Why formative assessment?

Formative assessment helps collecting feedback for the students to become active, independent, better learners, and feedback for the teachers to adapt their teaching to every student’s needs.

Why is formative assessment interesting?

The way teachers assess their students can have a considerable effect on learning outcomes (OECD TALIS, 2018). When assessment is mentioned, we usually think about assessment OF learning, an evaluation that is performed at the end of a learning activity, also known as summative assessment.

There is a growing interest in assessment FOR learning, also known as formative assessment (FA) -which potentially enables students to become more autonomous learners. FA provides information that goes two ways. The teacher obtains information about what students have learned. On this basis, they can modify the learning activities that students are engaged in and better support their learning. In turn, students obtain information on what knowledge or skills they still need to acquire or develop further – which can empower them to take more control over their learning.  

To successfully implement assessment for learning, the current roles of teachers and students need to change. Teachers act as facilitator in favour of more student collaboration, communication and engagement with learning There is, however, a need for more research on how policy makers and schools can best support formative assessment practices in schools.   

Goal of education

Education systems need to prepare children for the life and work in a rapidly changing, uncertain and complex world driven by rapid technological developments, globalisation and related challenges. Students are more and more required to become active learners and to acquire so-called 21st century skills such as problem-solving, creativity, learning to learn and social skills. Fostering students’ agency, described as their ability to take more control over their learning becomes more important.  

Problems with education systems

However, our current education systems are faced with a number of challenges, such as reducing high-drop-out rates, involving disengaged learners and responding to students from diverse backgrounds. They often do not sufficiently respond yet to individual students’ needs and foster teaching children 21st century skills. There is a prevalence of standardized testing, which calls for more balanced qualitative formative assessment. There are several reasons for this.

Grades are important since they provide information about student performance. However, they sometimes incentivize teachers and students to only focus on preparing for the test. Summative assessment usually takes place at the end of a learning cycle. FA can provide guidance to learners during the learning process and allow for improvements before the final tests. Thus, FA can supplement summative assessment and improve learning results throughout the learning process. 

Evaluating many summative tests during the school year is time consuming both for teachers and students and sometimes leaves little room for actual learning. As an alternative, more small quick tests with a formative purpose can help keeping learners on track and inform the next steps in teaching. FA can help to spend less time on testing, more on learning.  

Earlier views on education focused on instruction and assumed that a single, well-designed instruction can fit the needs of the majority of the classroom.  Nowadays, teachers increasingly realise the need to differentiate their instructions, in particular as their students become increasingly diverse, with different backgrounds, achievement levels, learning preferences and special needs. With feedback collected through FA practices, teachers can differentiate their instruction. 

Keeping all students engaged in learning is a challenging task for many teachers. Becoming more autonomous learners that take responsibility for their own learning can be very motivating for students. With feedback collected through FA practices, students can take more control of their own learning. 

Active learning

What we want is active, self-empowered learners that learn how to learn. However, how do we teach students to become more active learners? Changing to more active learning requires a change of role both for teachers and students – it entails a new division of ‘tasks’ and a new dynamic that not necessarily each teacher is comfortable with. [Read more to reveal the rest] One way to increase student agency is to design student-centered activities. Students can create e-portfolios and use learning management systems to track their progress and become better at regulating and guiding their own learning.

Purpose of assessment in education

However, the reality of teaching is often still very different. What teachers actually teach is often still strongly guided by what is fixed in the curriculum and what needs to be assessed. One reason is that grades are important for students and their parents throughout their school career, but also when moving on to higher education. Therefore, teachers sometimes still focus on teaching to the test rather than preparing their students for life. Does that mean that we only need summative tests? And are there tests that serve both a summative and a formative purpose?


Summative vs formative assessment

While summative and formative assessment can both be used to test students’ understanding and application of knowledge and skills, they differ in many aspects. These aspects are not mutually exclusive. In fact, summative and formative assessment can greatly complement each other.

Summative assessment
  • Purpose - Assessment is to check the exact information that students learned from the course material
  • Feedback - The feedback gives information on the student’s understanding of, and the ability to apply the course material
  • Time - Carried out from time to time to create snapshots of what has happened
  • Grading - Assessment is graded
  • Methods - Methods typically include formal tests, essays, reports and projects
  • Teacher-directed – Teachers assign what the students must do and then evaluate how well they complete the assignment
  • Static – An unchanging and reliable measure of what the student achieved
  • Role - Teachers adopt the role of examiners and students assume the role of the examined.
Formative assesment
  • Purpose - Information is used as feedback to shape subsequent learning and teaching
  • Feedback - The feedback students receive is constructive, and gives directions for how to improve
  • Time - Carried out while learning is in progress – day to day, minute by minute
  • Grading - Assessment is rarely graded, and it is based on defined learning criteria
  • Methods - Methods include games, digital storytelling, rubrics, e-portfolios, diaries and many more
  • Collaborative – Both teachers and students know how they are doing,, understand the learning needs, and use assessment information as feedback to guide and adapt what they do to meet those needs
  • Fluid – An ongoing process influenced by student need and teacher feedback
  • Role - Teachers and students adopt the role of intentional learners