What are Formative Assessments?

Assessments are an integral tool for educators. They help to measure what students know and provide insights into the effectiveness of certain instruction techniques. Assessments can be administered in a variety of ways depending on the teachers’ goal. Some assessments are designed to measure students’ mastery of concepts and ideas while others are designed to indicate what students know and where they might need more clarification.

Formative assessments are any measures or indicators a teacher uses during a lesson to monitor what students know and do not know. They can be completed in a variety of ways but are often quick and ungraded. Formative assessments can be used by both teachers and students as a means to improve learning.

Formative vs. Summative Assessments

Formative assessments are often considered in conjunction with their more formal counterpart, summative assessments. Whereas formative assessments are given during a lesson and throughout a unit, summative assessments are those given at the end of the unit. Summative assessments are usually graded and intended to evaluate students’ mastery over certain subjects.

While both summative and formative assessments are essential to any classroom, formative assessments are done more frequently. Formative assessments are meant to inform teaching as it is occurring rather than after the unit has been taught. Effective formative assessments are one way teachers can help prepare students for summative assessments.

According to the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, “The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning.”

Unlike summative assessments, the purpose of formative assessments is to provide information to the teacher (and student) about their current understanding. The purpose is not to assign a grade. Formative assessments are checkpoints that let a teacher know if they can move on to a different concept or if they need to reteach certain aspects of a lesson. They are similar to taking a taste of cooking food to check if it is done or what ingredient it needs more of.

Because each student learns differently and at a different pace, formative assessments should be varied and employed frequently. They can be given individually as well as to partners or a group. However, when doing a group formative assessment, it’s important for teachers to follow up with individual students to be clear about each students’ grasp of concepts and ideas.

Although formative assessments should be used often, when designing them, it’s important to remember quality is more important than quantity. Most teachers are almost constantly collecting feedback and evaluating what their students know but formative assessment can help teachers be more organized about it. When designing these assessments, it’s important to take the time to think about what data would be most helpful to move the lesson or unit along, then plan accordingly. Learn more about the difference between formative and summative assessments.

Benefits of Formative Assessment

The benefits of formative assessments have been analyzed and reviewed in formal studies as well as anecdotally among teachers for years and almost universally touted as essential and effective in growing student achievement.

According to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, research has shown “formative assessment produces greater increases in student achievement and is cheaper than other efforts to boost achievement, including reducing class sizes and increasing teachers’ content knowledge.” Formative assessments generally do not require elaborate preparation and can be used by any teacher, in any district regardless of access to technology or other resources.

Formative assessments help teachers identify areas of confusion or common misconceptions. It helps them see which students “get it” and which students need more support or a different instructional approach. This is particularly helpful for special education students.

The Ed-tech experts at Five Star agree that formative assessments are “…especially critical for students who are struggling, as it holds the potential for changing the learning outcome.” Many students with special needs expect to face stumbling blocks other students will not. Formative assessments help them to better identify where these blocks are so they can work with their teachers to find different ways to approach content.

Students can use feedback from formative assessments to set achievement goals and take more ownership of their learning. When students are able to grapple with ideas and concepts in a low-stakes way, they are more likely to engage with the material. When students are regularly given quick and harmless checks for understanding, they will better explore a topic because there is no fear of being “punished” with a bad grade.

Perhaps the most striking benefit of formative assessments is the fact they occur within a lesson or unit so there is time to redirect lost students to ensure success for all. As Steven Chappuis for ASCD writes, a formative assessment “occurs while there is still time to take action. It functions as a global positioning system, offering descriptive information about the work, product, or performance relative to the intended learning goals. It avoids marks or comments that judge the level of achievement or imply that the learning journey is over.”

Unlike summative assessments which represent the culmination of learning, formative assessments are just one point along the way towards mastery of a subject. If one method of instruction is not working, there is time to adjust and change to a different method so that everyone can achieve mastery. This can be motivating for everyone and curb the frustration (on both the part of student and teacher) caused by a “bombed” quiz or test.

Because teachers have the flexibility to adjust and improve their instruction to better meet their students’ needs, the results of summative assessments are generally better. Without formative assessments, teachers (and some students) may have an unrealistic idea of how well they understand certain concepts. When they take their end of unit test, the scores can be surprising. Formative assessments can alleviate this gap between what teachers think their students know and what they actually have learned. Learn more about the benefits of formative assessments.

Types of Formative Assessments

Formative assessments are ubiquitous in classrooms across the globe. There are dozens are different ways to implement them depending on the topic, grade level, and make up of the class. Many teachers do them regularly but may not even recognize them as formative assessments. Nearly every action a teacher takes is to further instruction based on kids’ responses in real time.

Something as simple as a class discussion could be considered a formative assessment. By asking questions and listening to answers, teachers are taking stock of what students know and where they are confused. However, not all students are comfortable speaking up in class so may be reluctant to participate. Therefore, teachers must have a variety of formative assessments in their toolboxes to reach all students.

Another simple formative assessment that teachers do countless times within a lesson without recognizing them as formative assessments is simply asking questions. By engaging students in a back and forth with specific questions, they can gather feedback about what students know and what they still need to learn. Some popular, more pointed formative assessments, include:

Exit slips: These formative assessments are great because they can include a number of different prompts from fill ins, to open ended questions, and even multiple choice. The idea is to think about one or two of the most important aspects of a lesson, then provide some kind of review questions to assess if they got it. These should be quick responses that won’t take too much time to review. When given at the end of the lessons, they give teachers the opportunity to make the necessary adjustments during the following lesson.

Raising Misconceptions: Another easy formative assessment that can be used with almost any lesson, requires no preparation, and can reveal telling information is simply raising common misconceptions about an idea. For example, a teacher might say, “many people feel like one eighth is bigger than one half because eight is more than two. Is that correct?” Students can discuss and answer in pairs, small groups or as a whole class. But this quick check allows the teacher to see if students are understanding fractions.

One-minute papers: Like exit slips, one-minute papers are good formative assessments because they require each student to respond. There is no chance of a student slipping through the cracks by remaining quiet during a discussion. Teachers have some flexibility with how one-minute papers are structured, but should limit students to approximately a 60 second response beyond a simple yes or no.

The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Rochester University notes some useful prompts could be: “Write down the three key things you learned in today’s lecture. Or, in your own words, tell me what you understand by [insert concept here]. Or, what was the most confusing point in today’s class?”

Concept maps: Concept maps are a great alternative formative assessment for visual learners who might struggle with explaining an idea in a traditional written response. Concept maps encourage students to make connections and can take the form of graphic organizers, Venn Diagrams, t-charts, or flow charts. According to the Learning Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Concept maps work very well for classes or content that have visual elements or in times when it is important to see and understand relationships between different things.”

3-2-1: Like one-minute papers and exit slips, a simple 3-2-1 exercise can be established early in the year and serve as a formative assessment teachers can revisit throughout the year. The prompts can be varied according to topic but always follow the 3-2-1 pattern. For example, student will write the three most important points, two questions they have, one thing that surprised them. These responses can can be great conversation starters as well. Learn more about the different types of formative assessments.


Even in the earliest years of formal education, teachers set goals for students to achieve in order to gradually build their skills. Although these goals may be different for different students, in order to be successful, teachers must put in place some measures to track student progress.

These assessments are vital to achievement. Summative assessments reflect students’ mastery at the end of a unit while formative assessments track students’ development throughout a unit.

Formative assessments in particular, are essential for any classroom. They are not only valuable to teachers but also students as they can help set goals and manage expectations. These kinds of assessments are meant to be given during a lesson to monitor, not evaluate, student learning. They provide invaluable feedback about the level of understanding and effectiveness of current instruction.

Unlike summative assessments, which come at the end of a unit of study and usually take the form of a graded test, exam, or culminating project, formative assessments are highly varied, require little preparation and often no formal grading. They are often referred to as “dipstick” assessments because like a quick and easy check for oil, these quick and easy assessments are used as a measure of where students currently are.

Because formative assessments are done throughout a unit and sometimes within a lesson, there is time for the teacher to revise their plans, review complicated material, vary instruction techniques, and reset learning goals. The frequent evaluation and reevaluation of instruction and learning helps students perform better on summative assessments and increases achievement.

There are many types of formative assessments teachers can use. In order to reach all students, it’s best to vary the kinds of formative assessments given. Therefore, teachers should get comfortable with different formative assessments and periodically try new ones.