Using digital tools for formative assessment

Help your students learn better

Why formative assessment?

Assessing students’ learning can feel like an extra task disconnected from learning. However, assessment during learning can help you adjust your teaching and guide students in their learning. Click the headings below to find out more.

For Dylan Wiliam (in English), assessment is a central component in effective instruction. It is only through assessment that you can find out whether students really learn what you want them to learn. However, if students are assessed only at the end of a learning unit, teachers miss the opportunity to adapt teaching to improve learning outcomes. Formative assessment (FA) is about asking students the right questions to gather evidence about how their progress. FA can help obtain key information from students to help you decide what to do next. This article goes into more detail about asking the right questions.

To assess students formatively is to adapt your teaching to support their progress. Ultimately, it can help you improve your teaching.

One advantage of formative assessment is that it creates the opportunity to gather evidence of learning from everyone, not only the vocal students. You can hear from everyone without having them worry about making mistakes in front of their peers. This can make teaching more inclusive.

Feedback that answers the questions “Where am I going? How am I going? Where to next?” is one of the factors that have the most impact on learning according to John Hattie's analysis (in English) of many years’ research findings on teaching and learning. Formative assessment improves the identification of each student’s learning needs, and so can enable teachers to provide personal feedback to the student.

In formative assessment, the teacher asks questions to understand what students think rather than to elicit the ‘right answer’ from them. This makes them feel you care about what they think. In this way, formative assessment has the potential to improve relationships with students.

Assessment activities can be designed to foster student autonomy. This does not happen automatically when starting out with formative assessment. Over time however students will become more and more autonomous as they get used to setting their own learning goals and assess their and peers’ learning. Autonomy is most effective in a classroom culture where students feel safe to make mistakes and to give constructive feedback to each other and indeed to their teacher.

Formative assessment can help you design activities that develop competences such as critical thinking, learning to learn, collaboration and creativity. For instance, you can plan project-based activities where students work actively in teams or individually. Such activities allow students to reflect on their knowledge as well as their ability to apply it in a specific context.

Formative assessment practices can increase learning gains. Giving feedback or asking students to check their understanding (e.g. through quizzes or projects) helps them reflect more about their own learning, for example what they know already or how they learn best. Taking ownership of their own learning can help them to be better prepared for graded (i.e. summative) examinations and assignments. This is also a skill for life.

What is digital formative assessment?

Formative assessment is using information on students’ understanding and progress to make decisions: for teachers about teaching and for students about learning. The goal is for you to collect information that helps you to make decisions on adjusting teaching according to students’ learning needs. The purpose is not to simply monitor progress or check whether students learnt the material. Assessment is formative only if you or your students act upon the information obtained from assessment by, for instance, adjusting the planning of the next lesson. Digital formative assessment (DFA) is simply any formative assessment activity that is enriched and facilitated with digital tools.


Some examples of formative assessment

Teachers routinely, maybe unconsciously, use formative assessment, noting evidence of learning (or not learning) and then use it to plan or adjust their next lesson. So, which of the examples below is not an example of formative assessment? Take a guess!

A science teacher starts a classroom discussion about renewable and non-renewable energy sources. She asks students to post their examples and arguments on an online classroom polling tool and checks what they posted. She notices that some students confuse renewable and non-renewable energy sources. She decides to have students work in groups. She teams up students who need clarification and tells them to go on their learning management platform to read feedback on the previous discussion and instructions for their next task: they then search for resources about energy, collecting them in a collaborative online document. Other teams in which students have a clear understanding of the concepts design a poster presentation to explain energy sources. The teacher monitors the discussions in the different teams, walking from team to team to help whenever needed.

A history teacher’s next lesson is about the industrial revolution. He decides to try an active learning approach, engaging students in teamwork. Each team is asked to research the resources shared by the teacher and produce a summary about one aspect of the industrial revolution. Teams then exchange notes and review each other’s work. The teacher administers an online quiz so that students can review their knowledge and understanding. The teacher than moves on to the next task as he had originally planned.

An informatics teacher and a social science teacher want to jointly plan a lesson about digital media literacy. To gain a better understanding of students’ skill levels, they set homework to read three news articles and explain whether they are based on facts and why they have reached this conclusion. Many students can correctly identify that two of the articles are not fact-based, but almost no one can explain why. The teachers therefore plan a lesson on how to verify the source of information and on fact-checking websites.

In examples 1 and 3, the teachers designed their lesson based on the information they collected from their students. They undertook formative assessment based on student responses. In example 1, the teacher could make a quick decision by identifying the topics that students struggled with the most. In example 3, the task allowed the teachers to gather evidence of students’ knowledge level, which they then used as a basis for planning the next lesson.

In example 2 however, the teacher did not use the online quiz data to adapt his teaching. Although the online quiz helped students reflect on what they had learned and to correct their mistakes, the teacher carried on with the activities initially planned.

A new relationship

Implementing digital formative assessment effectively may well change your teaching repertoire and your relationship with students. Do you feel comfortable listening to feedback from students about how they like to learn or how they would like you to teach? The feedback received can help students start reflecting on how they learn best: alone and/or in a group, using digital tools or something else? Modifying teaching so that it meets different students' needs and interests could include, for example, more group work, or tasks that students work on independently - and less time spent talking to the whole class. How do you feel about that idea? How would you like to change your own role?

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Summative and formative assessment – A comparison

Even if you make formative assessment a more important element of your teaching, summative assessment remains important. This video shows how teachers and experts consider that they complement each other.

The purpose of summative assessment is to check whether students are meeting the learning goals. Formative assessment is a way to identify where students are having difficulty, and to then decide what might be done next to help the student improve and thereby reach the goal.

Summative assessment typically gives students an idea of how well they performed relative to the learning goal and/or to their classmates. Formative feedback on the other hand is focused on identifying gaps between current performance and the learning goal, and to then on helping students decide how they might close the gap.

The aim of formative assessment is generally not to assign a grade, although graded tests can still sometimes be used for formative purposes. What makes an assessment formative is for the teacher to make informed decisions to adapt their teaching and to provide feedback that can help students. A common misconception is that formative assessment necessarily means more frequent, non-graded testing. Summative and formative assessment are rather two different ways of making use of learning evidence.

Although you can use any student data either for summative or formative assessment purposes, some types are more suitable for formative assessment. This includes descriptive and narrative data, e-portfolios and concept/mind maps, extended questioning and dialogue, inquiry-based assignments.

The ultimate goal of formative assessment is to involve students more actively in their learning. For this to happen, there needs to be more collaboration between you and your students in defining learning and assessment activities.

When you integrate formative assessment, you adapt teaching and learning to meet students’ needs. You may also ask students how they like to learn with a view to adapting your overall approach. In this way you take on the additional role of learner.

Benefits of digital formative assessment

Digital tools can enhance formative assessment. They can be used to support autonomous learning as well as collaboration among students in classrooms and beyond (e.g. through mobile or remote learning), Students may engage in self- and peer-assessment on different platforms. Classroom studies (e.g. in English: Bhagat & Spector, 2017; Faber, Luyten & Visscher, 2017; Wall et al. 2006) suggest that DFA may have a positive impact on student achievement when effectively planned and implemented.

Digital tools can facilitate feedback in many ways. For example, students may benefit from rapid, automated feedback when taking an online quiz. Alternatively, you can ask students to take an online quiz before class, and you can then assess the students’ understanding of the topic and prepare initial activities and feedback to address areas where they may need to work further. Another possibility is for you to give feedback when not face-to-face, for example, by leaving comments on a collaborative online document or e-portfolio, posting a message on a team page on a learning management platform, or sending a video/voice recording to individual students. In an online platform, students can find past feedback received. In this way, feedback is not lost and students are less likely to forget what they learnt.

Digital dashboards visualise data in a user-friendly way, allow you to identify patterns and quickly see where students are experiencing difficulties. For instance, an English language teacher can observe that one student made many errors in phrasal verbs but does relatively better when it comes to vocabulary. Looking at the whole-class average, she can see that, overall, students are having most difficulty with idioms. Such evidence can help quickly make decisions on where to focus attention during the class.

Digital tools can enrich your evidence collection. For instance, when students do tasks on a learning management system their work is recorded and kept in one place for you to monitor progress over time. Moreover, e-portfolios can give you – and parents – a deeper understanding of students’ achievements and way of thinking over the school year. Finally, you can compare data from your classroom with data from colleagues’ and exchange ideas on how to address difficulties.

DFA can promote autonomous learning because it enables asynchronous work, as well as distance or blended learning. Students can continue collaborating on group tasks on a communication platform outside class time. They may set learning goals and do exercises at their own pace. This creates opportunities (and time) to provide personalised support and adapt future activities.


As a universal language, images can support learning new concepts, from mathematics to reading comprehension. Although pen, paper and scissors may be used to create representations of abstract concepts, digital tools may also facilitate visualisation. For instance, students can learn better by visualising the relationships between ideas with concept mapping tools. Students may also compile resources and media they have created in an e-portfolio. Digital tools ultimately provide more ways for students and you to create content and use different media to enhance learning.


“We live in a digital society and it is essential that everyone is ‘digitally competent’ to access the new opportunities to learn, work, create and engage in a society which is shaped by digital technology” (European Digital Competence Framework). DFA creates opportunities to navigate the digital world. Students become familiar with project management tools when they use communication software and dashboards. They learn how to search efficiently for information on social media and the internet, and how to learn autonomously. They also may create digital content through wikis and other open-source tools and develop their presentation skills thanks to concept/mind mapping and presentation apps. In this process, they may become more critical users of digital media.



Tools and practices for DFA

DFA encompasses a broad range of practices and tools such as the examples below. In this interview, teachers describe tools they use and how and when they use them to collect evidence of learning to inform their teaching.

Some digital tools for formative assessment

Below are some digital tools categorised by the type of practices they enable. The Assess@Learning project collected inspiring examples termed ‘teaching scenarios’ of these different practices.

Online quizzes and classroom polling

Use a simple online quiz to quickly collect evidence of student learning or poll students to ask for their thoughts and opinions (e.g. Mentimeter), and then use this information in lesson planning. See an example scenario here.

Dashboards, monitoring tools

Students learn new material or actively work on tasks set up on a learning platform. They can work individually or collaboratively (e.g. Khan Academy, Milage Learn+, LAMS, ClassDojo). See an example scenario here.

E-portfolios/digital diaries

E-portfolios and learning diaries provide a way to create a rich collection of a student’s ways of learning and working. They are a useful means for teachers to better understand students’ learning, and for students to continuously reflect on their own learning (e.g. KidBlog, OneNote, Mahara). See an example scenario here.

Mobile learning

Mobile learning allows students to learn ‘anytime, anywhere’. Students have ready access to resources you provide them, to engage with peers, and take quizzes that provide automated feedback. Mobile learning apps are often used for mathematics, where self-paced learning may be particularly useful (e.g., Math4Mobile, Milage+). See an example scenario here.

Communication platforms

Communication software may be used to facilitate group work and classroom discussions. Teachers can track student activity and provide support and feedback (e.g. MS Teams). See an example scenario here.

Digital games

Students can do exercises embedded in video games that give corrective feedback and adapt to their level of knowledge. Students can practise independently, while you can see where students are experiencing difficulties. Students also stay engaged (e.g. Argubot, ViLLE). See an example scenario here.

Concept maps

A concept map is a visual representation of concepts and their relation to each other. They help students reflect on abstract ideas and remember them better. They also provide you with a simple but rich impression of the students’ understanding (e.g., MindMeister, Lucidchart). See an example scenario here.

Collaborative software

Collaborative software allows you and your students to save documents online, and to brainstorm and work on the same content simultaneously and collaboratively. Working with students as well as teachers of other subjects, you collectively build an online rubric to track how well students are fulfilling criteria for quality learning outcomes (e.g., Google Docs, Padlet). See an example scenario here.

Giving feedback

Feedback is a key component of formative assessment. Students who receive feedback about their learning and guidance on next steps know what to do next to improve. What makes good feedback? How best to give and receive feedback? Ideally, feedback provides guidance that students can act on. Feedback is more than “You need to improve X”; it should give the student a clear idea on how to improve, what they should do.

Receiving feedback – Student voice

It is important to set rules to ensure a safe classroom environment for giving feedback. This is a key part of establishing a classroom culture where it is acceptable to make mistakes and learn from each other. You can further support this culture by showing that you value your students’ opinions and their experience with learning. Providing students with opportunities to give and respond to feedback will also make them reflect more on their learning and continue on the path towards becoming autonomous learners.

You could ask students how they like to learn, what they liked or did not like about your last lesson. Are you ready to receive such feedback on your teaching? In this video students explain how they like to learn, and what makes a good teacher in their opinion.

Getting started - Finding support

Trying something new offers opportunities for professional learning and collaboration with colleagues. If DFA is a completely new practice in your school, open a dialogue with the school leaders and colleagues, as well as parents to get them on board.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Ask colleagues whether they use formative assessment methods. What digital educational tools do they use? We asked teachers from several countries to share their practices and they can be seen in the toolkit scenario gallery.

As teacher Arjana says, begin by simply browsing the teaching scenario gallery. Look through subjects and find a topic and see how you can try something similar. Don’t replicate exactly what the author did, just pick one or two ideas from it (e.g. asking students to create quiz questions for peers).

DFA is all about helping students become autonomous learners. Involve them from the beginning and decide together on what kind of output they want to produce and what type of topic they want to investigate further.

Share experiences with colleagues. If you are not familiar with digital educational tools, pair up with a colleague from your school for a joint class. An informatics teacher can help with technicalities. You can also collaborate with colleagues from other subjects on designing a rubric for peer and teacher assessment that is comparable across subjects.

Research shows that parents become more supportive of formative assessment if they are informed about its benefits (see a review in English). Parents are understandably interested in summative assessment (i.e. done via standard tests) because they can keep track of their children’s performance in comparison with others. Explain to them that summative and formative assessment can complement each other. Discuss what you are doing with parents at parent meetings and encourage students to share samples of their work on a platform that parents can access. Parents will see the benefits and support you.

The school management team can support you in different ways. They can organise meetings about DFA among teachers. They can design the timetable to allow time for teachers to prepare and implement DFA in their classes. Finally, a digital infrastructure (e.g. a sufficient number of devices, stable internet) is a prerequisite that might not be in place but could be made a priority for the school. You could start a dialogue on DFA within the school by sharing what you do with colleagues, for example students’ e-portfolios. Maybe you could offer to deliver a training session on a DFA practice that you are using. The school head can also organise or encourage professional development on DFA.

Choosing a tool for DFA

If digital formative assessment is new for you, start simple and try different practices step by step. If you are already make use of DFA, seek out other examples and ideas to inspire you further.

In this toolkit, you’ll find all you need to start with DFA, taking easy steps inspired by examples from teachers in seven countries in the teaching scenario gallery.

What the Assess@Learning toolkit offers

Now that you know more about digital formative assessment, you can explore how it is actually implemented in practice’. The Assess@Learning toolkit offers many ideas and examples to get started with DFA. There are also pages for school heads, students, parents and policy makers to explore and understand their role in DFA.

©Zsofi Lang-

Ethical considerations

Assess@Learning is not receiving any paid sponsorship. Any tools mentioned in the teaching scenarios are those used by the authors, and there are alternatives for each one of them.

While some tools are available in multiple languages, others are not. The [digital tool overview] page describes the various features and languages of some of these applications.

It is essential to know about how a tool handles your and your students’ data. Especially in the case of free tools, users might not have complete ownership of their data. In such cases, you may prefer tools that do not require a student login. Only if you know a tool is safe should you use student logins.

Even with paid tools, you may not have full ownership of your data and it is not always cl ear from a user’s point of view how a supplier stores and uses your data. Someone responsible for ICT in your school or region can help you check if a particular tool is safe. The school head can help in planning a whole-school strategy for choosing digital tools. Check whether there is already a list of tools that are safe to use.

To find out more about data privacy, this video and case study explain some key issues things to keep in mind.