement, and learning progressions". She also discusses the knowledge and skills teachers need to successfully implement formative assessment.


  • domain knowledge
  • pedagogical content knowledge
  • knowledge of students' previous learning
  • knowledge of assessment


  • create classroom conditions that allow for sucessful assessment
  • teach the students to assess their own learning and the learning of others
  • interpret the evidence
  • match their instruction to the gap

The entire article titled Formative Assessment: What Do Teachers Need to Know and Do? can be reviewed by clicking this link. File:Heritage article.pdf Please take a few moments to read the article before you continue with Unit 1. As you read the article, begin to think about different strategies you use now that may actually be formative assessment. How will you deal with any additional knowledge or skills you feel you need to effectively utilize formative assessment?

What is the Difference?

There are some key differences between formative and summative assessment that learners should understand. Below is a snap shot of the key differences between formative and summative assessment.

Summative Assessments:

  • Measures attainment of content knowledge
  • Measures isolated skills
  • Provides an assessment OF learning at a point in time
  • Grade or feedback does not provide ideas for further learning or identifies misconceptions ie. “B+” or “Good Work” or “Needs Improvement”
  • May not show student understanding
  • Regardless of student score, instruction moves on to next topic

Examples would be giving an exam, having students fill out a worksheet

Formative Assessments:

  • Provides feedback DURING the instructional process
  • Provides feedback on what is good and what improvements in learning should be made
  • Is an ongoing process throughout instruction
  • Many times does not involve an official grade
  • Allows student to manage and reflect on their learning
  • Allows student to take action to improve learning before a summative test

Examples include month long projects that allow students to turn in work for comment BEFORE a grade, reflection activities, class or group discussion. We will discuss more examples in Unit 2.

Key Elements of Formative Assessment

There are key elements that make up formative assessment and further clarify its definition. There are some simple common questions that teachers can guide students in asking:

“Where am I going?” (What is the end result or objective?)

“Where am I now?” (Reflection on current learning)

“How can I close the gap?” (Action plan to achieve end result or objective)

It is this gap analysis that further defines formative assessment and it is the role of the teacher to guide the student through the process of narrowing any gaps that are present to achievement of the goals. A gap analysis occurs through evidence gathering on the part of the teacher and can certainly be informal strategies or assessments such as an on the fly assessment, a targeted, planned discussion, or a planned assessment designed to generate feedback on student performance. This planned assessment may not be a “test” but could be a review of a notebook, homework, or an assigned project checking in at various milestones as the project is completed. The main idea is that the feedback is constructive and allows the student to make corrections if needed. The idea of feedback is a central tenant of formative assessment.

7 Principles of Good Feedback

One of the key ways formative assessment works is through the use of feedback as indicated above. The feedback provided should identify strengths and areas for improvement and also indicate suggested steps to narrow the learning gap bearing in mind the amount of corrective feedback that a student can realistically handle. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick identify seven principles of good feedback practice as follows:

1. Helps clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards)

2. Facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning

3. Delivers high quality information to students about their learning

4. Encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning

5. Encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem

6. Provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance

7. Provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape teaching

A detailed description of each of the seven principles listed above can be found in the full article titled Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice by Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick and can be accessed by clicking the link provided here. File:Nicol article.pdf Please take some time to review this article in its entirety. A key point is that in order for formative assessment to have taken place, the student must have taken corrective measures to close the gap and achieve the stated goals and objectives. This will demonstrate that true learning has taken place and all issues have been addressed and corrected. Formative assessment is a partnership between the teacher and the student and provides a continual loop of communication into learning.

Unit Conclusion

In this unit we explored formative assessment, identified what it is, and looked at the basic principles that guide formative assessment practice. The benefit to student, teacher, and school can be inferred from the content above but the main benefit is to the student. Not only is the student learning for understanding, but will be motivated and empowered by the formative process and feel more in control of their learning.


Thought balloon.jpgPlease take a few moments to reflect and record answers to the following questions.

1. What other benefits to formative assessment can I think of?

2. What questions do I have about formative assessment that I should research?

Click the link below to move on to Unit 2.

Unit 2- Examples, Cases and Reflection of Current Practice

Click to go back in the course to the beginning.

Utilizing Formative Assessments