This guide outlines key practices for using formative assessment in the classroom.

Know where your students are in their learning

Australian Professional Standards for Teachers | Focus Area 5.1: Assess student learning

Formative assessment refers to the variety of methods teachers use to gather and interpret information about student learning as learning is taking place. Formative assessment allows teachers to monitor student learning and to adapt their teaching to meet student learning needs. It can also help with students’ learning retention by bringing what students have learned to the top of their mind. Formative assessment is most effective when it is a regular part of teaching and learning programs.

This guide lists evidence-based practices for applying formative assessment in the classroom. Note that some of the examples offered may not apply in all contexts, may be more suitable for primary students than secondary students (and vice versa), and/or may look different in different content areas. Reasonable adjustments must be made where necessary to ensure full access and participation for students with disability.

Teacher looking at computer with students

The evidence-based practices outlined in this guide are proven to provide the greatest chance of success for addressing learning gaps and disruptions to student learning. These practices will make a difference when implemented in conjunction with focused classrooms (manage the classroom to maximise learning), explicit instruction (know how to teach your students) and mastery learning (know how to make sure your students learn).

Key practices

This means knowing more than just the curriculum content.

  • Consult the curriculum or syllabus to clarify the common progression of learning in the unit you are teaching. Know in advance the critical knowledge that students will need to move onto the next concept and the points at which it will be most important to assess your students' learning to identify understanding.1 
  • Identify what your students may already know (or think they know!) before starting a new unit of work. Consider setting an informal pre-quiz to gain some insight into existing knowledge or misconceptions.2 
  • Know the concepts or skills in this unit that are typically easy or difficult to learn. Be ready to spend more time on the difficult elements and to check their understanding more frequently. You can use previous student data to guide your planning.3

1. Schildkamp et al., 2020
2. Heitink et al., 2016
3. Schildkamp, et al., 2020

Convey high expectations and make your students excited about how much they will learn in every lesson.

  • Set learning objectives that are based on student data and aligned to the curriculum. Consult your curriculum and then analyse class- and individual-level student data to identify where your students are at and where they need to be.4 
  • Clearly explain the success criteria for each objective. Students should understand what they are expected to learn, where they are currently and the steps for how they can reach the expected learning objective.5 
  • Be clear about the purpose and relevance of all tasks for each learning objective. Ensure that during each task, the learning objective is clearly stated and explained.6

4. Schildkamp, 2019
5. Black & Wiliam, 1998
6. Black & Wiliam, 1998

This does not have to be done with a formal examination. Formative assessment typically employs light-touch methods.

  • Design simple, low-key assessments, such as quick quizzes or exit tickets that allow all students, irrespective of where they are at in their learning, to demonstrate what they know. These should help identify common student misconceptions, check for retention of learning and assist you to plan future instruction. For example, ‘Quick Quiz Friday’ is a simple, lowstakes weekly routine that could help you spot content that needs to be revised and help with your lesson planning for the following week.7 
  • Ask students challenging questions and prompt them to articulate their reasoning. This will help you assess how much individual students really know – for example, ask questions that begin ‘why’, ‘why not’, ‘how’, ‘what if’, ‘How does X compare to Y?’ and ‘What is the evidence for X?’.8
  • Keep track of each student's progress. This can help to quickly locate the source of any learning gap or misconception that may develop so that it can be addressed with the student.9

7. Heitink et al., 2016
8. Martin & Evans, 2018
9. Black & Wiliam, 1998

The nature of your feedback will depend on the nature of the assessment, but some general principles apply.

  • Give feedback promptly and check for understanding. Some feedback can be an instant response to a question answered or an action observed. Be honest, constructive and clear – and do not let mistakes go without follow up.10
  • Be specific with feedback and tailor it to the nature of the assessment and the learning objective; for example, feedback in the form of in-text annotations may be useful to help students learn argumentation in essay writing. Regardless of form, feedback should aim to be personalised, with detailed, specific and actionable steps for improvement.11 
  • Help students understand what you want from them with your feedback. Where possible, use developmental rubrics with criteria tailored to the specific task and/or work samples so that students understand what is expected. These resources can also help students to become better at self-assessment.12

10. Wisniewski et al., 2020.
11. Wisniewski et al., 2020.
12. Lane et al., 2019.

Further reading

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 7–74.

This paper is one of the seminal literature reviews on formative assessment. It draws on 250 journal articles and book chapters to synthesise the research on formative assessment. Key findings include: 1. strengthening the practice of formative assessment produces significant, and often substantial, learning gains; 2. feedback can have positive effects if the feedback is formulated and used as a guide to improvement; 3. learners must understand both the goal of their learning and the actual level of their understanding; 4. students have to be actively involved in their learning; 5. for assessment to function formatively, the results have to be used to adjust teaching and learning; 6. assessment can influence the motivation and self-esteem of pupils, both of which are crucial influences on learning. 

Heitink, M., van der Kleij, F., Veldkamp, P., Schildkamp, K., & Kippers, W. (2016). A systematic review of prerequisites for implementing assessment for learning in classroom practice. Educational Research Review, 17, 50–62. 

This paper is a systematic review of 25 studies (4 quantitative, 12 

Lane, R., Parrila, R., Bower, M., Bull, R., Cavanagh, M., Forbes, A., Jones, T., Leaper, D., Khosronejad, M., Pellicano, L., Powell, S., Ryan, M., & Skrebneva, I. (2019). Formative assessment evidence and practice literature review. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

This paper is a systematic review undertaken by Australian researchers on 71 formative assessment studies. For inclusion in the review, studies had to be empirical and needed to include well-designed control groups so that treatment effects could be confidently attributed to the formative assessment interventions. The review found that: 1. feedback should be individualised, timely and aligned with the curriculum; 2. feedback should be detailed and provide actionable steps rather than information about errors and correct answers; 3. the nature of the content and/or skill domain should be considered when selecting formative assessment tools (including online tools) and that tools and resources need to be fit for purpose; 4. there should be increased awareness of the valid task models, cognitive models and evidence-based interventions for addressing learning gaps; 5. formative assessment practices and technology should be integrated as a regular component of the curriculum. 

Martin, A. J., & Evans, P. (2018). Load reduction instruction: Exploring a framework that assesses explicit instruction through to independent learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 73, 203–214.

This paper is an individual study that explores an instructional model (load reduction instruction). Load reduction instruction (LRI) aims to manage the cognitive burden on students in the initial stages of learning, and then, as fluency and automaticity develop, students are encouraged to engage in guided independent learning. LRI comprises five factors: 1. difficulty reduction; 2. support and scaffolding; 3. practice; 4. feedback; and 5. guided independence. This study examined an instrument (the Load Reduction Instruction Scale, LRIS) aimed at assessing these five factors. The instrument was tested among a sample of Australian high school students from 40 classrooms. The findings supported the validity of the LRIS, the concepts underpinning it and its potential to guide instructional practice. 

Schildkamp, K. (2019). Data-based decision-making for school improvement: Research insights and gaps. Educational Research, 61(3), 257–273.

This paper is a literature review. It draws on recent research and literature from different areas of data use in education. These areas include the use of formative assessment data, educational research study findings and ‘big data’. It explores how school leaders and teachers can use different sources of data to improve the quality of education. It concludes that when it comes to using data to improve the quality of teaching and learning, some of the most important enablers and barriers include data literacy and leadership.

Schildkamp, K., van der Kleij, F., Heitink, M., Kippers, W., & Veldkamp, P. (2020). Formative assessment: A systematic review of critical teacher prerequisites for classroom practice. International Journal of Educational Research, 103.

This paper is a systematic review of 54 studies (10 quantitative, 30 qualitative, 14 mixed methods) on data-based decision making and assessment for learning. Studies were included in the review only if they: had been published in a scientific peer-reviewed journal or were a PhD thesis; reported on research results; and  focused on the role of the teacher in implementing formative assessment in the classroom. The paper sought to address the following research question: ‘What teacher prerequisites need to be in place for using formative assessment in their classroom practice?’ The results show that knowledge and skills (e.g. data literacy); psychological factors (e.g. social pressure) and social factors (e.g. collaboration) all influence the use of formative assessment.  

Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 30–87.

This paper is a meta-analysis of 435 studies on feedback. To be included in the meta-analysis, studies had to compare the effects of a feedback intervention on an experimental and a control group (i.e. use a pre-post comparison). The paper finds that feedback, on average, is powerful, but some feedback is more powerful. The more information feedback contains, the more effective it is. 'High-information' feedback contains information about whether the answer to the task was ‘right or wrong’, how the task was performed and how it could be performed more successfully, and (sometimes) self-regulation, such as attention, emotions or motivation during the task. 

Additional references

Lee, H., Chung, H., Zhang, Y., Abedi, Y., & Warschauer, M. (2020). The effectiveness and features of formative assessment in US K-12 education: A systematic review. Applied Measurement in Education, 33(2), 124–140.

This paper is a systematic review of 33 studies on formative assessment. To be included in the review, studies had to be a true experiment (with a random assignment procedure) or a quasi-experimental study (with a statistical adjustment to check baseline differences) including a control condition. The study found: 1. a small-sized positive effect of formative assessment on student learning with benefits for mathematics, literacy and arts; 2. support for student-initiated self-assessment; and 3. providing formal formative assessment evidence via a medium-cycle length (within or between instructional units) enhances the effectiveness of formative assessments.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Feedback  

This resource provides examples of feedback, including how to give feedback and check for understanding, how to be specific with feedback and tie it to the learning objectives, and how to help students understand what you want from them with your feedback. 

AITSL has designed a suite of evidence-based, practical tools to introduce or enhance feedback in your setting. These resources include video and written case studies from a selection of primary and high schools across Australia, and a series of implementation tools including feedback readiness, planning, implementation and evaluation guides.  

Keywords: student progress, student engagement