Using Formative Assessments to Enhance Student Learning


July 31, 2018

by Linda Stewart
Assistant Director for Graduate Student Support and Associate Professor of English
Kennesaw State University

For many graduate students, assessing student learning is an isolating and anxiety-producing event, followed by varied reactions from undergraduates who often seem nonplussed by their grades. But what if undergraduate students were included in semester-long assessment activities that were practiced, discussed, and reconsidered throughout the semester? Formative assessments are intended to do just that. Commonly, formative assessment strategies gather and monitor a student’s understanding throughout the semester, proving feedback to instructors and students alike.  Formative assessments can be implemented across disciplines for different purposes to ascertain students’ understanding, attitudes, or skills related to the course material. They are usually low-stakes activities that may or may not contribute to the final grade, but they are useful in helping educators monitor learning and adjust their teaching accordingly. Even more, formative assessment processes are a mechanism for inviting students into classroom assessment conversations.

In a recent Faculty Focus article, Ives (2014) defines formative assessment in this way: “Formative assessment may take a variety of forms (such as practice quizzes, one-minute papers, clearest/muddiest point exercises, various kinds of group work in the class, etc.), but it provides students with opportunities to practice skills or test knowledge in a “safe” way. It usually consists of low-stakes and/or ungraded (or peer- or self-evaluated) activities” (para. 6). Notably, she employs formative assessment strategies to evaluate class participation.  Instead of relying on attendance or subjective observations, she allots participation points for “each formative assessment activity” (para.7). Thus, she states, her approach encourages timely feedback and invites a range of ways for diverse learners to demonstrate knowledge, particularly shy students (para. 8).

In their seminal text, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, Angelo and Cross (1993) aver that “actively involving students in classroom assessment efforts, faculty (and students) enhance learning and personal satisfaction” (p. 11). They continue, “Faculty also mention the value of discussing their plans and findings with their students, and of involving students in all phases of the work” (p. 11). This social approach to formative assessment is reaffirmed by Bain (2004) in his book, What the Best College Teachers Do. He describes his evolution from traditional testing to using “assessment to help students learn, not just to rate and rank their efforts” (p. 151). He turned toward a more learning-focused perspective by asking what he describes as a fundamental question about assessment: “What kind of intellectual and personal development do I want my students to enjoy in this class, and what evidence might I collect about the nature and progress of their development?” (p. 152-3) The answers to his question do not lie in an end-of-semester final examination, but are cultivated throughout the semester as a “developmental process rather than only a question of acquisition” (p. 153).  For students, graduate teaching assistants and faculty, his question provokes a meaningful talking point if considering the students’ views about their “intellectual and personal” development as well (p. 153).

Bain (2004) encourages the practice of getting to know your students and “collecting information” about them as a means to “us[e] assessment to help [students] improve and in crafting a learning rather than a performance base for the process” (p. 159). One way to do so might be to integrate concept maps into the classroom.  Concept maps are described in Ambrose et al.’s (2010) How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching as graphic tools that are constructed using a focusing question or concept and “drawn as nodes and links in a network structure in which nodes represent concepts” that often demonstrate “the relationship among different concepts” (p. 228). The authors state that both teachers and students can benefit from constructing concept maps (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 228). They can be used at the beginning or the end of a unit, a project, or a semester to determine student understanding, and they can also become a discussion tool for classroom reflection or analysis. In her presentation at the 2015 CETL summit, “A Framework for Using Concept Maps as a Tool for Lesson Study,” Molitoris-Miller explained that while concept maps are “an attractive teaching tool because of their open-ended nature,” they can be challenging to use effectively. However, because of their inherent flexibility, concept maps can be adapted to classrooms for multiple purposes.  For example, to assess students learning over the course of a semester, students might draw a concept map based on the subject matter or an essential question about the course subject at the beginning of the semester. Periodically, students could add to the map, perhaps using different materials or symbols to identify old and new information. At the end of the semester, students could redraw their final concept map and compose a reflection about their learning.  At each stage, the concept map could function as a tool for collaboration. The Prezi program is particularly well suited to developing a concept map and it offers the users the option of collaborating with group members as well.  Most importantly, the concept map offers students a concrete way to demonstrate and discuss their evolving knowledge with their professor and their peers.

In his book Learner-Centered Teaching: Putting the Research on Learning Into Practice, Doyle (2011) affirms the social constructivist nature of assessment. Writing about learning-centered approaches to teaching, he offers a list of feedback principles “adapted from Spiller, 2009.” (p. 59):

  1. Promote dialogue and conversation around the goals of the assessment task.
  2. Emphasize the instructional aspects of feedback and not only the correctional dimensions.
  3. Provide “feedforward”: indicate what students need to think about in order to bring their task performance closer to the goals.
  4. Specify the goals of the assessment task and use feedback to link student performance to the specified assessment goals.
  5. Engage the students in practical exercises and dialogue to help them understand the task criteria.
  6. Talk to the students about the purposes of feedback and feedforward.
  7. Design feedback comments that invite self-evaluation and future self-learning management
  8. Enlarge the range of participants in the feedback conversation to incorporate self-evaluation and peer feedback.

Clearly all of these principles are grounded in a recursive and collaborative approach to formative assessment.  For example, engaging students in “practical exercises and dialogue” might involve using rubrics.  Ambrose et al. (2010) describe the many ways rubrics can be used, observing they can “provide formative feedback to support and guide ongoing learning efforts” (231). The authors suggest, “[w]hen rubrics are given to students with the assignment description, they can help students monitor and assess their progress as they work toward clearly indicated goals” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 232).  Rubrics might also be paired with reflective strategies for students after an assignment, as students evaluate to what extent they met each stated criteria. For a more learner-centered approach to formative assessment, students and teachers could co-create the rubric as well.

For a completely different perspective on high-stakes testing as a common assessment practice, scientific research suggests that low-stakes testing reinforces the student’s retrieval processes (Bain, 2004; Dunlovsky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013), which improves long-term learning. While research remains to be conducted on how diverse learners respond to testing effects, there is evidence that introducing practice quizzes, using multiple, low-stakes quizzes instead of relying on mid-term and final exams, and integrating student-generated test questions are ways to boost long-term student learning. Dunlovsky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham (2013) state, “Testing is likely viewed by many students as an undesirable necessity of education, and we suspect that most students would prefer to take as few tests as possible. This view of testing is understandable, given that most students’ experience with testing involves high-stakes summative assessments that are administered to evaluate learning. This view of testing is also unfortunate, because it overshadows the fact that testing also improves learning” (p. 29). Bain concurs, “[I]f we stop thinking of testing as a dipstick to measure learning—if we think of it as practicing retrieval of learning from memory rather than ‘testing,’ we open ourselves to another possibility: the use of testing as a tool for learning” (p. 19). Angelo and Cross (1993) offer an excellent description of how to involve students in the testing process. One formative classroom assessment techniques asks students to generate their own test questions, which “allow faculty to assess at least three aspects of student learning” (p. 240):

  • What students consider the most important or memorable content;
  • What they understand as fair and useful test questions; and
  • How well they can answer the questions they have posed (p. 240)

Angelo and Cross (1993) advise integrating this formative assessment activity when the test or exam is three to four weeks away and to discuss the rationale for the activity with students.

Making formative assessment a social practice by designing and discussing it with students and colleagues improves instruction and learning for all our students. Fluckiger, Tixier y Virgil, Pasco, and Danielson (2010) state, “Formative feedback involving students as partners is a key strategy to enhance the teaching and learning process” (p. 136). Adopting formative assessments as an innovative teaching pedagogy is a transformative act that invites students to the table for much needed conversations about evaluating their own learning.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching.  San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.

Angelo, T. A. & P. Cross. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bain, K. (2004). What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., McDaniel, M. (2014). A. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Doyle, T. (2011). Learner-centered teaching: putting the research on learning into practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.

Fluckiger, J., Tixier y Virgil, Y., Pasco, R., and Danielson, K. (2010). Formative Feedback: Involving Students as Partners in Assessment to Enhance Learning. College Teaching, 58, 136-140.

Ives, C. (2014). Daydreaming or deep in thought? Using formative assessment to evaluate student participation. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from

Molitoris-Miller, S. (2015). A Framework for Using Concept Maps as a Tool for Lesson Study. CETL Summit Conference Presentation. Kennesaw, GA.