K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

Learn more

Related pages

  • Formative assessment resources: The practice of formative assessment can help teachers inform instruction and can improve student success. Often, however, conducting effective formative assessment is easier said than done. These resources offer strategies and support for educators to integrate more ongoing assessment into their teaching.
  • Summative assessment: This article defines summative assessment and lists several examples and common formats.
  • Using anchor activities to recognize special needs: There are a number of reasons why a student with special needs might make it to the high school level without having his or her needs identified and addressed. This article proposes using anchor activities as a way to determine whether a high school student has an unidentified learning disability.

Related topics


Please read our disclaimer for lesson plans.


The text of this page is copyright ©2009. See terms of use. Images and other media may be licensed separately; see captions for more information and read the fine print.

Formative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides explicit feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes.1 Formative assessment is a method of continually evaluating students’ academic needs and development within the classroom and precedes local benchmark assessments and state-mandated summative assessments.

Teachers who engage in formative assessments give continual, explicit feedback to students and assist them in answering the following questions:

  1. Where am I going?
  2. Where am I now?
  3. How can I close the gap between the two?2

In order to show students how to close the gap between where they are academically and where they want to be, teachers must help students evaluate their progress in the learning process and give them explicit, descriptive feedback specific to the learning task.

History of formative assessments

The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) developed a focus for formative assessment in October 2006. Working from the definition of formative assessment (listed above), the council outlined two major goals of formative assessment:

  • Provide evidence that is used by teachers and students to inform instruction and learning during the teaching/learning process.
  • Collect evidence about how student learning is progressing during the course of instruction so that necessary instructional adjustments can be made to close the gap between students’ current understanding and the desired goals.3

The CCSSO also developed “Five Attributes of Effective Formative Assessment”:

Learning Progressions
Learning progressions should clearly articulate the sub-goals of the ultimate learning goal.

  • These learning progressions show the course students should follow to achieve goals within the “big picture” of the discipline.
  • Teachers should help students set short-term goals within these learning progressions in order to track progress.
Learning Goals and Criteria for Success
Learning goals and criteria for success should be clearly identified and communicated to students.

  • In the formative assessment model, teachers are responsible for identifying and communicating instructional goals to students in order to help them achieve intended learning outcomes.
  • Teachers should also communicate these goals in learner-friendly language, so students can understand and participate in the completion of these goals.
Descriptive Feedback
Students should be provided with evidence-based feedback that is linked to the intended instructional outcomes and criteria for success.

  • “Descriptive feedback should be about the particular qualities of student learning with discussion or suggestions about what the student can do to improve.”4
  • Feedback should be learner-specific and answer the questions above.
Self- and Peer-Assessment
Both self- and peer-assessment are important for providing students an opportunity to think metacognitively about their learning.

  • Teachers must assist students in the development of metacognitive thinking about their own learning. This enables students to take responsibility for learning and evaluating their own progress in the learning process.
  • Teachers should provide opportunities and instruction that models how students can participate in this reflective process for meaningful and constructive feedback.
  • Student- and peer-assessment should not be used in the formal grading process.
A classroom culture in which teachers and students are partners in learning should be established.

  • Teachers must create an environment where students feel that they are partners in the learning process.
  • The teacher should establish trust and mutual respectful spaces where all students feel safe to provide constructive feedback.5

The teacher’s role in formative assessment

In their review of the literature on formative assessment, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam argue that it is not possible to introduce formative assessments into a traditionally formatted classroom.6 The teacher in a classroom that uses formative assessment must give up some control and encourage students to participate in developing learning goals and outcomes. Black and Wiliam also contend that formative assessment is effective in virtually all educational settings: content areas, knowledge and skill types, and levels of education.

In an article explaining the importance of using formative assessments in the classroom, Black and Wiliam make several suggestions for effective implementation of formative assessments7:

  • There is a need for teachers to pay close attention to the nature, contextualization, and timing of formative assessments. If implemented incorrectly, they can have negative outcomes.
  • If paired with a more summative model of assessment, they can be ineffective.
  • Formative assessments should not include too many recall/rote activities.
  • Teachers involved in formative assessment models should not emphasize grading over learning.
  • In the formative assessment model, there should be more of a cooperative and less of a competitive classroom atmosphere.
  • Teachers must make sure to focus on quality rather than quantity.
  • To be truly helpful to students, feedback in the formative assessment model should be focused on the task, not the student, and the student must understand the feedback so as to make use of it. Teachers must guide students through the process of learning to self-assess and understand both peer and teacher feedback.
  • Teachers should provide opportunities for students to express their understanding, classroom dialogue that focuses on exploring understanding, and feedback which includes opportunities to improve and guidance on how to improve.

Strategies for formative assessment on LEARN NC

The clinical interview
A clinical interview can help you to assess how your students think about mathematics. Part of a series on teaching problem-centered mathematics, this example interview provides a model of one-on-one formative assessment of students’ mastery of skills. Includes video, work samples, and expert commentary.
Assessing the learning process: Math for multiple intelligences
An eighth-grade math teacher explains how she assesses student learning during group work by mapping questions to various learning styles. Includes a model rubric.
Ongoing assessment for reading
Ongoing, informal assessment is crucial to teaching reading. Using audio and visual examples, this edition explains the use of running records and miscue analysis, tools that help a teacher to identify patterns in student reading behaviors and the strategies a reader uses to make sense of text.
Listening while you work: Using informal assessments to inform your instruction
Providing space for your students to respond — especially to open-ended questions — can help you assess their learning before it’s too late.
Making connections between concepts
To help students connect what they’re learning, make your expectations clear and ask them what they understand and what isn’t working.