High-Impact Teaching Strategies: Formative Assessments

Written by
Jim Knight

High-Impact Teaching Strategies: Formative Assessments

December 19, 2023
Written by
Jim Knight
"When teachers don't know how well their students are learning, they are just teaching. They don't know what the students are learning. They are just covering content." - Michelle Harris, ICG Director of Consulting

By using assessment for learning as part of the daily routine, teachers can obtain a clear understanding of how well students are learning, and students understand how much they are learning.

There are three basic components of formative assessments: (a) knowing how well students are learning, (b) ensuring students know how well they are learning, and (c) using the data gathered from the assessments to modify teaching to ensure students master their learning. Formative assessment is "frequent, interactive assessments of students' progress and understanding to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately" (Looney, 2005, cited in Wiliam, 2001, p. 38).

Formative assessment, then, is a collection of strategies teachers employ to get clarity on what they will be teaching and to assess how well students have learned what they are teaching. The understanding teachers gain from formative assessment then serves as the foundation for teachers to make adjustments to the way they teach so students will learn what is being taught. Formative assessment is also a way for teachers and students to monitor students' progress toward mastery.

Why Use Formative Assessment?

One major reason for using formative assessment is that it provides a way for teachers to dramatically increase engagement. That is, formative assessment is a way by which teachers can clarify learning goals, provide students with frequent, clear feedback on their progress toward the goal, and adjust learning so it is more frequently at the optimal level of challenge for students.

"Unless we can keep students believing that the goal is within reach, they'll stop trying... [and] when the feedback suggests to me that I'm not making it, leading me to an inference that I'm incapable of making it, then I give up in hopelessness and I stop trying .... I've got to get them [students] to somehow believe that effort is of value, that there is some relationship between effort and their level of success. If I can't get them to believe that, then I can't help them." - Dr. Richard Stiggins

Stiggins' comments point to perhaps an even more important reason for using formative assessment: It increases students' belief that they can succeed. When students receive daily feedback on their progress, when they see clear evidence that they are progressing, they are much more confident that they can tackle the learning tasks they experience in school. Progress is encouraging, and it gives people hope.

Seven Steps to Implement Assessment for Learning

Identify Guiding Questions

It is necessary for teachers to clarify what they are going to teach before they decide what to assess. To accomplish this, teachers should develop guiding questions for a unit.

Answer the Questions: What Do Students Need to Know, Understand, and Be Able to Do?

Learning has to involve the knowledge students need to learn, the skills they need to do any learning task, and the big ideas they need to grasp the themes, concepts, patterns, and 'aha' aspects of learning. Educators must use some framework for levels of thinking to create a comprehensive and complete answer for each guiding question. If they have not clearly articulated the answers to their questions, their teaching may lack focus, and time may be wasted on learning that isn't that important. In addition, by answering the questions, teachers can ensure that their questions are indeed answerable.

Identify Specific Proficiencies

After identifying answers to all guiding questions, the next step is to determine all the components of the answers that you think need to be assessed. To create specific proficiencies, teachers should write short, concise, and precise sentences that describe each component of the answer to the guiding question. When teachers identify the specific proficiencies, they know exactly what to teach and what to assess.

The act of creating specific proficiencies deepens teachers' understanding of what must be taught and often prompts teachers to rewrite their guiding questions and learning maps.

Identify Assessments

We suggest teachers identify assessments for every identified specific proficiency. This form is one way of organizing thinking around assessment. To use the form, teachers write the guiding question in section 1. In section 2, they list all of the specific proficiencies. Finally, in section 3, they list the assessments they will use to assess whether or not students have learned each specific proficiency. There are numerous ways that what students are learning can be assessed. Examine this list of checks for understanding to gather examples that teachers can use to help set academic goals for students.

Use Assessments Effectively

Formative assessments have many benefits, but those benefits won't be realized unless the assessments are used effectively. There are very specific practices teachers should employ to increase the likelihood that the assessments will be effective.

Modify Teaching and Learning

Perhaps the biggest challenge teachers face when using formative assessment is "What do I do if the students haven't learned it?" Fortunately, there are many, many things teachers can do to adapt their teaching to increase student learning.

Use high-impact teaching strategies to increase engagement, mastery, and generalization of learning.

Implement high-impact community-building strategies. If checks for understanding show that students are not learning, teachers should also consider whether they have created the most learner-friendly learning community.

Modeling. For some students, learning is enhanced when teachers model learning practices.

Breaking Down Learning. Consider whether the knowledge, skills, and big ideas being learned can be broken down into smaller components to ensure students master each component.

Discuss Student Work. Show students various answers to student questions. Together, students discuss the characteristics of highly proficient responses.

Feedback. Students learn more when teachers identify categories of error in student work and provide elaborated feedback and modeling to ensure students learn how to move forward.

Revisit, Reflect, Revise

Teachers should stop and consider whether their questions, specific proficiencies, and assessments are doing what they are supposed to do. These six questions are intended to help teachers get an accurate understanding of what worked and what didn't work in their current approach to formative assessment.

Formative assessment is about monitoring progress and adapting teaching. You can accomplish this by sharing a definition for formative assessment, understanding why formative assessments should be used, and by employing the seven step process above.

Learn more about formative assessments in High-Impact Instruction. You can also learn more in our "High-Impact Instruction" workshop as well as our on-demand Radical Learners course "High-Impact Teaching Strategies".


I would love to hear from you in the comments below. How do you use formative assessments? Which ones do you prefer to use most often?

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