Formative Assessment 101 – Part 1: Formative Assessment Processes and Learning Acceleration

In order to gather information that is useful for making better educational decisions, evidence of student understanding or learning must be collected. Watch this video for a primer on assessments and learning acceleration.

Watch the Video


Developed by Carla Evans & Jeri Thompson
National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment


Welcome to Module 1: Formative Assessment Processes and Learning Acceleration (Introduction). This module is part of Micro-Course 1: Learning Acceleration Using Formative Assessment Processes in the Classroom (Introductory Version) created by the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and the Center for Assessment. There is an Introduction to Micro-Course 1 module that explains the purpose, organization, and intended use of each micro-course and should be watched first, if you have not already done so.

To begin, let’s play a word association game: What do you think of when you hear the word “assessment”? You can draw a picture or write words you think of.

Please pause the video and respond to this question either alone or with colleagues. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video.

Did you think of a test or end of unit exam when you hear the word ‘assessment’? Oftentimes we think of assessment by jumping straight to the product or the assessment instrument, rather than thinking of assessment as a process. And yet, assessment is a process. The root of the word comes from a latin word which means ‘to sit beside’. In other words, assessment is the process of sitting beside a student to see what they know, understand, and can do. Assessment is the process of gathering evidence of student learning and inferring from that evidence what a student knows, understands, and can do to inform education-related decisions.

Assessment information can be used to make different types of decisions by educators, students, and parents. For example, after teaching a class teachers may ask: What knowledge, skills, and/or understandings did students take away from this lesson, and how could I use that information to monitor or adjust my instruction tomorrow?

Students may ask: How am I doing in meeting the learning goals and success criteria described by my teacher? If the learning goal was to learn how to shoot a free throw and the success criteria was that I could demonstrate proper form, even if I didn’t make the shot each time, how am I doing? How do I need to adjust my learning strategies and/or ask for help to meet the learning goals so I can be more successful in gym class tomorrow?

In order to gather information that is useful for making better educational decisions, evidence of student understanding or learning must be collected. And how does a teacher collect this evidence? The teacher must engineer or design questions to ask students (orally or in a written format). The teacher must engineer or design activities or discussions to observe (watch and listen) to see how students respond in relation to the learning goals. Assessment processes should help teachers collect evidence about what a student knows (e.g., 3 x 2 = 6), what a student understands (e.g., to add fractions with unlike denominators I need to find a common denominator), and can do (e.g., I can simplify a fraction into its simplest form) from the state content standards. Parents or caregivers often want to know: Is my child meeting grade-level expectations and, if not, what is my child’s teacher or school going to do to help them get back on track?

If you are not yet familiar with California’s content standards, take a moment pause the video and access the state standards via the hyperlink on the slide. State content standards are divided into disciplines or content areas such as English language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, PE, art, and so on. The state standards are divided into grade levels (such as expectations for kindergarten, first grade, second grade, etc.) or grade spans (such as K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12). State standards represent end of year expectations. Meaning, the learning targets leading to these standards are expected to be taught over the course of the year and what students are expected to know, understand, and be able to do by the end of the year. Most teachers group similar standards together (e.g., fractions) and teach those standards together as a coordinated whole during a unit of instruction.

There are two main types of classroom assessment processes: summative classroom assessments oftentimes simply called tests, unit tests, exams, end of unit projects or performances, etc. and formative classroom assessments. Let’s talk about summative classroom assessments first. 

Summative classroom assessments document student achievement of state content standards at a point in time. Summative classroom assessment is often referred to as assessment of learning and typically occurs at the end of a unit of instruction. These assessments are graded and reported to parents and students. Once a summative classroom assessment is administered in the classroom, teachers typically move on in the curriculum to a new topic. For example, a teacher might have been teaching about place value and once the place value test is given, then the teacher moves on in the curriculum to focus on multi-digit addition and subtraction expecting students to continue applying knowledge, skills, and understandings about place value. This doesn’t mean that some crosscutting concepts or disciplinary practices don’t repeat over the course of the year, but typically the content goals do not repeat in their exact form. There are simply too many content standards to keep repeating content. Which is where the rub occurs because students come into classrooms at different places along their learning journeys. Some students may need more opportunities to learn, discuss, practice, and show what they know than others, which makes it extremely difficult for teachers to figure out how to help all students reach for and demonstrate grade-level expectations. This is why teaching is so challenging and is both an art and a science.

Formative classroom assessments are the focus of this micro-course. Formative classroom assessments are on-going and occur before, during, and after instruction. The purpose is to elicit evidence of student learning to adjust instruction to better meet students’ needs. In other words, teaching is adaptive to the learner’s needs. Formative assessment processes are sometimes referred to as assessments for learning. And it is not just the teacher who is involved in the formative assessment process. Students are also involved in adjusting and monitoring their own learning. We will discuss that more in Micro-Course 2. Importantly, formative assessments are not graded. The moment a grade is put on a paper, student learning stops–at least for a little bit. Instead, formative assessments supply feedback to the teacher and the student to help all students demonstrate grade level expectations as defined in the state content standards.

To take a deeper dive into formative assessment processes, because the teacher knows the end of grade level expectation (or learning goal) they must figure out where students are at in their individual learning in relation to that end goal. Teachers then use this formative assessment information to determine how to close the distance or the gap between the end learning goal and where the student is currently. This requires teachers to adjust and monitor their teaching every day so they can flexibly group students into small groups to re-teach a concept, or to re-teach a concept to all students in the class, or to move on in the curriculum because all students seem to understand and demonstrate the concept. It is continuous feedback between the teacher, students, and the content because students do not progress at the same pace or start from the same place.

Sometimes it is helpful to connect these concepts to everyday examples. On the slide we show everyday examples of formative assessment processes. Practicing how to bake, practicing scales during a piano lesson, a coach giving feedback and instruction to an athlete. These processes that involve the student, a teacher, and the content occur while learning is taking place so that teaching and learning can be adjusted in real-time to better meet students’ needs. 

Using these three examples, what would be the summative assessment analogues? For example, with the baking lesson a summative assessment would be to have each child alone or together bake something without adult assistance following a recipe similar to one they practiced. Now you try to connect the formative feedback experiences with possible summative assessment experiences. Please pause the video and respond to this question either alone or with colleagues. After your reflection or discussion, resume playing the video.

One misconception often encountered is the belief that the assessment is formative or summative by design. Meaning, a multiple-choice test must be summative and an exit ticket must be formative. However, assessments are not formative or summative by design, but based on how the teacher uses the information gained through the assessment. The same exit ticket, quiz, test, or performance task can be used formatively or summatively. It is all about the inferences made from the assessment evidence. Formative processes support conclusions intended to be used during the teaching and learning cycle to improve student understanding.

The following example is adapted from Dylan Wiliam in his book, Embedded Formative Assessment, in which a teacher who is preparing students to take an AP exam decides to have the students take the exam, but then instead of grading the exam, she puts the students in groups of four and hands back their exams. The teacher then has students review their responses, compare answers, and discuss what the best answer would be. They then have a whole-class discussion. The AP exam was designed for summative purposes, but the teacher used it formatively.

We think it is important to situate the formative assessment process within a framework. This framework supports the implementation of effective formative assessment strategies.

As you can see here on the slide, this framework is a 3 x 3 matrix with three key processes and three groups of individuals involved in the process. Dylan Wiliam argues in his book that all teaching boils down to these processes and roles. We will use this framework to guide our conceptual understandings and practical applications of formative assessment processes in this module.

The processes are (1) finding out where learners are in their learning; (2) establishing where they are going; and (3) determining how to get there. These processes are viewed through the role of a teacher, a peer, and a learner. Crossing the roles with the processes, there are five formative assessment strategies that should be used within instruction.

Micro-course 1 focuses on two of these five strategies: clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and success criteria (or where the learner is going) and figuring out where the learner is now through engineering effective discussions, tasks, and activities that elicit evidence of learning.  We start with where the learner is going.

The teacher, students, and peers clarify, share, and ensure understanding of the learning intentions and success criteria. The learning goals, or learning targets, are aligned to and derived from the broader curricular goals and state standards. Learning intentions reflect the idea that teaching should always be an intentional process. It’s critical to ask and answer: What will my students be trying to learn? What does success (or hitting the target) look like?

This means that not only does the teacher need to clearly know and be able to describe the lesson’s learning target and success criteria, but also that students should be able to articulate it as well.

Let’s look at an example. Consider a Gr 4 math unit in which students are expected to demonstrate conceptual understanding of place value and rounding and also solve two-digit addition and subtraction problems fluently using multiple algorithms. The lesson learning targets are listed and include reading and writing multi-digit whole numbers up to 1 million using expanded form, as well as comparing two multi-digit whole numbers based on the meanings of the digits in each place using >, < or = symbols.

 The overall success criteria for the lesson are that students will:

  • Explain what it means to write a number in expanded form
  • Accurately write numbers in expanded form up to 1 million
  • Apply concepts of expanded form to compare two multi-digit numbers and correctly record whether one of the numbers is >, <, or = the other number.

Some practical strategies you can use to help students understand the success criteria in relation to the learning targets includes: discussing strengths and weaknesses of an example; using model papers as exemplars; or simply stating what the learning targets are, what you as a teacher are looking for and why. There are other strategies as well, but these are ways to get started.

The next two slides contain examples of learning targets and success criteria for a Gr 6 ELA unit on argumentative writing and high school biology unit on natural selection. Please pause the video and take a minute to read through the unit goals, lesson learning targets, and success criteria. Resume playing when you are done.

There are many ways to clarify, share, and understand learning intentions and success criteria in classrooms. This slide contains some selected video examples where different techniques are shared. Take a few minutes and watch one or two of the video examples. Notice that there are twelve examples with varying techniques shown with different grade levels and content areas–five linked on the slide; seven more available from the youtube playlist link. How could you use some of these techniques to share learning intentions and success criteria in your classroom? Please pause the video. Resume playing when you are done.

After being clear about what it is you want students to learn, it is now time to determine where they are in their learning progress, or to elicit evidence of student learning for formative purposes—which is the second strategy in the framework. In the blue box you see a few key purposes of collecting this evidence: to identify student learning strengths and needs before, during, and/or after instruction, to differentiate instruction, and to inform future instruction. By making student thinking visible, teachers can thoughtfully make these instructional decisions.  

This is accomplished when the teacher engineers effective discussions, tasks, and activities that elicit evidence of student learning progress. This can be implemented in many ways including: designing tasks and activities that produce evidence of student learning progress, high-quality classroom questioning strategies, and extending student thinking during discourse. To that point, we linked two high-quality resources: a document with 60 formative assessment techniques and a guidebook that contains practices that can be incorporated into any curriculum to elicit student thinking.

Pause the video now so you can link to these two resources and explore the contents for a short while. Then come back and resume playing the video. Modules 2-3 also go into more depth on strategies to elicit evidence of student learning before, during, and after instruction.

We’ve been talking a lot about assessment. However, assessment does not operate in a vacuum. Assessment is one part of a larger puzzle that includes curriculum (or what you teach) and instruction (or how you teach it). All three puzzle pieces must be aligned, or pulling in the same direction, to support student learning. And not only must all three pieces be aligned with each other, they also need to be aligned with the state content standards. Though you may be really interested in teaching about butterflies, if that is not in the state science standards for your grade level, you should not be teaching a unit on butterflies. 

As stated earlier, formative assessment occurs at the intersection of instruction and assessment–what are students’ strengths and learning needs in relation to the enacted curriculum (or what was taught). Summative assessment occurs at the intersection of curriculum and assessment–what and how well did students learn the enacted curriculum.

All of this connects to learning acceleration because typical approaches to curriculum and instruction in the past have been to re-teach previous grade level standards before getting to grade level standards. So, for example, on this slide the top image that is crossed out shows a sequence where a third grade math teacher starts in September with a focus on a grade 2 MD (which stands for measurement and data) standard. This is off-grade level. Notice that in the crossed out image, the teacher does not get to third grade math standards until November! Teaching off-grade level standards makes it impossible for students to ever catch up if they are behind because there simply isn’t enough time in the year to teach both 2nd grade and 3rd grade standards, for example. 

Instead, every teacher should focus on helping all students to learn grade level expectations. Based on earlier conversations where we noted that not all students have the same level of background knowledge or previous preparation, we are not suggesting you ignore the fact that students may not be adequately prepared to access grade level work. Instead, we are suggesting that you accelerate learning by building in opportunities for students to learn and practice previous grade level expectations while focusing instruction on grade level standards. This is referred to in different ways, including: “just in time” instruction, differentiated instruction, scaffolding, and remediation. We will give concrete examples in the next set of modules of what this could look like in your classroom.

Modules 2-4 in Micro-Course 1 go deeper into figuring out where the learner is now and how to close the gap between where the learner is and the grade level expectations.

We believe that it is essential to take a few minutes to reflect upon what you just heard, organize it in your own mind, and to apply it to your classroom assessment practice. Pause to reflect and respond to the following:

  1. Create a web or concept map that explains the two different types of classroom assessments.
  2. Think about an area of performance you tried to improve in recent years (e.g., writing, cooking, etc.). What type of feedback contributed to your improved performance? How does that relate to the type of feedback that is more/less useful for your students to improve their learning?
  3. Consider a current or upcoming lesson. What are the learning intentions and success criteria? How did you (or could you) communicate these with students?
  4. Explain how curriculum, instruction, assessment, and state content standards should work together as a coordinated whole.
  5. What is one key takeaway and one lingering question you have after listening to this module?

Accompanying Materials & Resources

Share with Others


At a Glance

Please give us a like if you enjoyed this resource! 

For You

Related Resources


Experts from the California Subject Matter Project (CSMP) share 3 meaning-making strategies you can use to engage students in your classroom.

The Turn and Talk

Daina Yousif Weber, English and AVID teacher in San Diego Unified School District, tells us how to apply the “Turn and Talk” strategy to empower students to make their own meaning by exploring open-ended questions, sharing their thoughts and perspectives, and building upon each other’s ideas.

WOW (Word of the Week)

Kate Bowen, retired elementary school teacher for the Davis Joint Unified School District, tells us how to use the “WOW (Word of the Week)” activity to channel students’ creativity in learning new vocabulary and developing their writing skills.

Scroll to Top

Help Us Improve!

Please help us improve the resources we offer you by answering two quick questions:​