Introducing digital formative assessment to your school

Digital Formative Assessment (DFA) can help teachers adapt their teaching to students’ needs and improve learning outcomes. This toolkit provides school leaders with insights from teachers, school heads and policy makers on how to implement DFA successfully.

Why is formative assessment important for my school?

Formative assessment fosters a growth mindset that one can always get better and is always looking forward to improving, encourages teachers to adapt their teaching to students’ needs and can foster a whole-school learning culture in which students feel safe to make mistakes and learn from them.

Assessment is often seen both by teachers and students as something that happens after learning, an additional burden unrelated to the learning process. Integrating assessment within learning is not always obvious; some teachers focus on ‘teaching to the test’ or they would like to focus more on skills such as critical thinking but cannot find time to do so. Formative assessment can not only provide a bridge between learning and assessment, but also promote competence development in areas such as critical thinking and learning to learn.

School heads tend to focus on high-stakes (‘summative’) tests, but formative assessment has been shown to enhance learning and achievement. Moreover, formative assessment can start with small steps and be achievable by all teachers of all subjects.

What is formative assessment all about?

Formative assessment (FA) may seem different from the traditional summative assessment from graded and standardised tests, but that does not mean it does not go well with them. It is not a case of either-or: FA can help students succeed in summative, high-stakes tests. But what is formative assessment?

Black and Wiliam (2010, p. 82, in English) describe formative assessment as “…all those activities undertaken by teachers - and by their students in assessing themselves — that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet students’ needs.” In other words, assessment is formative when teachers use the evidence either to adapt subsequent learning activities or to give feedback that will be specifically relevant for a student and help them improve in their learning. This video by teachers and experts goes into more detail about formative assessment.


It is a common misconception that formative and summative assessment are two different ways of collecting evidence of learning. In fact, the same evidence can be used to make a formative or summative conclusion. However, they are in general two different ways of thinking about what information to collect. For summative assessment, it is important that the conclusion about a student is comparable to the student’s performance in previous instances (e.g. past exams, essays). Therefore, summative assessment is typically based on final tests that are standardised and graded. In formative assessment teachers can explore and try practices (e.g., a student learning diary or digital portfolio) to obtain deeper and more granular evidence of student learning to inform their decisions and support their students.

Summative assessment is typically based on graded tests, but a test does not automatically become a tool for formative assessment when it is not graded. The teacher or student must be able to use the evidence to inform and adapt their next steps.

Students may not see the value in formative assessment because they are still held accountable with graded tests. Some parents might also worry that focusing on formative assessment will interfere with students’ preparation for graded tests. However, formative assessment can improve student achievement because it helps students take ownership of their learning, understand their weaknesses and know how to go about improving. It is therefore important to inform parents about such benefits of formative assessment.

Formative assessment not only enables teachers to keep track of learning and plan next steps based on it but also entails a change in the role and mindset of both teachers and students. To assess formatively, teachers need to have a ‘growth mindset’, a belief that students can improve with effort. It is also about giving more voice to students and encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning. When students assess themselves and their peers, they take a step toward improving their competences for learning-to-learn and becoming autonomous learners.

Why is digital formative assessment important for my school?

Formative assessment can be enriched and made more effective by using digital tools, so-called Digital Formative Assessment (DFA). Digital tools can, for example, diversify and facilitate formative assessment, save time when making assessments, make sharing experiences with peers easier and enable students to check their past work and the feedback they received so that they retain better what they learnt.

Digital tools facilitate student-centred, asynchronous or flipped classroom activities that promote autonomous learning and digital competences. For instance, students can continue collaborating on group tasks outside class time, on communication platforms or monitoring tools. These tools track student progress that can be monitored by teachers (and in some cases, peers) who can guide them in the next steps.

Formative assessment supported by digital tools (e.g. an online quiz) enables teachers to enhance student motivation, know more about their students’ learning and plan the next activities so that progress can be made towards the final tests. Many classroom studies (e.g. Bhagat & Spector, 2017; Faber, Luyten & Visscher, 2017; Wall et al. 2006, all in English) have measured formative assessment in ICT-based environments and found that when effectively used, it has a significant impact on student achievement.

Data collected by digital tools on students’ learning throughout the year can be used by teachers to inform instruction in the classroom. Teachers of different class subjects and classrooms can exchange about their assessment and more effectively discuss where action is needed before the final examinations (summative assessment). Student learning data gathered can also be shared with parents to engage them in their child’s learning in a constructive and developmental way.

(Digital) formative assessment is also about receiving feedback from students. By giving more voice to students, the school climate changes and a reflective learning culture is created across the school. The role of teachers is changing in this process: they guide, facilitate, give regular feedback and engage in conversations about supporting students to be active, reflective and responsible learners. They create classroom cultures of trust, where students feel free to reveal what they do and do not understand and where mistakes are seen not as a setback but as opportunities for learning. Digital tools can help with this process. For instance, teachers can collect feedback (e.g. via an online quiz) anonymously, so that students are more comfortable at giving their opinions and not fear making mistakes. Finally, collaborative online environments can enable teachers and students to exchange feedback on student projects throughout a school year.
It all comes down to the teacher-student relation; formative assessment should also be about inviting the student to give feedback to teachers.
Marc van Dongen Rector of Augustinianum School, Eindhoven, Netherlands

How do I start with DFA in my school?

The most important thing is to do something, to make a start: in not too big steps, but to get started. Then fine tune the process along the way together with teachers, students, staff and parents.

Introducing DFA is about making change happen. Consider the challenges in your school that you would like to address. Are there things that work well but could improve? How can DFA help? What positive changes you would like to make and why? Writing down plans can make them concrete, helping you to evaluate their impact. In this toolkit, you can find some guidelines on how to do this in the [Theory of Change Toolbox]


At first, it could be difficult to know whether your plans for introducing DFA will be suitable and effective for your school. Therefore, as with all things new, start on a small scale, as a pilot. Try something out with a few teachers, see how it goes, collect feedback, learn from it and then scale it up with more teachers. In fact this is similar to the processes in formative assessment: acting on feedback.

When piloting DFA, involve teachers in the planning from the beginning. This secures ‘buy in’ and helps them take responsibility, express their needs and be more open to adopt DFA and adapt it to their classes. Encourage them to meet regularly to exchange experiences and take decisions on what digital tools and DFA practices to try out, rather than telling them what to do.

It is not necessary to convince everyone from the start. Started with a group of motivated teachers open to innovation and experimentation. Other teachers might perceive collaborative work as disruptive or a threat to their established practice. Tackling those who are more resistant to change is more of a challenge of course and calls for a range of leadership skills. It’s nevertheless important that every teacher’s voice is heard, especially if they are sceptical about DFA. Their opinions can help shape your plans in a way that will meet their needs and secure buy in.

How can I support DFA in my school?

Below are points to consider when planning to get started with DFA or supporting further DFA practices in your school.

A common understanding is essential between you, teachers and other school staff, students and parents about what DFA is and how it relates to summative assessment. While DFA practices can be quite diverse, their common goal is to understand the learning needs of every student to help them take more control of their learning. Having this common understanding ensures that the implementation of DFA is consistent across classrooms and misconceptions are avoided.

For many DFA practices, every student should ideally have access to their own device for use both at school and at home. If not, one alternative (provided equity issues are addressed) is for teachers to present classroom activities such as online quizzes using a computer and screen, and students use their own devices (tablet, smartphone, laptop) to provide respond. Otherwise a school computer lab can be used for some classes. Ideally classrooms would have internet access of at least 10mbps, i.e. sufficient for video to be downloaded or streamed on at least one computer in the classroom.

Digital tools offer the possibility to collect various data from the simplest quiz scores to eye tracking data while reading texts and this brings new responsibilities. Consider with your teachers what kind of data are recorded by the digital tools they use, where it is stored, and how these data are processed (e.g. whether they are used for commercial purposes by the provider). Check out this video to learn more about the implications of using digital tools for assessment.

Research shows that although parents can initially have doubts about formative assessment, they become supportive if they are well informed (see a review in English). At the beginning of the new school year, set out the benefits of DFA to parents, emphasising its value for their child and how they can support their child to become a more autonomous learner. To allay concerns about data privacy, reassure them that their child is safe when using these digital tools – and make sure they actually are.

When teachers try a new practice, they need additional time to learn and prepare. Ideally, this time would be built into their timetable. If that is not possible, other incentives can motivate teachers to take up DFA, e.g. training in attractive surroundings, recognition of work. Teachers also need the time to exchange ideas with peers and to collaborate on lessons integrating DFA.

Create a culture of open exchange that encourages feedback between teachers, parents, students, and school leadership. Provide opportunities for teachers to regularly share their practices with other teachers and encourage students and parents to give feedback on their learning experiences. This will promote an environment where it is safe to give feedback, share personal opinions and make mistakes.

Teachers will need training on how to use digital tools, especially if they are using them for the first time. The trainings can address both the technical aspects and how to use them effectively for formative assessment. It may not be necessary to invite external trainers, learning from peers can be more effective and lasting. The ICT coordinator, teachers who are already using digital tools, or teachers who are motivated to experiment with new ideas can run training sessions.

Teachers readily learn from each other, so create opportunities for exchange. They can also join forces to try DFA practices; for instance, a teacher of social sciences can team up with a teacher of Informatics for a joint lesson that also addresses digital competence using digital educational tools.

As school head, your support for individual and collective teacher initiatives makes a difference. Encourage teachers to make use of this toolkit and be inspired by the DFA teaching scenarios.

Infrastructure for DFA

As DFA involves the use of digital educational tools, the technical and logistical conditions have to be in place. These include availability of digital devices, internet connections, training opportunities and time. A staff member responsible for ICT can help in thinking about these questions.

Rather than feeling frustration at not having  an ideal infrastructure, consider the affordances and limits of what connectivity, services, applications and devices you have and how they can support pedagogical aims


If the digital tools are easy to learn, teachers and students are more likely to use them regularly. If they can be easily used in the classroom, they don’t distract from pedagogical objectives. Teachers and ICT administrators can help in exploring the right tools.

What type of digital tools are teachers using? It is important for teachers to know how these tools store and process student data. Depending on how the data are processed, it might be safer to use the tool without creating student accounts. Other considerations are the ease of use for teachers and students and interoperability between different digital applications. This case study goes into more detail about data privacy.

What else the Assess@Learning toolkit offers

The Assess@Learning toolkit offers case studies and guidelines to help school heads plan actions to support teachers in implementing or further developing DFA. The sections aimed at teachers, students, parents and policy makers are worth reading as well in order better to understand their role in DFA.