By Edward W. Holler and Barry Beers

Formative assessment is a powerful instructional technique that will increase student learning and improve test scores.

Most teachers will find the methods easy to adopt and employ during instruction.

Once formative assessment becomes institutionalized as a practice in a school, teachers have a better control of instructional pacing, student engagement in lessons increases, and measurable outcomes of student learning improve.

As the dynamic principal at Gonzales Middle School in Ascension Parish, LA, Lori Charlet has spent a lot of time visiting classrooms. Under her watch, test scores are improving because the social environment is being restructured and the professional competencies of the teachers are the focus of the staff development activities of the school. Charlet has help with these tasks from a talented set of master teachers led by Jennifer Tuttelton. The leaders have raised the expectations for students and teachers, which has resulted in improving results on high-stakes tests.

Last spring, after a brief walk-through assessing student engagement, Charlet asked a teacher if the students had learned the material presented during the class period. The teacher’s response was very typical: she said that she thought that the students had learned, but she would not know for certain until they took the unit test. Many teachers discover how well students have learned just that way.

Teachers and administrators should have better information about what students have learned in classrooms every day. This occurs when teachers, armed with powerful instructional skills, plan and assess student mastery of the curriculum routinely as a part of their instructional presentation. Formative assessment provides critical information about student learning to teachers when it is an embedded element in instruction.

Formative Assessment

As described by Linn and Gronland (2000), formative assessment is “any of a variety of procedures used to obtain information about student learning” (p. 19). Cowie and Bell (1999) define formative assessment as “the process used by teachers and students to recognize and respond to student learning in order to enhance that learning, during instruction” (p. 103). Other definitions have the common thread that formative assessments give teachers valuable information that they can use to improve instruction.

Formative assessment refers to a wide range of methods that can be used by teachers to gain information about student learning and mastery of a lesson. When formative assessments are integrated into instruction, they allow the teacher to use reflective teaching—the instruction that occurs after the teacher learns new information about the students’ progress. Reflective teaching can guide instruction and help the teacher adjust the presentation of the curriculum to better meet the students’ needs. Teachers and students benefit from the use of formative assessment in classes.

Need for Formative Assessment in Classrooms

Checking of understanding improves the quality of instruction provided in classrooms. There are three reasons why checking for understanding increases the effectiveness of instruction:

  • Checking for understanding permits students to assess their own learning
  • Teachers can use the information they gain to correct any misunderstandings among the students
  • The information that is collected is used to guide future learning activities.

Formative assessment increases the likelihood that students will engage in higher-order thinking when they consider alternative solutions or refine their responses. Teachers will change their interaction with students during instruction because they become interested in what students have learned, not what they have taught. Because they generate so much information for teachers, the integration of formative assessments throughout the instructional process should be seamless.

Two requirements accompany the use of formative assessment that increase engagement and improve learning: First, students must have time to reflect and generate their responses. Second, they must all feel a sense of responsibility to provide a response. In addition, a vital component of the formative assessment process includes assessing prior knowledge so that instruction begins at the correct entry point, which should be based on student needs.

Research Says

Education researchers have identified many of the attributes of high-quality instruction. Educators already know enough to be successful in nearly every classroom in America (Schmoker, 2006). Schmoker further asserted that “the single greatest determinant of learning is not socioeconomic factors or funding levels. It is instruction” (p. 7).

Beers (2006) asked school leaders three questions related to formative assessment:

  • How do teachers in your school know if students have mastered the objective?
  • How do teachers check homework?
  • What do your teachers do on review day?

Administrators can determine the type and the effectiveness of formative assessment being used in classrooms when these questions are answered.

When formative assessment techniques are developed and used as a part of the instructional presentation in classrooms, changes occur in schools. Review days disappear because most deficiencies were discovered and targeted during lessons. Tests do not produce surprises; they become sources of information that will improve subsequent instruction. Teachers discover that the games and other review activities that engage only a few learners are ineffective and remove them from their plans. Teachers learn that instruction isn’t effective unless everyone is learning.

In classrooms where teachers are using a variety of formative assessment techniques, the benefits are readily evident. Instruction is guided by the needs of the students, rather than the sequence of the book. Listed below are some examples of effective assessment items:

  • Raise your hand if you know the four reasons for the Spanish American War.
  • Jot down the first word you think of when I call out the names of various explorers.
  • After seeing the responses on your whiteboards, it is clear that there is some confusion. Compare you answer to your neighbor’s.
  • The answer given was correct. Now raise your hand if you can tell me why.
  • Everyone put your head on your desk. Now close your eyes and raise your hand when you hear the author use a pronoun.
  • Use the ABCD cards to let me know if you A, Strongly agree; B, Agree; C, Disagree; or D, Strongly disagree when I read statements from the editorials.

Formative Assessment Techniques

The skills necessary to improve instruction are not mysterious or baffling, but easy-to-use, effective techniques are often missing from teachers’ instructional tool kits. But the essential elements of high-quality formative assessment are skills that can be learned, developed, and honed with practice. Following are some of the more effective techniques.

Check for prior knowledge. Formative assessment begins with checking for prior knowledge. Often, teachers’ assumptions about students’ readiness are incorrect. This results in the reduction of student engagement because students either do not know enough to make progress on the topic or become bored because instruction is repetitious. A quick check provides essential information that will help teachers identify students’ needs, engage students on the objective, and produce positive learning experiences.

Dodge (2012) relayed how important checking for prior knowledge is by saying that teachers are more effective when they know what students know. This information is “provided by quick comments, a check, thumb up, brief explanation, or clarifying question. All these methods are used to learn what students are learning and how the teacher can aid in that process.”

There are many ways to check for prior knowledge. For example, teachers can ask students to share their knowledge about the topic (e.g., List five facts you know about . . .). Teachers can conduct a quick survey of important related themes and terminology (e.g., Define isotope). Students can pair off and spill the facts to each other in a one- or two-minute dialogue (e.g., With your partner, place the items listed on the board in chronological order). Teachers can use signals to gain detailed knowledge about students’ status on the topic at hand (e.g., If you have three answers that you are sure of, raise a hand).

Flash cards. This permits each student to respond to a question by signaling their answer. Flash cards come in many forms: A, B, C, D cards and color cards are among the most used. Student responses can be surveyed quickly and provide the teacher with information about student mastery of the topic. For example, teachers can say, “There are four regions listed on the board, labeled A, B, C, or D. When I say a state, tell me in which region the state is located by using your cards.”

Signaling. Age-appropriate techniques offer teachers important information about student mastery and understanding. Also, “think time” can be easily incorporating into signaling. Younger students can be asked to touch their nose, and older students can use thumbs up or thumbs down when the task is complete or when they know the answer. Other hand signals can be used. Voting with one’s feet is another technique that encourages dialogue and lets students get up and move around the room. In this form of signaling, students with similar responses move to different sections of the room where they work together to enhance their responses.

Check with a partner. This technique permits students to confer with other students before responding to questions. This offers some social interaction, provides think time, and improves responses for students. It is also a chance to match confident students with those who may be intimidated and reluctant to participate.

Choral responses. Students are asked to orally respond to a set of questions to give the teacher a large set of responses and increase students’ engagement. If only a few students are responding, more specific forms of questioning should follow.

Exit cards. Students are asked to answer a question or provide a comment on cards or sticky notes before they leave class. The cards give the teacher insight into what the students experienced and learned during class.

Think-pair-share. This activity has many variations, but typically, students are asked to think about what they know, exchange information with a classmate to improve their responses, and report their answer to a larger group. This can be used at any time during a lesson, but it is often used to begin a lesson or to summarize it.

Manipulative techniques. In this technique, students demonstrate their understanding of relationships and organization that relate to the objective. Often, teachers will give students a list of items to place in order, arrange in a Venn diagram, place in the correct column, or group according to a common attribute. For example, a fourth-grade teacher can have students learn ratios using M&Ms.

Whiteboards. With this technique, students write their responses on a whiteboard and hold the boards up on command. This is very effective for increasing student engagement and for determining mastery.

Most teachers use only the strategies that they have practiced and are comfortable presenting in their classroom. Effective teachers use strategies that match the needs of learners. We encourage teachers to leave their comfort zones and experiment with a wider set of instructional strategies, including the use of formative assessment during instruction. It is hoped that this will increase student performance in their classes and add to their professional competence.


Teachers work hard. Our suggestion is not that they work harder, but that they make their work more effective by focusing on learning, rather than the coverage of content. The observer will know when improvements have been made in regard to formative assessment when the teacher is heard asking, How many of you? rather than, Which one of you?


  • Beers, B. (2006). Learning-driven schools: A practical guide for teachers and principals. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Cowie, B., & Bell, B. (1999). A model of formative assessment in science education. Assessment in Education, 6, 101–116.
  • Dodge, J. (2012). What are formative assessments and why should we use them? New York, NY: Scholastic.
  • Linn, R. L., & Grolund, N. E. (2000). Measurement and assessment in teaching (8th ed.).
  • Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.
  • Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now: How can we achieve unprecedented improvements in teaching and learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Edward W. Holler
is a former elementary and middle school principal in Virginia who now is a consultant with the Urban Learning and Leadership Center in Hampton, VA.

Barry Beers is a former middle school and high school principal. He is the author of Learning-Driven Schools (ASCD, 2006). He is currently the founder and CEO of Learning-Driven Schools LLC, a SIG facilitator with the Virginia Department of Education, and a lead consultant with the Urban Learning and Leadership Center in Hampton, VA.