Ohio Resource Center

Formative Assessment: Research-Based Classroom Practice

by Karen E. Irving, The Ohio State University, School of Teaching and Learning

Assessment connects the two fundamental aspects of the classroom: teaching and learning. There are two distinct kinds of assessment: evaluative assessment and practice-based assessment.

Evaluative assessment of learning is often conducted by external researchers or curriculum overseers over a long period of time for purposes of accountability and comparison. The information collected may inform policy makers, but it might not provide useful guidance at the school or classroom level. For example, surveys such as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and state assessments like the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) evaluate populations of students for international, national, and regional benchmarking. These assessments attempt to drive improvements in student achievement by rewarding (or punishing) groups based on their relative scores. However, classroom teachers find little useful information from these kinds of assessments to inform their daily practice with students.

Practice-based assessment for learning (this can be summative or formative assessment) is local, is context dependent, occurs in individual classrooms over a short period of time, and provides immediately useful information to guide teacher pedagogical decision making. This type of assessment may influence teaching as it occurs, helping teachers decide how difficult to make the demonstrated examples, what questions to ask and how to formulate them, what to cover in class and include in homework assignments, and how to structure subsequent lessons.

Conventional summative assessment generally occurs at the end of a unit or chapter. In this model, a pretest determines what students know before instruction begins. Then teaching occurs for some predetermined time period, followed by a post-test that establishes what students know after instruction. The differences between these two assessment instruments—the pretest and the post-test—reflect the success of the teaching and learning process. This concept of teaching and learning lends itself to formal testing regimens as a way to assess successful learning (Erickson, 2007).

Formative assessment arises from a constructivist theoretical perspective that assumes teaching and learning to be ongoing, continuous, and open-ended activities. Simultaneously with instruction, teachers measure a student's knowledge and skills, evaluate the gap between where the student is and where the teacher would like the student to be, and then provide instruction intended to narrow this gap. This interpretation of teaching and learning focuses attention on how the learner responds to new information and on the learner's existing knowledge and understandings (Black, 2003). Learning involves the analysis and transformation of new information, integrating it into existing knowledge frameworks. Black and colleagues (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2003) describe the process this way:

An assessment activity can help learning if it provides information to be used as feedback by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves and each other, to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is used to adapt the teaching work to meet the learning needs. (p. 2)

Extensive reviews of research studies on formative assessment practice show a strong correlation between innovations that include formative assessment practices and substantial gains in learning. Participants in these studies included students as young as five years old as well as university undergraduates. Some of these studies demonstrated that formative assessment helps low achievers more than others, and so by raising achievement among low achievers along with closing the achievement gap, it raises overall student achievement levels (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Fuchs & Fuchs, 1986).

Characteristics of Formative Assessment

Different types of formative assessment have been described in the educational research literature. Bell and Cowie (2001) distinguish formative assessment practices according to when they occur, dividing them into planned and interactive assessments. In their view, planned formative assessment may occur as bell-ringers or as the lesson unfolds. As the word planned in the name implies, planned formative assessment includes activities contemplated during the preteaching planning phase for specific purposes such as gathering information about prior knowledge in an opening activity or checking midpoint progress. In contrast, interactive formative assessment is characterized by interactions between students and teachers during instruction and varies based on the differences in classrooms.

Inquiry learning presents the opportunity for teachers to engage students in rich tasks that both broaden and deepen their conceptual understandings. During an inquiry lesson, ongoing assessment practices provide information about students' conceptual development as the lesson proceeds. A continuum of formative assessment practices ranges from assessment embedded in the formal curriculum to on-the-fly assessments. Unlike the limited opportunities that exist for formative assessment in traditional lecture-style instruction, where the teacher talks and the students listen, the rich tasks associated with inquiry teaching offer abundant opportunities for students to reveal their current understanding and for teachers to provide corrective guidance and productive feedback (Ruiz-Primo & Furtak, 2007).

Formative assessment probes are specifically designed as diagnostic tools to help teachers determine student prior knowledge. Research in science education learning reveals that learners enter the classroom with deeply held naïve views of how the natural world works (Donovan & Bransford, 2005). Despite performing well on chapter tests administered immediately after instruction that ask students to recall recently learned science "facts," many students fail to integrate this new learning into their conceptual framework and soon revert to their prior naïve understandings. Students approach classroom instruction with partially correct or incorrect ideas and schemas about how the natural world works based on their previous life experience. Successful teaching requires modification of these initial understandings. Diagnostic formative assessment before the beginning of instruction helps both students and teachers identify students' existing ideas prior to instruction (Keeley, Eberle, & Farrin, 2005).

The following ORC instructional resources illustrate effective formative assessment techniques:

Science Journals

Example lesson: Earth Movers (ORC #3469)

Formative assessment aspects of this lesson: Tasks that reveal student prior knowledge

The Earth Movers lesson opens with an engaging reading assignment describing what it was like to experience the 1983 Loma Prieta earthquake. This firsthand account helps students understand the personal experiences for people in San Francisco during this 6.9 magnitude earthquake. The lesson identifies student naïve conceptions regarding changes on the earth's surface and the difficulty in understanding gradual, long-term changes such as mountain building. After personalizing the idea of earthquakes, the lesson invites students to write about their understandings of forces underneath the surface of the earth and plate tectonics. These writings provide a starting point to document student growth in understanding as they participate in the planned learning experiences.

Also see:
Cancer Risks (ORC #3450)

Here Comes Bernoulli (ORC #2313)

Multiple Representations

Example lesson: Characteristics of Living Things (ORC #5008)

Formative assessment aspects of this lesson: Diagrams reveal student learning

Concept mapping, Venn diagrams, matrices, and other forms of diagrams and drawings provide opportunities for students and teachers to represent their understanding in novel ways. Since many tasks require students to combine knowledge in different forms, students benefit from practice transitioning between multiple representations. Rather than develop isolated "islands of knowledge," teachers strive to provide bridges for students between what they already know and desired new learning. Diagrams, charts, and images can mediate between different knowledge islands and help student develop rich conceptual understanding. Transforming their understanding from one representational system to another is the kind of rich task that helps student reveal their understanding or naïve views. Teacher evaluation of these representations provides clues to student conceptual growth and can guide teachers in selecting appropriate classroom strategies to move learning forward.

Also see:
The Stowaway Adventure (ORC #3281). This lesson illustrates to use of maps and calculations to represent knowledge.

Simple Thermodynamics of Transportation (ORC #2310). In this lesson, students develop a diagram of the energy transfers involved in moving a kayak.

Framework for Formative Assessment Practice

Field studies show that a number of classroom teachers find formative assessment difficult to understand and put into practice (Assessment Reform Group, 1999; Daws & Singh, 1996, 1999). To better understand the process, Torrance and Pryor (2001) have created a descriptive and analytic framework for interactive as-the-lesson-unfolds formative assessment (see Table 1).

Table 1. Framework for formative assessment (based on Torrance & Pryor, 2001).

Stage Teacher Action Student Action
Identify the task
  • Define the learning objective
  • Define the learning task
  • Provide rich task that offers opportunity for students to reveal learning progress
  • Set quality criteria
  • Engage in the learning task
  • Understand task and reasons
  • Negotiate quality criteria
  • Understand quality indicators
Gather data
  • Observe closely
  • Ask questions
  • Ask for clarification
  • Engage meta-cognition
  • Construct knowledge
  • Reveal prior knowledge
  • Articulate understanding
  • Check for understanding
  • Engage in meta-cognition
Evaluate data
  • Critique aspects of student work
  • Provide corrective information
  • Make counter-suggestions
  • Give/discuss evaluative feedback
  • Review quality criteria
  • Practice self-monitoring
  • Enhance knowledge of quality
  • Enhance motivation
Make pedagogical decision
  • Identify the gap between student level of achievement and goals
  • Weigh current understanding with previous plans
  • Select strategy to narrow the gap
  • Make decision about ways forward for lesson
  • Suggest or negotiate next steps
  • Deepen understanding of process/principles
  • Informed about current achievement
  • Recognize steps needed to narrow the gap between current and desired performance levels

In the initial stage, the teacher identifies the learning task and establishes the criteria for superior work. How will the teacher and the students know when student work is high quality? What characterizes quality work and distinguishes it from inferior performance? In this first stage, teacher and students clarify what the goal and success criteria are for learning and create a quality assurance guide. This not only helps with the current task, but establishes a framework for what is considered acceptable for future work in that classroom.

In the second stage, the teacher carefully observes students at work in order to gain knowledge of whether students properly comprehend the task, to identify any initial barriers that might impede student progress, and to provide additional clarification that might be needed as students undertake the assignment. This stage includes student-teacher discourse as both parties refine their understanding. Student construction of knowledge, articulation of understanding, and initial skills practice provide opportunities for meta-processes and self-regulation. Students and teachers are actively involved in the learning process as they gather data during instruction (Torrance & Pryor, 2001).

While continuing to gather data, both teachers and students evaluate the data and critique various aspects of the work. Teachers might provide corrective guidance as they perceive students are misinterpreting the task or might point out additional information students need to complete the task. This evaluative stage serves to enhance the quality of future work, promotes independent student work, and helps communicate information regarding alternative or more acceptable student products. Students gain an enhanced understanding of what counts as quality work. They are empowered to evaluate their own efforts and identify aspects that might contribute to successful learning (Torrance & Pryor, 2001).

The fourth stage of formative assessment is for some the most critical and is the distinguishing characteristic of this kind of assessment. In this stage, teachers suggest to students or negotiate with them what to do next. This is interactive (Bell & Cowie, 2001) formative assessment that occurs on the fly and requires sophisticated pedagogical content knowledge skills on the part of the teacher. While managing all the complex aspects of a twenty-first-century classroom, the teacher is also called upon to consider and select an appropriate strategy to move student learning forward based on the input received only moments before. This is arguably the most challenging aspect of formative assessment, as teachers need to not only evaluate classroom learning based on immediate feedback, but also make plans for instruction nearly simultaneously. Experience with students in prior class periods or in prior teaching years provides valuable insight as teachers gain know-how and learn to recognize and remember student learning challenges for a particular topic or for a particular group of students (Torrance & Pryor, 2001).

The following ORC instructional resources model how ongoing assessment might be embedded throughout a lesson.

Assessment Timelines

Example lesson: Biomes: Action for a Healthy Planet (ORC #6555)

Formative assessment aspects of this lesson: Ongoing student-centered assessment

A variety of assessment types have been suggested throughout the Biomes: Action for a Healthy Planet lesson description including student questioning, peer feedback, and teacher conferences. Rubrics and scoring guides suggest guidelines for quality work and open a dialogue with students regarding expectations for performance. Self-assessment, group assessment, and tight feedback loops foster student evaluation of their individual and group performances and sharpen their diagnostic skills, helping them know what they know and what they still need to learn. Teacher conferences provide data useful for diagnosis of learning progress and opportunity for redirecting teaching.

Also see:
Lights, Camera, Reaction! (ORC #6559)

Cell-to-Cell (ORC #6556)

Research-Based Formative Assessment Practice

What guidance does educational research offer to help teachers improve their formative assessment practice? Black and Wiliam's Assessment Reform Group (1999) has identified formative assessment techniques that support teachers in helping to improve student achievement. According to their work and the work of others (e.g., Bell & Cowie, 2001; Ruiz-Primo & Furtak, 2007), students benefit from effective classroom feedback that identifies specific actions needed for self-improvement. Students need to be actively engaged in the learning process. Instruction should respond immediately to student learning needs. Helpful feedback not only assists students in identifying their learning needs, but also recognizes the powerful influence that different kinds of feedback have on student motivation and self-esteem. Students need to understand the activities that teachers plan for classroom instruction, as well as the learning objective for the lesson. With clearly defined learning goals, students can participate more actively in their self-assessment of learning progress (Clarke, 2001).

In addition to these effective practices, methods that interfere with successful learning have been identified. When teachers reward quantity rather than quality work, students learn to produce lengthy but low-quality products. If grades are the most important aspect of assessment, students pay little attention to what is needed to improve their learning. When competition and comparison characterize classroom interactions, low-achieving students are demoralized and quickly disengage from the learning process. When teachers provide feedback that focuses exclusively on classroom management and student deportment, students learn that the important aspect of school is good behavior rather than student achievement (Assessment Reform Group, (1999).

These ORC resources show ways teachers can create a safe classroom environment that encourages students to honestly reveal their prior ideas about the concepts involved in the lesson.

Productive Written Discourse

Example lesson: Isotopes of Pennies (ORC #3501)

Formative assessment aspects of this lesson: Comments-only assessment

The Isotopes of Pennies lesson from Science NetLinks acknowledges student naïve conceptions about isotopes and recognizes the difficulty students have with atomic number, mass number, and atomic mass values on the periodic table. The lesson begins with student-teacher discourse regarding values found on the periodic table. Students use their own words to define important terms. This initial writing exercise allows students to reveal their prior knowledge without fear of "getting a bad grade." The teacher challenge here is to create a safe classroom environment that encourages students to honestly reveal their prior ideas about the concepts involved in the lesson. Journaling or writing provides a private opportunity for every student to engage in this task. Teacher comments at this stage should encourage students to continue to think about their ideas and to compare their thinking with scientific views of isotopes and atoms. The lesson explicitly informs students at the outset that their initial ideas may be modified by the instructional experiences planned for the lesson.

Also see:
Managing the Everglades Ecosystem (ORC #3513). This lesson makes use of a "diary entry" to access students' early thinking about the Everglades National Park. http://www.ohiorc.org/record/3513.aspx

Mobile Inquiry Technology: Monitoring an Aquarium (ORC #6159). This lesson asks students to respond to some preliminary question in which they discuss the evidence they have for their current thinking. http://www.ohiorc.org/record/6159.aspx

Informative Feedback Practices

A recent review of the literature on formative feedback by Valerie Shute provides additional guidelines for enhancing learning through effective feedback techniques (Shute, 2008). Suggested practices include feedback that:

  • Targets the task, not the learner.
  • Describes the what, how, and why for a given task.
  • Concisely elaborates in manageable chunks how student work needs to be improved but does not overwhelm students.
  • Makes clear, specific suggestions.
  • Includes only as much information as needed.
  • Clarifies the difference between current student work and the desired goal.
  • Is written and as objective as possible.
  • Promotes a learning orientation (I can learn this if I try) rather than performance orientation (no matter how hard I try, I cannot learn this because I am dumb).
  • Occurs only after students attempt to solve the problem on their own.
  • Includes comments, whenever possible without grades.
(Shute, 2008).

Research has shown that the following two feedback practices impede student learning: comparing students with other students and drawing attention to individual deficits. If feedback is critical of the learner rather than the gap between learner performance and task criteria, student learning is impeded. Students respond better to written feedback than oral feedback, as written comments are perceived as less biased and more neutral in nature. If students are engaged in the learning task, teachers should delay feedback rather than interrupt them as they work. The teacher practice of providing progressive hints that culminate in offering students the right answer may be abused by students as they learn to manipulate the teacher to do their work for them. Using a variety of feedback modes such as text, diagrams, visuals, and acoustical supports increased student learning (Shute, 2008).

The timing of formative assessment has been the subject of considerable research (Shute, 2008). Studies have demonstrated that immediate feedback to students produces rapid learning gains and promotes efficient learning. However, some studies have also demonstrated that delayed feedback may produce better learning transfer from one instructional context to a new context. More research is needed in this area to clarify the gains possible for delayed feedback practices. Researchers have established that immediate feedback is particularly beneficial for learning tasks that are identified as difficult for a particular group of students. If the task is relatively simple, then delayed feedback is more successful. For tasks that require procedural or conceptual knowledge, immediate feedback has produced stronger learning gains.

Different types of students respond to feedback differently. In regard to the timing of feedback, high achievers benefit more from delayed feedback than low achievers. In regard to the type of feedback, direct or corrective feedback has proved successful with low achievers, where facilitative feedback is more successful with high achievers. Low achievers benefit from a correct response with elaboration feedback style. Three characteristics of the feedback style that teachers control include the content of the feedback (hints, cues, correctness, explanations, worked-out examples), the function of the feedback (motivational, cognitive, metacognitive), and presentation aspects (timing, frequency, format)(Shute, 2008).


To practice formative assessment successfully in the classroom, teachers need to clearly identify the learning intentions for a particular lesson, communicate both the learning intentions and the activity instructions to students, gather data during the instructional sequence about learning progress as well as student disposition, evaluate the data while instruction is occurring, and be able to make strategy decisions based on the evaluation of the data that help close the gap between where students are in their learning progress and where they need to be. Students need to believe that their efforts in the classroom lead to success, to actively engage in the learning process, to monitor their own learning progress, to learn to evaluate that progress, and to learn to communicate their learning progress to others (students as well as the teacher).


Assessment Reform Group. (1999). Assessment for learning: Beyond the black box. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, School of Education.

Bell, B., & Cowie, B. (2001). The characteristics of formative assessment in science education. Science Education, 85(5), 536–553.

Black, P. (2003). The importance of everyday assessment. In J. M. Atkin & J. E. Coffey (Eds.), Every assessment in the science classroom. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2003). Assessement for learning: Putting it into practice. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. London: King's College London. Retrieved April 7, 2007, from http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/kbla9810.htm.

Clarke, S. (2001). Unlocking formative assessment: Strategies for enhancing pupils' learning in the primary classroom. London: Hodder Murray.

Daws, N., & Singh, B. (1996). Formative assessment: To what extent is its potential to enhance pupils' science being realized? School Science Review, 77(281), 93–100.

Daws, N., & Singh, B. (1999). Formative assessment strategies in secondary science. School Science Review 80(293), 71–78.

Donovan, M. S., & Bransford, J. (2005). How students learn science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Erickson, F. (2007). Some thoughts on "proximal" formative assessment of student learning. Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, 106(1), 186–216.

Fuchs, L. S., & Fuchs, D. (1986). Effects of formative evaluation on student achievement: A meta-analysis. Exceptional Child, 53, 199–208.

Keeley, P., Eberle, F., & Farrin, L. (2005). Uncovering student ideas in science: 25 formative assessment probes (Vol. 1). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Ruiz-Primo, M. A., & Furtak, E. M. (2007). Exploring teachers' informal formative assessment practices and students' understanding in the context of scientific inquiry. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(1). 57–84.

Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1), 153–189.

Torrance, H., & Pryor, J. (2001). Developing formative assessment in the classroom: Using action research to explore and modify theory. British Educational Research Journal, 27(5), 615–631.

Karen E. Irving is an assistant professor in the School of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University. She earned her B.S. and M.S. in chemistry at Bucknell University and Ph.D. in science education at the University of Virginia. Dr. Irving received the 2004 National Technology Leadership Initiative Science Fellowship Award for her work in educational technology in science teaching and learning. Dr. Irving is co-principal investigator on the Connected Classrooms in Promoting Achievement in Mathematics and Science project supported by the Institute of Education Sciences (Grant R305K0050045). This project is an interdisciplinary national field trial of technology-facilitated teaching and learning in algebra and science classrooms.