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Assessment for Learning (Formative Assessment)


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Assessment for Learning (Formative Assessment) is a process used by teachers and students as part of instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of core content. As assessment for learning, formative assessment practices provide students with clear learning targets, examples and models of strong and weak work, regular descriptive feedback, and the ability to self-assess, track learning, and set goals. (Adapted from Council of Chief State School Officers, FAST SCASS)

Intended Purpose Assessment for Learning Examples
To increase students' learning Non-graded quizzes, pretests, minute papers, exit tickets, written assignments, concept maps, interviews, progress monitoring, performance assessment scoring guides, weekly reports, focused questions, journals, learning logs, learning probes, checklists, surveys, and item analyses of summative assessments
To adjust instruction
To diagnosis student needs
To improve the instructional program

Research has shown that effective assessment for learning practices have the potential to greatly increase both student achievement and motivation. (See Assessment for Learning Resources) Black and Wiliams (1998) identify the key classroom assessment features that result in these large achievement gains as:

  • Assessments that result in accurate information
  • Descriptive rather than evaluative feedback to students
  • Student involvement in assessment

For classroom formative assessment practices to both motivate students and increase student achievement, students need to know the learning target, know where they are at in regards to the learning target, and know what they can do to close the gap. In Classroom Assessment for Student Learning, Richard J. Stiggins lists 7 strategies of assessment for learning. They are as follows:

  1. Provide a clear and understandable vision of the learning targets.
  2. Use examples and models of strong and weak work.
  3. Offer regular descriptive feedback.
  4. Teach students to self-assess and set goals.
  5. Design lessons to focus on one aspect of quality at a time.
  6. Teach students focused revision.
  7. Engage students in self-reflection, and let them keep track of and share their learning.


Assessment for Learning Professional Development

The Iowa Department of Education has developed seven online modules for collaborative learning teams. They may be used as part of a building’s professional development plan for implementing the Iowa Core, as part of a course syllabus, or independently by a team of 3 to 10 educators to deepen their understanding of formative assessment. They do not require that the team have an expert in formative assessment as a facilitator, but presume the team or facilitator has some experience in collaborative learning.

These modules illustrate the process of assessment for learning and incorporate the following six attributes identified by Iowa educators: learning progressions; clear learning goals and success criteria; modifying instruction based on elicited evidence; providing descriptive feedback; self- and peer-assessment; and creating a collaborative classroom climate. Each module was developed to follow the Iowa Professional Development Model and to include opportunities for understanding theory, engaging with a demonstration, practicing in the classroom, and peer coaching.

The seven modules are:

  1. Foundation
  2. Learning Intentions
  3. Eliciting Evidence/Instructional Modifications
  4. Descriptive Feedback
  5. Self-and Peer-assessment
  6. Collaborative Classroom Climate
  7. Putting It Into Practice

To access the modules go to Follow the directions on the page to set up an account. Go to Assessment and then Assessment for Learning. The modules require an enrollment key of AfL_2011.

Formative Assessment Tips

  • To clarify the learning targets for students use:
    • Examples and non-examples
    • Rubrics/Scoring guides
    • Test specification guides/test blueprints
    • Models
  • Invest in the time to teach students the habits and skills of collaboration in peer-assessment.
  • Give students time in class to read the descriptive feedback on returned work and to make the suggested changes.
  • Ask a variety of open-ended questions that focus on the knowledge, understanding, and reasoning skills expected of students relating to the content of the lesson.
  • Provide adequate "wait time" between asking a question and calling on a student to respond. Try counting to 20 after asking each question before you add information or ask for a response.
  • Start lessons with a 5 minute Q&A session focused on key words and concepts from previous lessons.
  • Use anonymous samples of student work to illustrate strong and weak work. Allow the students to determine the criteria that make the work strong and to provide suggestions for improving weak work.
  • Use student-friendly versions of scoring guides often with students. They will become more proficient at identifying their own weaknesses and have a better understanding of what is needed to improve.
  • Once students understand their learning goal, student portfolios can promote students' self-reflection. In collecting their work and insights in portfolios, students have the opportunity to reflect on their learning, develop an internal feedback loop, and understand themselves better as learners.
  • Design lessons to focus on one aspect of quality at a time. This strategy breaks learning into more manageable chunks for students. Be sure that students know the learning target of the lesson.
  • When using a selected-response test, arrange the items according to the learning targets they assess and give students the list of learning targets correlated to the test item numbers. When receiving their corrected test, students identify which learning targets they have mastered and which learning targets they need to work on further.
  • Have students traffic light their work (Atkin et al., 2001), marking it with a green, yellow, or red dot to indicate the level of help they need. Allow students with green and yellow dots to provide descriptive feedback to one another, while you provide feedback for students with red dots.
  • Have students construct a Mind Map to illustrate major issues around a topic of study.
  • Construct models for students of exemplary work and discuss the attributes of the models.
  • De-construct standards and benchmarks to identify exactly what the student needs to know and do to reach the benchmark. Use these de-constructed components of the benchmarks when giving descriptive feedback to students.
  • Comments focusing on improvements made by a student compared to earlier work leads to increased student motivation.
  • A study by Ruth Butler in 1988 showed that learning gains were greater when given as comments only than when only a grade is given or when the grade is combined with the comments.
  • Feedback needs to be focused on the learning objectives, rather than on comparisons with other students.
  • Give specific feedback focusing on success and improvement, rather than correction or as a re-statement of the learning target. For example, provide “for instances” and specific advice.
  • Focus improvement suggestions on closing the achievement gap between current and desired performance.
  • Grading every piece of work leads to demoralization for lower achievers and complacency for higher achievers.
  • Model effective marking, so that students are trained to be effective self and peer assessors.
  • Students need time to make suggested improvements.
  • Focus on one or two learning targets at a time when reviewing student work. For example, focus on problem solving techniques in math, paragraph construction in writing, data organization in science, etc.
  • Descriptive feedback lets the student know, in relation to the learning objective, what could have been achieved, what needs to be done, and where to go next.
  • Students MUST know the learning objectives prior to beginning the task.
  • Closing the Gap Feedback Read all of the student’s work before marking. Highlight 3 places the student best meets the learning target. Indicate with a star and descriptive feedback where improvement can be made.
  • Provide descriptive feedback on student work to identify ways or suggestions for improvement.
  • When using peer assessment, focus on only one aspect of the assignment at a time. For example, the peer may look for multiple pieces of evidence, or only grammatical errors.
  • Have students peer assess using a few guiding sentence fragments, such as: You did these really well: You could have… Next time you need to focus on…
  • Have students self assess using a few guiding sentence fragments, such as: I am please with my work so far, because… Two improvements I’ve made are… Next time I revise my work, I need to focus on… I would grade myself a 1,2,3,4,5 because I… In order to improve, I need to…
  • The three stages most commonly followed by teachers when asking students to self assess their work are: Stage 1 - Students identify their own successes. Stage 2 - Students identify a place for improvement. Stage 3 - Students identify their successes and make an “on the spot” improvement.
  • Graffiti Walls can be used for pre-assessment, to assess on-going learning on a single topic, or as an evolving glossary of related terms. The teacher places a large sheet of paper on a smooth surface and invites the students to write or draw what they know about the topic. Students “sign” their work or statements, allowing the teacher to see, at a glance, misconceptions, naïve conceptions, prior knowledge, and new learning targets.
  • KWL is a technique used by teachers to assess what students "know," "wish to know," and "have learned about a particular topic." Divide a sheet of paper into three columns labeled K, W, L. At the beginning of a lesson, the KWL serves as a written record of the student’s prior knowledge (K) on the topic, and allows the opportunity for the student to note what they desire (W) to know about the topic. Following the lesson, the student self-assesses what has actually been learned (L) about the topic.
  • Four Corners is useful as a pre-assessment at many grade levels and in many subject areas. It makes use of a familiar graphic organizer.
  • 1-2-3 Summarizers are used as an on-going assessment to help student self-awareness and student planning. Students need some instruction to use them. Example: After reading my rough draft… 1 thing I really like about my first draft… 2 resources I can use to help improve my draft… 3 revisions I can make to improve my draft…
  • Windshield Checks are useful during a lesson or unit of study to check for understanding. Example: CLEAR = I get it! BUGS = I get it for the most part, but some things are still unclear. MUD = I still don’t get it!
  • 3-2-1 Cards are a quick assessment of student learning. Example: 3 things I learned from the states of matter lab… 2 questions I still have about states of matter… 1 way I see matter changing state…
  • Minute Papers or Exit Tickets are generally written on half sheets of paper or index cards. The student is directed to write one or two important concepts from the day’s lesson. They are generally completed within the last few minutes of class or at the end of a lesson and handed to the teacher on the way out the door.

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on May 28, 2016 at 4:18pm.