What is formative assessment?

Welcome to our deep dive on formative assessment. If you’re looking for the quick answer just scroll down for the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read). Otherwise join us as we take a look at what makes formative assessment so important.

Formative assessment is a diagnostic tool that I’m sure each of us has used in our classrooms, even if we didn’t know it! It’s a key part of creating lessons that meet our students’ needs, and of tailoring our lessons to cover material that’s challenging. But more, and perhaps more excitingly, it’s a tool that builds the capacity of our students to take ownership of their learning and confidence! We’ll be doing a series of blogs on it, to help you better understand formative assessment and its role in our teaching.

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment at its heart is about what the students will learn, and how their learning progresses. It’s also a tool for teachers and students to communicate their progress and needs during a lesson. Think of it as a more qualitative process, not focused on grades as much as on the needs, understanding, and progress of each student! The key to formative assessment is taking those revelations to help teachers put together a more complete picture of their classroom and the level of comprehension of their students.

Formative assessment as a communication tool.

Formative assessment is about feedback, and communication. It provides teachers with feedback that is essential for them to address and support the students needs. While it also opens up students to identifying their own progress.

This is where formative assessment really shines! It allows for the communication loop between the student and the teacher to close. Giving the necessary feedback to both teacher and student to gauge and react to the understanding of the material in class.

It’s also where peer feedback becomes an essential tool, because this kind of feedback supports and encourages metacognition and mastery. When peer feedback happens in the draft stages of assignments students know there is still room for improvement and can find the feedback less threatening and more of a tool for success. Using tools like Peergrade gives teachers an overview of student progress and students can self-evaluate their own progress.

Bringing Formative Assessment into your classroom

Although it is an informal tool, formative assessment requires a bit of thought to include it in the classroom. One reason being that students need to know how they will be measured and evaluated.

You’ll need to make sure that you have clear, well-structured expectations and learning goals for each lesson. The criteria for success should be defined ahead of time ideally with your class! Co-creating a rubric with the students is a great example of how to make the assessment criteria clear. Defining these criteria together builds trust and more importantly helps to uncover alternative paths to reaching the learning goals!

On the practical side, formative assessments provide feedback on achieving the learning goals to the teacher. It brings attention to areas where students are struggling and it’s a vital part of individualizing the content of the lesson and supporting each students needs.

Examples of Formative Assessment

Examples of formative assessment range from exit tickets, quizzes, doodling, to peer feedback. A familiar exercise that is often used, and which sums up the practical side of formative assessment is the five-finger check-in. Use the fist to five finger setup – where you use your closed fist to show that you’re lost and don’t understand at all. One finger means, “I’m getting it, but I need a bit of help.” Two fingers – “I’ve got a decent idea, but need more examples, or need some practice”. Three, “I understand, but I’m not sure how I’d use it” and four, “I can use this, but I don’t completely understand it”. An open hand, all five fingers up means, “I’ve got this, and I can teach it.”

In just a few seconds you can survey your class, register where your students are on the lesson, and then start a corrective course. Check out more ideas for quick and easy formative assessments in our 8 new ways to use peer feedback guide.


Formative assessment is:

  • A diagnostic tool which provides feedback allowing a teacher to modify their lesson plans to meet their students’ needs.
  • A quick and simple tool to check in and identify areas where students are struggling, and allow for extra support and care to be given to those that need it during the lesson.
  • A side-step from grade-oriented thinking, focusing more on process and mastery. Making lessons more about self-discovery, curiosity, and learning.
  • Giving students ownership in their own learning.

The benefits of formative assessment:

  • Helps provide structure and clarifies expectations of performance and learning.
  • Strengthens student agency and metacognition.
  • Students are involved in their learning process, and also in the teaching process through peer feedback and support.
  • Encourages dialogue and opens up communication.
  • It helps students reach their learning goals!

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