Assessment and Feedback

Day 1: What do we mean by “formative assessment?”

Image with the words what, when, why etc











Welcome to Day 1!

Today, we will look at the history and current meaning of the term “formative assessment”.  How has it been used and how is it used today?

Formative assessment has probably always been used by teachers both formally and informally, for their own information on how their students are progressing and  how effective their teaching has been. At times in the history of the concept, it has been narrowed down to measurement of progress according to defined outcomes and reduced to a metrics exercise for tracking achievements at student, teacher and institutional level.  However, overall, the concept has evolved  to broaden out its meaning to encompass constructivist and developmental theories of teaching and learning (Anrade et al, 2019, p. 8).

Discussion: How do you use this term?

Do you use formative assessment in your courses?  Let us know if you do, and what forms this takes.

Theoretical beginnings

While informally some types of formative assessment such as checking for students’ knowledge and for teaching effectiveness have probably always been part of teaching, the theoretical development of the concept started in earnest in the 1960s. Scriven (1963) discussed the concept of interim evaluation of student learning as “formative evaluation.”  Bloom developed the idea further, along with his taxonomies of educational objectives (1971).  (Cited by Anrade et al, 2019,  p. 6).  Definitions were originally around data on student progress for the teacher to adjust their teaching or the curriculum to ensure any weaknesses in student learning were addressed, and to provide feedback to students.

Contemporary discourse

More recently, researchers reviewing papers on formative assessment have found no real consistency in the meaning and use of the term.  Definitions can include one or more of the following elements in addition to those mentioned above:

  • A planned process
  • Evidence-gathering of student status/performance/learning
  • Evidence to be interpreted by teachers and students to set learning goals for improvement
  • Diagnosis of weaknesses and strengths to modify and customise student learning activities
  • A process while instruction is occurring
  • Collaboration between educators and students to ensure student learning
  • Preparation for life in a profession or workplace, beyond graduation.

The Anrade et al reference provides a comprehensive definition of formative assessment that includes elements of self-regulated learning, inference and disciplinary specificity, all of which are relevant to current theories of higher education.

“As part of a planned assessment system, formative assessment supports teachers’ and students’ inferences about strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvements in learning. It is a source of information that educators can use in instructional planning and students can use in deepening their understandings, improving their achievement, taking responsibility for, and self-regulating, their learning. Formative assessment includes both general principles, and discipline-specific elements that comprise the formal and informal materials, collaborative processes, ways of knowing, and habits of mind particular to a content domain.”  (Cisek et al, 2019, in Anrade et al, p. 14)

A central factor in defining “formative assessment” is to distinguish it from “summative assessment.”  For many years, this distinction was regarded as important, and can be summarised as follows:

Formative assessment is for the teacher to find out how effective the teaching has been, and to provide feedback to the student.   Formative assessment is active, collaborative,  and two-way, with the student involved in setting goals.

Summative assessment is at the end of a learning segment or unit and is used to judge the accomplishment of the student, and can also be used to judge the teaching and the institution.  Summative assessment is regarded as one-way, with the student in a passive role. (Cisek et al, 2019, in Anrade et al, p. 4-5).

Nowadays, this distinction is often characterised as “assessment for learning” vs “assessment of learning.”  (ibid, p. 5)  However with more emphasis on things like work-integrated learning and assessment, authentic assessment and eportfolios for assessment, the distinction is becoming blurred.

We will be teasing out some of the elements mentioned in this historical background, in the coming days.

Discussion:  Did you recognise these?

Do you recognise any of the concepts and elements relating to formative assessment in the background information and definitions provided here?  Are any of them a part of your understanding and use of formative assessment of students?  Do you differentiate between formative and summative assessment, and if so, how is this distinction made?


Anrade, H., Bennett, R. E. & Cizek, G.J.,  (2019) “Formative Assessment:  History, Definition, and Progress” in Handbook of Formataive Assessment in the Disciplines, Routledge. – Available in ANU Library as an e-book:

Nicol, David J. &  Macfarlane‐Dick Debra (2006) “Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice,” Studies in Higher Education, 31:2, 199-218, DOI: 10.1080/03075070600572090



10 thoughts on “Day 1: What do we mean by “formative assessment?”

  1. Hello everybody from Havana, Cuba (and from “yesterday”, here it is Sunday night). I am joining to this course, hoping to improve my knowledge and skills.
    Although assessment (in general) is not among my explicit research interests, my practice as educator, HE professor is obviously strongly linked with that kind of activity and, intuitively, I am aware of the meaning of both, formative and sumative assessments.
    Regarding above mentioned definitions, the way I see things, “Formative assessment is for the teacher to find out how effective the teaching has been, and to provide feedback to the student. Formative assessment is active, collaborative, and two-way, with the student involved in setting goals”, is the nearest to my way of understanding the concept, adding, might be, that assessment has the implicit aim of contribute to the acquisition of competencies, skills, knowledge, an not only a “verification” roll.

    1. Greetings Rey, it’s great to hear from someone as far away as Cuba and to get your insights from that context. Thanks for your comment – the way you define formative assessment puts all the main aspects into a tidy nutshell! I will be interested to hear more of assessment practices in Cuban higher education.

  2. In the classroom I see the distniction between formative and summative assessment as one more formal and informal. Formative can be done quickly during a lesson with a ‘thumbs up, side ways or down’ to show undrstadning of a concept . I also like an exit ticket for students to complete if we have started a new topic/concept. I can respond quicky to this feedback and target specific students or evaluate my teaching if there are many thumbs down! Students are involed in their feedback and can check their work against the success criteria. Summative is more formal with specific time restrictions. Parents are often very intereted in the summative assessment tasks.

    1. Hi J. Egan, thanks for sharing your approach – exit tickets are often advocated as a quick method to evaluate student understanding and our own teaching effectiveness. You can correct any wrong interpretations early!

  3. Hello! I agree with what has been commented on. I understand formative assessment as a more integral approach than the summative because it entails considering the student’s characteristics, acknowledging each of them for different reasons.
    I am very curious about seeing for example how to use exit tickets in a dynamic and meaningful way in HE.

    1. Hi Daniela, thanks for your comment. I love the word “Integral” to describe how formative assessment is different from summative. And also it is great that you include thinking about the student’s characteristics and diversity. I wonder if other people here have used exit tickets – if you have, we would love to hear from you about what you did and how it worked/didn’t work.

  4. Taking a slightly different approach …I think “formative” is interesting assessment – it allows both the convenor and others to see how the various flows of information and knowledge are going and how the convenor and others need to change (paddle in the flow!) and what is the greatest priority. If students have “agency” such interesting assessment allows them to change their own behaviour and progress towards their own objectives. Normative assessment by contrast is “boring” statistics collection and is primarily directed towards Administrators. Too much? 🙂

    1. Hi Cris, thanks for that distinction between formative “interesting” assessment and “normative” boring assessment for statistical and admin reasons. I absolutely agree with you – the students and teachers can actually have a bit of fun with formative assessments and also build relationships and community.

  5. Hi everyone,
    My view of formative assessment includes an enormous range of things that teachers and students do, including an overlap with summative tasks. For example, for some of my ‘summative’ assessments, I include formative ones, e.g. students have to post 3 times to a discussion board as part of their mark for a final research project. The posts are formative: I (and peers) give them feedback on their ideas and interpretations, but no mark on quality of interpretations other than 5% for meaningful posting. Both tasks (posts and project) ‘count’ towards the end result but one is assessed developmentally through qualitative feedback from me and peers, and 5% participation. I also think of things such as oral feedback in tutorials as formative.

    1. Hi Susy, thanks for your comment. That sounds like a great balance, providing accountability for participating in formative assessment and incorporating qualitative feedback, giving the formative assessment real relevance to the student. If the format assessment gives the students real help towards their knowledge requirements for the summative assessment, then they will very much value participating.

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