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.
Insight into knowledge and ability to correct
Formative assessment involves checking knowledge and understanding throughout the learning process, showing students and teachers what has been learned and what areas needs more work. Children often overestimate their current knowledge, and formative assessment helps to ensure that teachers and students have a good idea of the learning progress that has been made, without relying on potentially misleading impressions.
Making sure that students understand what has been taught before moving on to the next concept also means that misconceptions can be corrected before becoming a relatively stable long-term memory. When learning is new, it is much easier to change and update than a long-standing idea (you can think of old information as becoming somewhat rigid). This is why it is important to provide feedback to address misconceptions as quickly as possible.
Students may experience stress during formal tests which can impair their ability to access and express memories and give an inaccurate impression of their learning. The informal, non-threatening nature of formative assessment can give a more accurate estimation of students’ current abilities to guide the next steps in teaching.
Regular formative assessment improves memory for learned information through what scientists call the testing effect. Being asked to mentally retrieve information has been demonstrated to lead to better retention than by merely rereading the information, as the brain has been better prepared for later recall.
When students recall information during formative assessment, they need to search through memory, and may activate ideas which can lead to more or stronger connections with the target information or create new or more efficient routes to it. With these better connections, students will be increasingly likely to remember that information in the future. Students are also likely to perform better in summative tests, especially those conducted under conditions they are familiar with.
Effective across a variety of contexts
Formative assessment has a strong evidence base that meets our highest standards of evidence. 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.
Quick and easy ways to formatively assess students
There are many ways to easily gather formative assessment data before, during and after a particular sequence of learning. Some quick tools to do this include:
- Diagnostic tasks – before starting a unit, ask students to complete a task that requires the prerequisite skills to see where their skill level is at.
- Traffic light cards – after instructional tasks, ask students to hold up the card that corresponds with their level of understanding (Green = good to go, yellow = needs some clarification, red = did not understand).
- Exit slips – at the end of a lesson, have students write an answer to a significant question from the day, or their key takeaway from the lesson
- Digital quiz tools – to provide instant feedback and correction.
- Using paper or mini whiteboards – ask students to write and display their answers on one of these during questioning. This allows you to quickly scan each student’s answer to check for understanding before moving on.
- Ask students some process-reflection questions – when checking in with students, ask them to walk you through their thinking process, or how they got to the answer. This will help you quickly correct any thinking errors.
The relationship between formative assessment and feedback
Formative assessment is used to check for student understanding. It is important to provide students with timely feedback following any formative assessment task to help them correct misconceptions or improve. Feedback is one of the most powerful tools to support student learning. Feedback enables students to understand where they are at in their learning, and then progress that learning by providing steps to move forward.
When done well, formative assessment should be a quick way to gauge where your students are at. As such, giving feedback should be quick too. Good feedback tells students where they are going, how they are going, and what they need to do to improve. You might:
- have a bank of feedback comments based on certain task elements that you can quickly draw on for each student
- identify common themes of areas for improvement and give whole class feedback
- do on the spot correction during class instruction by correcting thinking processes and encouraging students to reflect on their answers and try again
- have regular check-ins with your students, or groups of students at the same stage of learning, to provide next steps
- provide time for your students to reflect on what they have learnt, and to self-assess where they still have difficulties.
References & further reading
Nadel L and Moscovitch M (1997). ‘Memory consolidation, retrograde amnesia and the hippocampal complex’ Current opinion in neurobiology, 7(2):217-227.
Squire L R, Cohen, N J and Nadel L (1984). ‘The medial temporal region and memory consolidation: A new hypothesis’, Memory consolidation: Psychobiology of cognition: 185-210.
Xia M, Poorthuis A M and Thomaes S (2023). ‘Why do young children overestimate their task performance? A cross-cultural experiment’, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 226, 105551.
Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Feedback
A short animated video describing what effective feedback is, how it can be used, and the potential impact on student learning.
Keywords: student progress