As I coach teachers in classrooms on instructional practices that improve outcomes for struggling students, I have become convinced that formative assessment is one of the most powerful tools we have for ensuring student success.  Formative assessment is a tool that provides teachers with critical information throughout a lesson that can be used to improve teaching practices and student achievement. In contrast to summative assessment, which tells us whether students have mastered or failed to master content and skills at the end of a course of study, formative assessment guides both students and teachers during instruction and helps them to avoid failure altogether (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2010). Moss and Brookhart (2009) use the analogy of treating a sick child to help us understand the difference between summative and formative assessments. If a child were sick, would you rather take him or her to a doctor who diagnoses and treats the child during the illness (formative assessment) or to one who waits until the disease has taken its course to perform an autopsy to figure out what was wrong (summative assessment)?  While autopsies, or summative assessments, are important for problem-solving and forward planning, on-going diagnosis to improve treatment, or formative assessment, is critical for positive outcomes.

The formative assessment process supports classroom practices every day in every minute of every lesson by engaging teachers and students with three essential questions:

  1. What is my learning target or where am I going?
  2. Right now, where am I in relation to my learning target?
  3. In order to achieve my learning target what strategies do I need?

Although these questions seem simple they require both teachers and students to become skillful in determining where the student presently is in relation to the goal and in identifying the essential strategies needed to achieve the learning target. These simple questions should guide teacher planning and student learning before, during, and after all lessons. “This continuous process of setting a learning target, assessing present levels of understanding, and then working strategically to narrow the distance between the two is the essence of formative assessments.” (Moss & Brookhart, p. 8).

As they engage in effective formative assessment, teachers discover the difference between teaching to the learning objective of the lesson and teaching to ensure student mastery of the learning objective. Teachers learn to gather precise evidence of what students know and can do in relation to the learning goals. They learn to give students accurate feedback and they develop processes to engage students in reflecting upon their work and determining what they need to do in order to accomplish the learning target. As a result, students learn to regulate their own learning by making sure they understand the learning target, identifying what they need in order to accomplish it, and determining how they will know when they have been successful.

As I observe in classrooms where teachers and students are engaging in formative assessment I see visible evidence of the impact on student engagement.  Students take ownership of their own learning, promoting greater confidence and resiliency. Formative assessment fosters a classroom culture where students feel in control of their learning and believe that learning outcomes are attainable.  Rather than giving up after a failure, students engaged in formative assessment have a schema for analyzing and correcting errors so that they bounce back and persevere.

Interested in learning more? The book, Advancing Formation Assessment in Every Classroom:  A Guide for Instructional Leaders by Moss and Brookhart (2009), is a great resource for starting a study group with colleagues or a self-study on the topic, but here are more details on six overlapping elements of formative assessment which provide a strong foundation for learning.

  1. Shared learning targets and criteria for success:  This step requires clarity from the teacher about what students are going to learn and commitment to ensuring students understand this objective before beginning the lesson.
  2. Feedback that feeds forward: This means that feedback should not be provided merely to correct students’ errors but to inform them and engage them in moving forward and progressing.
  3. Student goal setting:  Teachers must teach students how to set goals and teach them strategies that will help them accomplish these goals. These include strategies for self- monitoring and adjusting their work as needed. Teachers can teach students to select goals that are “just right” by focusing on the goal’s specificity, challenge, and probability of success (Pintrich & Schunk, 2002; Stipek, 2002).
  4. Student self-assessment:   Teaching students to self-assess provides them with the tools to identify their own strengths and weaknesses and to regulate their own learning.  Teachers can start teaching students to self-assess by having them check and grade their own work. Sadler & Good (2006) found that students make greater gains when they check and grade their own tests than when they check a classmate’s test.
  5. Strategic teacher questioning: Strategic teacher questioning requires planning questions prior to delivering a lesson that will assess student knowledge and experience; ensuring that every student is responding; using questions that promote dialogue; and incorporating wait time to allow students to think and formulate responses to more complex questions. These types of questions promote richer, deeper learning (Walsh & Sattes, 2005).
  6. Student engagement in asking effective questions:  In a classroom where students are active participants in their learning, they ask questions. As Moss & Brookhart say, “they see their questions as mind tools for the job of learning because their teacher encourages their questions as indicators of powerful thinking. Questions are valued in the classroom, and questions are asked by and of all learners.” (p. 114)

Through formative assessment teachers and students form a partnership that enhances their day-to-day interactions, generates a rise in student academic achievement and increases student motivation to learn. This partnership makes a very big difference in what happens day to day and minute by minute in each classroom. “This powerful learning process enhances the learning of those who are already excelling, jump-starts and sustains learners who are smoldering with potential, and increases student achievement for all students.” (Moss & Brookhart, p. 23)


Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2010). Driven by Data: A Practical Guide to Improve Instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Moss, C. M., & Brookhart, S. M. (2009). Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom: A Guide for

Instructional Leaders. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Pintrich, P. R., & Schunk, D. H. (2002). Motivation in Education: Theory, Research, and Application (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice-Hall.

Sadler, P. M., & Good, E. (2006). The impact of self- and peer-grading on student learning. Educational Assessment, 11(1), 1-31.

Stipek, D. J. (2002). Motivation to Learn: Integrating Theory and Practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Walsh, J. A., & Sattes, B. D. (2005). Quality Questioning: Research-Based Practice to Engage Every Learner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.