Formative Assessment


The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments:

  • help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
  • help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately
  Formative assessment Summative assessment
Grading Usually not graded Usually graded
Purpose Improvement: to give feedback to instructor and students about how well students understand specific material Judgment: to derive a grade, and to allow students to work intensively with course material
Focus Very focused on whether students have acquired specific skills or information Less focused on specific skills or information; instead, allows students to demonstrate a range of skills and knowledge
Effort Requires little time from instructors or students; simple; done in class Requires more time from instructors and students; complex; done outside of class

Recommendations for Formative Assessment

Ideally, formative assessment strategies improve teaching and learning simultaneously. Instructors can help students grow as learners by actively encouraging them to self-assess their own skills and knowledge retention, and by giving clear instructions and feedback. Seven principles (adapted from Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2007 with additions) can guide instructor strategies:

  • Keep clear criteria for what defines good performance – Instructors can explain criteria for A-F graded papers, and encourage student discussion and reflection about these criteria (this can be accomplished though office hours, rubrics, post-grade peer review, or exam / assignment wrappers(link is external)). Instructors may also hold class-wide conversations on performance criteria at strategic moments throughout a term.
  • Encourage students’ self-reflection – Instructors can ask students to utilize course criteria to evaluate their own or a peer’s work, and to share what kinds of feedback they find most valuable. In addition, instructors can ask students to describe the qualities of their best work, either through writing or group discussion.
  • Give students detailed, actionable feedback – Instructors can consistently provide specific feedback tied to predefined criteria, with opportunities to revise or apply feedback before final submission. Feedback may be corrective and forward-looking, rather than just evaluative. Examples include comments on multiple paper drafts, criterion discussions during 1-on-1 conferences, and regular online quizzes.
  • Encourage teacher and peer dialogue around learning – Instructors can invite students to discuss the formative learning process together. This practice primarily revolves around mid-semester feedback and small group feedback sessions, where students reflect on the course and instructors respond to student concerns. Students can also identify examples of feedback comments they found useful and explain how they helped. A particularly useful strategy, instructors can invite students to discuss learning goals and assignment criteria, and weave student hopes into the syllabus.
  • Promote positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem – Students will be more motivated and engaged when they are assured that an instructor cares for their development. Instructors can allow for rewrites/resubmissions to signal that an assignment is designed to promote development of learning. These rewrites might utilize low-stakes assessments, or even automated online testing that is anonymous, and (if appropriate) allows for unlimited resubmissions.
  • Provide opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance – Related to the above, instructors can improve student motivation and engagement by making visible any opportunities to close gaps between current and desired performance. Examples include opportunities for resubmission, specific action points for writing or task-based assignments, and sharing study or process strategies that an instructor would use in order to succeed.
  • Collect information which can be used to help shape teaching – Instructors can feel free to collect useful information from students in order to provide targeted feedback and instruction. Students can identify where they are having difficulties, either on an assignment or test, or in written submissions. This approach also promotes metacognition, as students are asked to think about their own learning. Poorvu Center staff can also perform a classroom observation or conduct a small group feedback session that can provide instructors with potential student struggles.



Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university (4th ed.). Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Maki, P. (2010). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Poorvu center (2020)

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