Formative Assessment

Formative assessments are yardsticks for learning as it is happening in the classroom.

About Formative Assessments

Unlike summative  (“end-of-term” or milestone) assessments, which evaluate learning and teaching at the end of a course or unit, formative assessments happen earlier in the term (even before the class starts if you use a pre-course survey) and throughout the term to provide students and teachers an opportunity to make adjustments that will improve learning. According to Angelo and Cross (1993), there are several unique characteristics of formative classroom assessment: it is learner-centered, teacher-directed, mutually beneficial, context-specific, ongoing, and rooted in good teaching practice. Typically, a classroom assessment is also ungraded and anonymous.

Benefits of Early Assessment

There are many benefits associated with practicing formative assessments in college classrooms. Formative assessments may lead to “improved student success” (Boston, 2002), more equitable student learning outcomes, and enhanced learning strategies among students (OECD, 2005).

“Teachers need a continuous flow of accurate information on student learning. For example, if a teacher’s goals is to help student learn points A through Z during the course, then that teacher needs to know whether all students are really starting at point A and, as the course proceeds, whether they have reached intermediate points B, G, L R, W, and so on.” (Angelo and Cross, 1993:4).

Strategies For Early Assessment

There are many classroom assessment techniques, and they should be implemented based on the instructor’s goal. For instance, The Minute Paper asks for student’s perceptions of the important take-away for a given class and assesses whether that aligns with the instructor’s goal. Another type of assessment might ask specific questions — in Likert-scale or multiple-choice formats — about students’ perceptions of the clarity, usefulness, and engagement with the material in a particular class or unit.

For more examples of classroom assessment techniques (CATs) review “Ways to Assess Student Learning During Class,” a resource from the University of Oregon.

Also, think about how you will respond to students’ feedback. In the words of Karron Lewis (2001), “Perhaps the most important part of conducting a midsemester feedback session is your response to the students. In your response, you need to let them know what you learned from their information and what differences it will make” (39).

Resources for Formative Assessment

Pre-Course Surveys

It is a good idea to ask students to complete a short pre-course survey that prompts them to reflect on their reasons for signing up for your course and so that you can know more about what they know, what they expect from the course, and how they think they learn best. As with any assessment, think about what your goals are and whether this should be anonymous, or not. For example, if you want to use this pre-course survey to assign groups, then you would want your surveys to not be anonymous. However, an anonymous survey would serve the goal of gathering personal information about your students which they may not want to share publicly.

Sample pre-course survey questions:

  • What is something you are good at doing? How did you get to be good at it?
  • Why are you interested in this course? (or, what are your expectations for this course?)
  • Review the syllabus — what is most intriguing to you at this point?
  • Is there anything that you feel may hinder your success in this class or anything you want to share with me before the class starts, for example, other commitments this term, a particular learning style preference, your own circadian rhythms, a specific goal you want to accomplish?

In the sciences, knowledge-surveys (or ungraded quizzes) may be given the first day of class to assess students' knowledge of the subject. This is critical when a course has prerequisites like calculus and you need to know if students are prepared.

Midterm Evaluations

The middle of the term is another opportune time to solicit feedback from students about their learning. It is important that this feedback is acknowledged and any changes made in the course based on the feedback or decisions not to incorporate student feedback are shared with the students.

  • Sometimes, it may be helpful to ask questions similar to those found on the end-of-term course evaluations during the middle of the term.
  • Another simple way to get feedback is to ask students 1) what should you keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to aid student learning, and 2) what do students intend to keep doing, stop doing, and start doing to aid their learning?
  • For more question ideas, see this formative evaluation resource from the University of California, Berkeley, which samples midterm evaluations from various disciplines.


Did you know that formative assessments can be distributed using Canvas? View instructions on creating surveys in Canvas.