Formative assessment is the practice of gathering and interpreting information about student learning as it is happening in your classroom. It can involve a variety of methods. Using formative assessment helps you know where students are at in their learning so that you can adapt your teaching to meet their needs.
Why formative assessment works
Understanding the science behind learning and memory can help teachers understand why formative assessment is an effective teaching technique. An ongoing cycle of formative assessment supports both the correction and strengthening of new learning.
Long-term memory is the system that handles persistent memories of experiences and ideas. Long-term memory is a network of overlapping information with many rich connections. There does not seem to be any limit to the amount or complexity of information that can be stored in long-term memory. Forgetting has more to do with accessing memories than having enough space for them.
In the image below, think of the circles as ideas, and the connections in each colour as one of the overlapping memories, made up of several ideas.
Long-term memories are relatively stable and tend to come out the same way they went in, meaning that it can be difficult to adapt existing information to new situations. With time and repeat use, information in long-term memory can change, becoming generalised or less dependent on a specific context. Information can also be lost over time or changed by interference from other memories (particularly those which overlap).
Memories of experiences, which are heavily tied to a context, are known as episodic memories. Semantic memory, on the other hand, is the store of general or concept knowledge, which is less specifically tied to a single context. Procedural knowledge is another form which memory can take, containing knowledge of how to perform various tasks and skills at conscious and unconscious levels. For example, not all the knowledge required to ride a bike is something that you could easily put into words – some of that information is unconscious or ‘implicit’.
Formative assessment is effective across a variety of contexts
To understand whether formative assessment is effective across different contexts, AERO conducted a review of 138 studies. The review found that formative assessment is an effective teaching practice across a variety of contexts and for different subgroups of students. Studies conducted across various locations suggest that formative assessment:
has a positive impact on student achievement in mathematics, reading, writing, social science and foreign languages
works for primary and secondary students
benefits students with and without additional learning needs.
Because of this, formative assessment is likely to work in most contexts.
Using the practice
To be effective, formative assessment needs to be implemented well. See below some ‘things to know’ when using the practice.
Snapshots of practice
Formative assessment may look different in different contexts. See below examples of formative assessment in a variety of classrooms and settings.