The Characteristics of High-Quality Formative Assessments

As we explore different theories of learning, two points seem salient: that students’ understanding of intelligence affects their self-perception, their determination, their motivation, and their achievement (Dweck, 2002); and that a students’ ability to self-regulate learning, to be metacognitive, ensures more successful learning and achievement (Ormrod, 2012, p.352-3).  As instructors plan curriculum and assessments, they ought to consider how to use these points as guides to ensure student learning and success.

Word cloud created from the text of the blog post.Formative assessment, understood as both a tool for instructors to gauge student learning and a teaching method, works iteratively with student understanding of intelligence and learner-regulation.  That is, formative assessment is based on the idea that learners should learn to take control of their learning, and that intelligence is a malleable quality.  In turn, formative assessment improves self-reflection in students and reinforces the idea that intelligence can be increased as opposed to it being a fixed entity, reflecting Carol S. Dweck’s important work on growth mind set, discussed in a recent the Innovative Instructor post.

An understanding of just what formative assessment entails highlights the recursive relationships of formative assessment, self-reflection, and a malleable view of intelligence.  Lorrie Shephard describes formative assessment as a process through which an instructor and a student come to better understand both the learning goals and the student’s work towards those goals in order to “alter the course of instruction and thus support the development of greater competence” (2005, p. 67).  This definition identifies formative assessment as a process of feedback that improves student learning.

Using formative feedback as a teaching method means that a classroom becomes the locus of ongoing dialogue that helps students measure and improve as they work to meet goals, expectations, and objectives.  The instructor takes in information about student progress and understanding, which creates the opportunity for a feedback loop that the instructor can use to shape teaching.  It is the moment when student progress shapes instruction that formative feedback becomes formative assessment.

When practiced effectively, this iterative relationship between instruction, feedback, student adjustment, and instructional adjustment maps onto self-reflection and a view of malleable intelligence.  As instructors provide formative feedback to students, they give students the tools to assess their own progress toward learning goals. Over time, students learn self-reflecting strategies (Shepard, 2005, p. 69; Wiggins, 2004, pp. 2-3, 6), allowing for moments such as Black and Wiliam noted when “one class, subsequently taught by a teacher not emphasizing assessment for learning, surprised that teacher by complaining, ‘Look, we’ve told you we don’t understand this. Why are you going on to the next topic?” (2004, p. 36).  As students reveal their learning progress, either directly (as in the example above) or indirectly through tasks that foster formative feedback, instructors have the opportunity to adapt their instruction. As teaching becomes more closely aligned with student progress, students are given increasingly refined opportunities for comprehension or alignment with expectations. As students chart their own progress, they implicitly buy in to the idea that they can improve their performance by making changes in their approach (Black & Wiliam, 2004, p. 30; Shepard, 2000, p. 43; Wiggins, 2004, p. 5). They come to understand, either overtly or tacitly, that their achievement is based on effort, not an unchanging quantity of intelligence (Shepard, 2005, 68; Lipnevich & Smith, 2009b, 364). When formative assessment works, students become self-regulating learners who practice self-reflection and learn a malleable view of intelligence—and are more motivated and more likely to achieve (Dweck, 2002).

Given the value of formative assessment, how can instructors use the characteristics of exemplary formative assessment as they plan their courses?  As opposed to inserting a few well-crafted formative assessments into the curriculum, instructors should understand that the adoption of formative assessment is the implementation of a course-long instructional approach.  Specifically, instructors can use formative feedback in every class through effective questioning strategies that elicit information about student understanding and help students monitor and adjust their learning (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 25-7).  Instructors can assess students’ prior knowledge and use “knowledge-activation routines” such as the K-W-L strategy, to “develop students’ metacognitive abilities while providing relevant knowledge connections for specific units of study”(Shepard, 2005, p. 68). Comments on work, marking of papers (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 27-31; Lipnevich, 2009a; Lipnevich, 2009b), peer-assessment, self-critique exercises (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp 31-3), one-on-one tutorials, small group remediation, instructor and student modeling, analysis of exemplars (Wiggins, 2004), and revision exercises can be used throughout.

Although methods may be similar across disciplines, the precise use of formative feedback will naturally vary between disciplines (Black & Wiliam, 2004, pp. 36-37; Shepard, 2000, 36). Nonetheless, Black & Wiliam and Shephard (2005) stress that adopting formative assessment as an instructional approach requires a cultural change within a learning community. Because students activate and practice self-reflective strategies in an effective formative feedback loop, they ought to be given a chance to develop and hone these skills in every classroom.  Since formative assessment relies on students understanding clearly what the expected outcomes of their learning and work are, they need exemplars. If instructors within a department, discipline or, ideally, school can agree upon the characteristics of exemplary work and learning, student self-regulation is more natural and more likely to be accurate.


Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (2004). The Formative Purpose: Assessment Must First Promote Learning. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education103 (2), 20-50.

Dweck, C. (2002). Messages That Motivate: How Praise Molds Students’ Beliefs, Motivation, and Performance (in Surprising Ways). In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving Academic Acheivement: Impacts of Psychological Factors on Education (pp. 37-60). San Diego: Academic Press.

Lipnevich, A. & Smith, J. (2009a). “I Really Need Feedback to Learn:” Students’ Perspectives on the Effectiveness of the Differential Feedback MessagesEducational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability , 21 (4), 347-67.

Lipnevich, A. &. (2009b). Effects of Differential Feedback on Students’ Examination Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied , 15 (4), 319-33.

Ormrod, J. (2012). Human Learning (6th Edition ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Shepard, L. (2000). The Role of Classroom Assessment in Teaching and Learning. CSE Technical Report, University of California, Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, Los Angeles.

Shepard, L. (2005). Linking Formative Assessment to Scaffolding. Educational Leadership, 63, 66-70.

Shute, V. (2008). Focus on Formative Feedback. Review of Educational Research , 78, 153-89.

Wiggins, G. (2004). Assessment as Feedback. New Horizons for Learning Online Journal, 1-8.

Sarah Wilson is the co-director of the Upper School at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She has a B.A. (English) from Kenyon College, and an M.A. from Teachers College, Columbia University. She has taught middle and high school English for 13 years.

Image Source: Formative Assessment Wordle created by Macie Hall

Should you stop telling your students to study for exams?

Male student in library studyingThe Innovative Instructor recently came across a thought-provoking article by David Jaffee in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Stop Telling Students to Study for Exams. In a nutshell, Jaffee advocates for telling students that they should study for learning and understanding rather than for tests or exams. He reminds us that just because content is covered in class does not mean that students really learn it. Regurgitating information for an exam does not equal long-term retention. He points out that there are real consequences to this traditional approach.

On the one hand, we tell students to value learning for learning’s sake; on the other, we tell students they’d better know this or that, or they’d better take notes, or they’d better read the book, because it will be on the next exam; if they don’t do these things, they will pay a price in academic failure. This communicates to students that the process of intellectual inquiry, academic exploration, and acquiring knowledge is a purely instrumental activity—designed to ensure success on the next assessment.

His claims are backed with evidence. Numerous studies have shown that students who use rote memorization to cram for tests and exams do not retain the information studied over the long term. Real learning, which involves retention and transfer of knowledge to new situations, is a complicated process reflected by the vast amount of research on the subject.

As a side note, for those interested in learning more about cognitive development and student learning, there is a nice summary of key studies and models in the book by James M. Lang On Course: A Week by Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching [Harvard University Press, 2008]. See Week 7 Students as Learners for an overview and bibliography.

Instead of a cumulative final exam, Jaffee recommends using formative and authentic assessments, which “[u]sed jointly…can move us toward a healthier learning environment that avoids high-stakes examinations and intermittent cramming.” Formative assessments, performed in class, provide opportunities for students to understand where their knowledge gaps are. [See The Innovative Instructor 2013 GSI Symposium Breakout Session 2: Formative Assessment and Teaching Tips: Classroom Assessment.] Authentic assessments allow students “to demonstrate their abilities in a real-world context.” Examples include group and individual projects, in-class presentations, multi-media assignments, and poster sessions.

The article has obviously provoked some controversy as evidenced by the number of comments made – 225 as of this posting. One of the commenters supporting Jaffee with several rebuttals to critics is Robert Talbert, Professor of Mathematics at Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, and author of The Chronicle of Higher Education blog Casting Out Nines. Talbert has blogged extensively on his experiences with flipping his classroom.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Microsoft Clip Art

2013 GSI Symposium Breakout Session 2: Formative Assessment

A Report from the Trenches

We’re continuing with our reports from the JHU Gateway Sciences Initiative (GSI) 2nd Annual Symposium on Excellence in Teaching and Learning in the Sciences. Next up is “Assessing Student Learning during a Course: Tools and Strategies for Formative Assessment” presented by Toni Ungaretti, Ph.D., School of Education and Mike Reese, M.Ed., Center for Educational Resources.

Please note that links to examples and explanations in the text below were added by CER staff and were not included in the breakout session presentation.

The objectives for this breakout session were to differentiate summative and formative assessment, review and demonstrate approaches to formative assessment, and describe how faculty use assessment techniques to engage in scholarly teaching.

Summarizing Dr. Ungaretti’s key points:

Assessment is a culture of continuous improvement that parallels the University’s focus on scholarship and research. It ensures learners’ performance, program effectiveness, and unit efficiency. It is an essential feature in the teaching and learning process. Learners place high value on marks or grades: “Assessment defines what [learners] regard as important.” [Brown, G., Bull, J., & Pendlebury, M. 1997. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. Routledge.]  Assessment ensures that what is important is learned.

Summative Assessment is often referred to as assessment of learning. This is regarded as high stakes assessment – typically a test, exam, presentation, or paper at the midterm and end of a course.

Formative Assessment focuses on learning instead of assigning grades. “Creating a climate that maximizes student accomplishment in any discipline focuses on student learning instead of assigning grades. This requires students to be involved as partners in the assessment of learning and to use assessment results to change their own learning tactics.” [Fluckiger, J., Tixier y Virgil, Y., Pasco, R., and Danielson, K. (2010). Formative Feedback: Involving Students as Partners in Assessment to Enhance Learning. College Teaching, 58, 136-140.]

Effective formative assessment involves feedback. That feedback has the greatest benefit when it addresses multiple aspects of learning. It includes feedback on the product (the completed task), feedback on progress (the extent to which the learner is improving over time), and feedback on the process (If the learner is involved, feedback can be given more frequently.)

Diagram showing the Three Ps of Formative Assessment

 From this point on in the session, the participants engaged in active learning exercises that demonstrated various examples of formative assessment including utilizing graphic organizers (Venn Diagrams, Mind Maps, KWL Charts, and Kaizen/T-Charts – practices that focus upon continuous improvement), classroom discussion with higher order questioning (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy),  minute papers, and admit/exit slips.

Classroom discussions can tell the instructor much about student mastery of basic concepts. The teacher can initiate the discussion by presenting students with an open-ended question.

A minute paper is a quick in-class writing exercise where students answer a question focused on material recently presented, such as: What was the most important thing that you learned? What important question remains? This allows the instructor to gauge the understanding of concepts just taught.

Admit/exit slips are collected at the beginning or end of a class. Students provide short answers to questions such as: What questions do I have? What did I learn today? What did I find interesting?

There are many ways in which faculty can determine learner mastery. These may include the use of journaling or learning/response logs to gauge growth over time, constructive quizzes, using modifications of games such as Jeopardy, or structures such as a guided action or Jigsaw. There are also ways to quickly check student understanding such as using thumbs-up–thumbs-down, or i>Clickers.

Assessment may also be achieved by using “learner-involved” formative assessment.  Some ways to achieve this are through the use of three-color group quizzes, mid-term student conferencing, assignment blogs, think-pair-share, and practice presentations.

When incorporated into classroom practice, the formative assessment process provides information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are still happening. Finally, faculty should look on formative assessment as an opportunity. No matter which methods are used it is important that they allow students to be creative, have fun, learn, and make a difference.

Faculty may also use assessment methods as research. This allows them the opportunity to advance hypotheses-based teaching, gather data on instructional changes and student outcomes, and to prepare scholarly submissions to advance the knowledge on teaching in their discipline. Teaching as research is the deliberate, systematic, and reflective use of research methods to develop and implement teaching practices that advance the learning experiences and outcomes of students and teachers.

Cheryl Wagner, Program/Administrative Manager
Center for Educational Resources

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Macie Hall


Teaching Tips: Classroom Assessment

Increasing emphasis is being placed on assessment, and many faculty are looking for evaluation practices that extend beyond giving a mid-term and final exam. In particular the concept of non-graded classroom assessment is gaining traction. In their book Classroom Assessment Techniques, Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross (Jossey-Bass, 1993) stress the importance of student evaluation that is “learner-centered, teacher-directed, mutually beneficial, formative, context-specific, ongoing, and firmly rooted in good practice.”

Students in a classroom.

While the authors describe in detail numerous techniques for ascertaining in a timely manner whether or not students are learning what is being taught, here are several quick and easy to implement methods:


The Minute Paper: At an appropriate break, ask students to answer on paper a specific question pertaining to what has just been taught. After a minute or two, collect the papers for review after class, or, to promote class interaction, ask students to pair off and discuss their responses. After a few minutes, call on a few students to report their answers and results of discussion. If papers are turned in, there is value to both the anonymous and the signed approach. Grading, however, is not the point; this is a way to gather information about the effectiveness of teaching and learning.

In Class Survey: Think of this as a short, non-graded pop quiz. Pass out a prepared set of questions, or have students provide answers on their own paper to questions on a PowerPoint/Keynote slide. Focus on a few key concepts. Again, the idea is to assess whether students understand what is being taught.

Exit Ticket: Select one of the following items and near the end of class ask your students to write on a sheet of paper 1) a question they have that didn’t get answered, 2) a concept or problem that they didn’t understand, 3) a bullet list of the major points covered in class, or 4) a specific question to access their learning. Students must hand in the paper to exit class. Allow anonymous response so that students will answer honestly. If you do this regularly, you may want to put the exit ticket question on your final PowerPoint/Keynote slide.

Tools that can help with assessment

Classroom polling devices (a.k.a. clickers) offer an excellent means of obtaining evidence of student learning. See for information about the in-class voting system used at JHU. Faculty who are interested in learning more should contact Brian Cole in the CER.

Faculty at the JHU School of Nursing have been piloting an online application called Course Canary to obtain student assessment data. Formative course evaluation surveys allow faculty to collect student feedback quickly and anonymously. A free account is available (offering two online surveys and two exit ticket surveys) at:

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Microsoft Clip Art