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Using Formative Assessment Data to Guide Learning

High-quality educators take the saying “be quick on your feet” to an entirely new level almost each and every day within their classrooms. Educators not only work to keep their students engaged and excited about learning, but they also work to create new and data-driven learning opportunities for their often diverse set of learners. Developing lessons that are meaningful, relevant and reflective of each student’s skills and abilities can seem like an overwhelming task at times. However, working to incorporate the use of students’ formative assessment data can help take that process to new levels.

Let’s start to examine how to use formative assessment data within the classroom to drive instruction by first outlining exactly what formative assessment within a classroom consists of. Formative assessment can take many forms, but it is primarily described as “assessment that occurs within and between (daily instruction) lessons.” Some teachers refer to it as the “micro-assessments” that a teacher will administer throughout the course of a lesson or instructional day. These assessments can include something as small as a “thumbs-up/thumbs-down” teacher call out after teaching a lesson to ensure that everyone feels comfortable with what has been taught, all the way to a more formal paper and pencil quiz. Either way, educators use this type of assessment to determine if the lesson or skill that was taught has been internalized by the students. Education research tells us that “high-quality formative assessment is perhaps one of the most effective educational practices when it comes to improving academic achievement.”

While there is no shortage of great formative assessment techniques that educators can use to help determine the effectiveness of their teaching, the real challenge for many educators becomes taking that student feedback or data and then transforming it into new, more reflective learning experiences for students. We listed a few techniques that can be used to help support not only the process of gathering formative assessment data from students, but also the process of interpreting it.

Create a ‘culture’ of formative assessment within your classroom

Working to help create a culture within a classroom that embraces the consistent use of formative assessment is essential to ensuring engaged learners. Having students who are ready and willing to give you feedback that is relevant and accurate about their learning is the very first step to gathering meaningful feedback that can be used to drive instructional decisions. This process really begins by helping your learners understand “why” you are asking for their feedback and then detailing to them the processes that you are going to employ to turn that feedback into new and more tailored instructional experiences. Creating “self-directed” learners within a classroom is the goal of every educator and helping students understand where their individual strengths and weaknesses may lie can help them to propel forward in their learning.

Formative assessment data is not just numbers

Assessing student learning does not always require an educator to hand out a large assessment to his/her students. Often, determining which skills/concepts your students have mastered can be done in quick, more informal ways. Some examples of quality formative assessment techniques include “thumbs-up/thumbs-down,” mini whiteboards, “hand thermometers,” chalkboard “Splashes,” “random selection assessments (popsicle sticks),” and “cold-calling.” All of these techniques are quick ways for an educator to not only determine which students are grasping certain concepts, but which students may need additional support or instruction moving forward. These brief, informal checks can be administered mid-instruction and can serve as a lever for a teacher to either pivot back to re-teach certain lessons or as a way to determine whether or not to move on to teaching another topic.

Use formative instruction to help plan for change

High-quality educators use student data to help determine which skills in a classroom need to be taught and when. Adjusting a classroom’s scope and sequence or the order and timing with which skills are introduced to students is one of the most critical aspects of assessing students using formative assessment. The data that students provide a teacher with, through the formative assessment process, is critical in making decisions about what skills will be focused on and for how long. As an example, a teacher may introduce and provide direct instruction on a topic such as “fractions” for the class and may have planned to focus on that lesson for roughly three instructional days to ensure that students have grasped the topic. However, after administering a series of regular and consistent formative assessment techniques, including “cold calling” and “classroom quizzes,” the teacher may determine that the set of students have a solid grasp of the concept after only two days of instruction. This information frees up the teacher then to shift the “extra” day of instruction to another topic that the students do not yet have mastery of. Adjusting in this way allows the educator to help maximize the time that he/she has with their students and ensure that the students are truly learning the concepts that they are being presented with.

Integrating formative assessment techniques into classroom instruction is one of the most beneficial things that a teacher can do to meet the varied needs of his/her learners. The techniques listed above can create transformative changes within a classroom that is working to meet the diverse needs of its learners. The information gathered from the formative assessment process helps to not only shed light on students’ successes and possible gaps but also helps to ensure that a teacher is teaching the right concepts at the right time.

Are you looking for more information on assessments and assessment types? Explore our academic assessment timeline and take a look at how different types of assessment can inform instruction.

Black, P. and D. William. “Assessment and Classroom Learning.” Assessment in Education, 5:1, March 1998, p.12.

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