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What is Formative Assessment?: The Only Formative Assessment Definition You’ll Ever Need

What Is Formative Assessment

What Is Formative Assessment?

If you’ve found yourself wondering, “What is formative assessment?” — well, rest assured, you are not alone.  Formative assessment is one of the most commonly used and research-backed strategies that we have in our teacher-toolkits, and whether or not you’ve inked a formative assessment definition on your bicep, it’s something you surely put into practice on a daily basis.

That said, I’ve been part of countless workshops and in-services during which I’ve heard one colleague quietly mutter to another, “What is formative assessment, anyway?”  Whether it’s coming from a veteran teacher who’s unfamiliar with the language, or a new teacher who’s still building their repertoire, this deserves a fair and straightforward answer.  

So, fear not.  You’ve just met the formative assessment definition of your dreams.


Formative Assessment Definition

We’re going to answer the question, “What is formative assessment?” in a comprehensive and strategic way here.  What follows is a series of formative assessment definitions drawn from a variety of credible sources. Let’s take a look:


Formative Assessment Definition #1.  Source: Wikipedia.

Formative assessment refers to a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process in order to modify teaching and learning activities to improve student attainment. It typically involves qualitative feedback (rather than scores) for both student and teacher that focuses on the details of content and performance.  It is commonly contrasted with summative assessment, which seeks to monitor educational outcomes, often for purposes of external accountability.


Formative Assessment Definition #2.  Source: Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Brookhart’s Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom: A Guide for Instructional Leaders

“Formative assessment is an active and intentional learning process that partners the teacher and the students to continuously and systematically gather evidence of learning with the express goal of improving student achievement. Intentional learning refers to cognitive processes that have learning as a goal rather than an incidental outcome (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1989). Teachers and their students actively and intentionally engage in the formative assessment process when they work together to do the following (Brookhart, 2006):


  • Focus on learning goals.
  • Take stock of where current work is in relation to the goal.
  • Take action to move closer to the goal.


The primary purpose of formative assessment is to improve learning, not merely to grade or audit it. It is assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning. Formative assessment is both an “instructional tool” that teachers and their students “use while learning is occurring” and “an accountability tool to determine if learning has occurred” (National Education Association, 2003, p. 3). In other words, to be “formative,” assessments must inform the decisions that teachers and their students make minute by minute in the classroom.”


Formative Assessment Definition #3.  Source: The Council of Chief State School officers (CCSSO)

Formative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes.


  • Formative assessment is a process, not any particular test.
  • It is used not just by teachers but by both teachers and students.
  • Formative assessment takes place during instruction.
  • It provides assessment-based feedback to teachers and students.
  • The function of this feedback is to help teachers and students make adjustments that will improve students’ achievement of intended curricular aims.



What Is Formative AssessmentSo, What Is Formative Assessment?  And, What Isn’t It?

In short, formative assessment is every purposeful exchange between teacher and student that checks for understanding, and that is used to adjust and enhance learning.

That said, let’s tackle some popular misconceptions to deepen our understanding:


Can an assessment be summative and formative?  (Unit tests? Final exams?  Standardized tests?)

Yes, this is possible.  Summative and formative assessments are often described as being mutually exclusive and different entities — as if any assessment must one or the other, black or white.  The truth is, in practice, there are many shades of gray.

An end-of-chapter test that is administered on Monday, but reviewed in class on Tuesday, and used to determine the course of instruction based on students’ needs on Wednesday, makes good on what formative assessment is all about.  The stakes don’t necessarily have to be lower — although they can be, and often are. (This makes sense, considering that formative assessment is generally happening continuously, from bell to bell, as opposed to unit tests, which happen far less frequently.)  

Even major standardized tests have made an effort to incorporate some of perks of formative assessment into their design — such as faster access to feedback with the hopes of impacting instruction.  In this context, it can be helpful to think of formative assessment as a spectrum, rather than as a binary qualification.


If I grade it, it isn’t formative anymore?

Whether or not an assessment is graded has nothing to do with whether or not it’s formative or summative.  If you don’t grade a final exam, and it’s never revisited, it still isn’t formative. Likewise, if you formatively assess students’ understandings of linear equations to inform your instruction — and suddenly, you translate their work into grades in your gradebook — well, it’s still a formative assessment.  Entering grades, on the other hand, becomes a matter of professional practice, classroom environment, and fostering a culture that values safety, wellness, and learning… but that’s another conversation entirely.


My reading quizzes are formative assessments, right?

Only if you’re using them to inform instruction!  Do you review the quizzes as soon as they’re turned in, and, more importantly, do you make decisions to adjust your instruction as a result?  If you simply review the quizzes and suspect that students didn’t complete the assigned reading, but then put students in the same random groups to have the same exact discussion they would have had otherwise, the quizzes weren’t formative.  It’s essential that the assessment helps to inform your instruction in some way.


Is this for teachers only?  Can students formatively assess themselves?

That’s the real beauty of formative assessment!  Formative assessment doesn’t just help to empower you, as a teacher, in real-time (which is incredibly powerful, by the way).  Rather, the feedback that your students receive regarding these assessments is paramount to help them come to terms with their own current understandings, and their own needs as learners.


How important is feedback?

Feedback isn’t just “important.”  It’s capital, bold, underlined IMPORTANT.  It’s part of what makes formative assessment so powerful.  But, in order for feedback to have the tremendous impact that it’s capable of, it must be timely and relevant.  

Returning essays a month later?  Not going to improve learning. Instead, consider engaging students in partnered peer writing review for multiple feedback cycles per period.  


What is Formative Assessment: Considering the Neuroscience

Aside from simply staking out a comprehensive formative assessment definition, it may be especially enlightening for us to consider the neuroscientific underpinnings of formative assessment.  After all, the question, “What is formative assessment?” is almost always followed by, “Well, what’s the big deal? Why does this matter?”

In a nutshell, recent neuroscientific research has shown that one of the most effective strategies for building stronger neural connections (i.e. longer-lasting learning) is test-taking.  Now, that isn’t to say that all students should be taking tests day-in and day-out. This research isn’t about battering students with more standardized tests than they’re already subjected to.  Rather, it speaks to the positive impact of self-testing prior to test-day, of being hyper-focused on the exam once test-day rolls around, and of being highly sensitive to what you already know and already don’t when faced with the content on an exam.  This is a universal feeling that we’ve all experienced on a test at one point or another — or, more likely, on every test we’ve ever taken. And that feeling, well, that’s what learning feels like.

So from a neuroscientific perspective, formative assessment can offer students the benefits associated with “testing,” but in an environment with much lower stakes.  This, too, is wonderful for a number of neuroscientifically supported reasons — including increased access to the memory centers of the brain, and activating prior knowledge to strengthen memory.

If you’re hungry for more research or evidence regarding formative assessment, consider that it’s among the most impactful factors of student achievement as measured by John Hattie’s meta-analysis of instructional strategies, and popularized in his work, “Visible Learning.”  Research consistently shows that formative assessment has tremendous power.


What Is Formative Assessment: Strategies & Examples

Now that we have a working formative assessment definition, and now that we’ve unpacked some of the reasons why formative assessment is so critical to high quality teaching and learning, the time has come to discuss strategies and examples.  We’ve put the following resources together for this very reason:

If you’re looking to take a much deeper dive, we’ve developed an AWESOME online course that promises to bring you to the “cutting edge” with regard to student engagement and pedagogy.  Our course, Modern Mastery PD, hones in on student centered learning, the neuroscience of student engagement and motivation, gamification and game-based learning, gold standard educational technology integration, and more.  You can learn more here, or enter your email address below for more information and special offers!

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