3 Must Haves

How to Make Formative Assessment Work in Your Classroom

If you’re anything like us, you’re a (really, really) big fan of formative assessment. You know that embedding it regularly into your K-12 classroom instruction unlocks in-the-moment insights into what your students know and don’t know, so you can make the best instructional decisions possible.

But in order for a formative assessment strategy to drive student outcomes, it has to be thoughtfully designed to give you the data you need to determine the next steps.

This week, we share our list of the three can’t-skips, gotta-dos, must-haves for meaningful formative assessment.

#1 Proper Alignment
Formative assessment only works when you measure what you intend to measure. Correct alignment ensures continuity of instruction, instructional materials, and assessment. It also sends clear messages to students about what they know, what they need to know, and how to close that gap.

In order to align your assessments to standards, you first have to be familiar with them—which can be tricky for educators, especially those who teach elective courses. (Trust us, we know. We spent 5+ years gathering ‘em all together.)

Many informational resources exist to help you dial in on the specific standards for your subject and grade level. Check with your district for standards materials, collaborate in your PLC, or download apps specifically designed for educators (like the MasteryConnect State Apps and Resource Pins.)

Once you have an assessment ready, review it for proper alignment to ensure that it will, in fact, inform both teaching and learning in your classroom. Below are a few questions to help you get started.

Questions to Ask About Assessment Alignment

  • Which standard(s) do I want to assess?
  • Does the assessment directly align to these standards?
  • Does it measure the concepts and skills associated with the standards?
  • Is it grade-level and/or developmentally appropriate?
  • Do the questions have the right level of readability?
  • Does it include appropriate vocabulary for my students?
  • Is it free of cultural bias?
  • Will the question provide the insight I need to identify levels of understanding?

Now, you may think that we are only covering alignment for formal formative assessments, like multiple-choice or papers. Au contraire. The spectrum of formative assessment is wide, including both formal and informal assessment and is effective for all subjects and grade levels.

As an educator, you may use your own observations of student performance. This works well for activities like musical numbers, art pieces, or group discussions. Or a formative assessment could be as simple as students self-reporting their confidence in understanding the day’s lesson, like “Fists to Fives” or “Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down”. (Check out our post from a few weeks back for other formative assessment ideas.)

Regardless of how you choose to assess your students (and how you gather data about that assessment), proper alignment is the first step in making sure that formative assessment is working in your classroom.

#2 In-the-Moment Feedback
Studies have repeatedly shown that the sooner a student receives feedback, the more likely it is to have a positive impact on student learning. Summative assessments, typically administered at the end of an instructional period, often don’t communicate to students about their progress until days, weeks or even months down the road.

In episode 11 of the Reclaiming the Classroom podcast, James Seaman, a former educator and current MasteryConnect employee, shared an experience about his first year as a teacher. He remembered his students asking, “Have you graded our tests yet?!?” At the time, he thought of grading the tests as just another thing on his already infinite (and exhausting) to-do list. But looking back, he realized it was because the students truly wanted to know how they had done—they wanted to know about their own learning.

And that’s why formative assessment is so important. It’s hallmark is the ability to provide students with feedback as learning happens, while there is still time to influence growth. There are many tools that can help you get immediate results back to your students, including GradeCam or the Socrative app. Some teachers find that meeting with students for mini-sessions or dividing students into groups based on levels of understanding helps them target feedback.

When crafting your feedback to students, there are few guidelines to keep in mind.

Rules for Effective Feedback

  • It’s relevant
  • It includes clear goals
  • It addresses misconceptions
  • It provides opportunity for students to advance
  • It includes comments, not only grades

Crafting effective feedback helps students know exactly where they are…and where they need to be. This is critical for the next step: self-evaluation.

#3 Opportunities for Self-Evaluation
Meaningful formative assessment provides the opportunity for both the student and the teacher to reflect on learning. For the teacher, this involves reflecting on what’s happening in the classroom, then making appropriate changes to instructional practices and strategies to improve student outcomes. For the student, this means analyzing their individual learning and setting goals for future growth.

Teacher Self-Evaluation
Part of teaching is fine-tuning your skills, taking new approaches, and adapting to the needs of your students. Formative assessment gives you the opportunity to get constant feedback from your class so you can adjust instruction in the moment. Below are a few steps to take and questions to help you self-evaluate.

Consider the formative assessment you administered.

  • Did it collect evidence of student learning?
  • Did it provide you with helpful data to inform instruction?

Analyze the assessment data.

  • What percentage of students mastered the concept?
  • What level of intervention, remediation, or enrichment will be needed?
  • What other strategies or resources might I use in the future?
  • What went well and what needs to be changed in the instructional cycle?
  • Are there any supports available to me at my school or district?

Make a plan and execute on it.

  • How am I going to group my students for further instruction?
  • What resources/strategies will I use with each group?
  • How and when will I reassess?

After you have taken the time to reflect on your own performance, the next step is helping students do the same.

Student Self-Evaluation
Providing students with opportunities to engage in their own learning has been shown to lead to some pretty impressive results. Students who approach academics with a learning mindset—with a focus on continual learning and self-improvement—tend to experience greater academic success than students with a performance mindset (one based on ability, comparison to others, and external consequences).

But the ability to self-evaluate is a learned proficiency, one that requires an environment of trust. Such environment—one that encourages students to take academic risks and take ownership of their learning—helps students respond to feedback and take the next steps to close the learning gaps.

Consider how students in your classroom would successfully evaluate their own learning. What would it look like? How would you know they are self-evaluating effectively? What strategies would you use to help them become more proficient in self-evaluation?

Below are few tips from other educators on how to help students assess their own learning.

Strategies on Helping Student Self-Evaluate

  • Have students fill out rubrics about their own performance
  • Ask students to highlight parts of the assessment where they were unsure
  • Allow students the opportunity to correct their mistakes
  • Divide students into pairs or small groups to solicit peer feedback
  • Help students set SMART Goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant & Timely) for their learning
  • Help students create portfolios highlighting their best academic work

Formative assessment is a continuous cycle that helps both teachers and students improve performance in the classroom. These three steps will ensure that you are getting the most from your strategies and making the best instructional decisions.

We’d love to hear how you are using formative assessment in your class, school, or district! Share your activities with us at blog@masteryconnect.com and you may be featured in an upcoming post.



MasteryConnect helps over 2.5 million educators around the world with formative assessment, standards-based grading, data-driven instruction, and teacher collaboration. Get more info on how MasteryConnect may help in your teachers and students.

Formative vs Summative

Summative vs. Formative Assessment | How they’re different, why they’re used, and their effect on student learning

With so much emphasis on high-stakes testing and federal mandates like NCLB and ESSA, there has been much (and often heated) debate on the role of assessment in our public schools. So it’s no wonder that the word “assessment” can carry some mighty heavy baggage for K-12 educators.

But with formative assessment making a bold move to the forefront of educational trends, the term “assessment” may be shaking part of its negative reputation. In fact, education innovators are finding that assessment, when used frequently throughout the learning cycle, actually helps teachers improve student outcomes by giving them the insights they need for data-driven instruction and more meaningful teacher collaboration.

At first glance, many think that it’s a which-one-is-better debate when it comes to formative and summative assessment. Not really true. Although we definitely included a “versus” in the headline, they aren’t really at odds with one another. Rather, they both have value and provide educators with critical information; they’re just used at different times for different purposes.

Read on as we explore the differences between formative assessment and summative assessment and the role each has in K-12.


What is summative assessment?
When most of us think of the term “assessment”, we likely conjure thoughts of anxiety-inducing “traditional” tests, like final exams or the SAT. These are examples of summative assessment.

Like the term suggests, summative assessment is used to gauge the culmination of student learning at the conclusion of a specific instructional period, be it the end of a chapter, a course, a project, or a school year. The key factor in defining summative assessment is that it’s used to evaluate learning, not to inform teaching and learning.

In short, summative assessment is assessment OF learning.

Examples of Summative Assessment

  • State-mandated testing
  • Year-end testing
  • Final recital
  • Unit or chapter-end tests
  • District benchmark or interim assessments
  • Final papers
  • Portfolios
  • Placement tests

In most cases, these types of assessments are spread out over a specific and predetermined time period, and (when used in the classroom) are included in the grading process. Furthermore, summative assessment can be used to determine placement, as well as gauge the learning of groups for educational research and innovation.

Summative assessments do have their purpose, but there is one important thing they (often) don’t do: They do not inform growth for students or teachers. Because they are taken at quarter, semester, or year end, it’s difficult to use the data they produce to adjust instruction. Enter formative assessment.


What is formative assessment?
The process of formative assessment embeds checks for understanding into the learning cycle to provide feedback to teachers, allowing them to adjust instruction and provide personalized learning opportunities based on students’ unique needs. Formative assessment also provides critical feedback to students, so they can track their progress and take greater ownership of their learning.

In short, formative assessment is assessment FOR learning.

Examples of Formative Assessment
Formative assessment tends to fall into two categories, formal and informal.

Formal formative assessments is often documented and may or may not carry grade points. Examples include:

  • Quizzes
  • Papers
  • Entrance slips
  • Presentations
  • Concept maps
  • Written surveys

Informal formative assessments tend to be less documented and are often more performance-based. Examples include:

  • Quick checks for understanding
  • Questioning
  • Discussions
  • Observations
  • Confidence indications (e.g. “thumbs up / thumbs down”)
  • Interviews

(Psst! Want formative assessment ideas? Check out this post.)

Formative assessment provides K-12 educators the critical data they need to do what we at MasteryConnect call “The Big Three”: identify student levels of understanding in the real time, target students for intervention, and self-evaluate instruction.

Luckily, solutions are emerging to help administrators and teachers track student progress while learning happens and overcome the once very time-intensive process of tracking formative student data (ugh…those spreadsheets). With this in-the-moment data, teachers can more easily and effectively identify where students are right now and weigh that against where they need to be, then connect the data through adjusted instruction and feedback.



MasteryConnect provides K-12 web and mobile solutions to help educators visualize student levels of understanding in real time, so you can more easily use formative assessment data to drive student outcomes.
Ready to talk about how we can help your school or district? Let us know!

10 Formative Assessment Ideas

Formative assessment is gaining an increasingly brighter (and very worthy) spotlight in the K-12 community. As more and more schools and districts make the move to a growth mindset and mastery learning, formative assessment may be the most powerful tool to help teachers identify strategies to improve their own practice, while providing students with the personalized attention they need to succeed academically.

Like the name implies, formative assessment helps guide learning and instruction by providing immediate student feedback while learning happens. Unlike summative tests, which typically occur at the end of a chapter or unit, formative assessments are usually ungraded or don’t carry heavily weighted points.Rather, formative assessment is a quick check for understanding to help teachers answer important questions about student growth: What do my students know? What do they still need to learn? How should I adapt my instruction?

Most teachers find that incorporating formative assessment strategies into their classrooms is rather easy and seamless. In fact, you’ve probably incorporated some type of formative assessment since you first stepped foot in a classroom—you just may not have called it by “formative assessment.”

Read on as we break down 10 formative assessment examples you can start using in your classroom now.

#1 Entrance Slips

A modern take on the time-tested exit ticket, this formative assessment technique asks students to share their understanding at the beginning of class.

Have them jot down what they learned from the previous day’s lesson, share how they’d apply what they learned in a real-world scenario, or ask questions they may have about the material. Use strips of paper, index cards, or an online solution like Socrative to gather student responses. Then use their responses to answer questions at the beginning of class, re-teach an important concept, modify the day’s lesson, or determine if the class is ready to forge ahead.

#2 Open-Ended Questioning

Asking questions that require more than simple yes-or-no responses encourages students to use their higher-order reasoning skills. Additionally, when students are asked questions like “Does this make sense?” or “Do you understand?”, they may answer “yes” even if they need more help.

Ask questions that make them think more deeply about the class material. You may use these questions to start students talking as a class, begin small group discussions, or utilize as a writing prompt. This will help them make the transition from memorizing to cognitively processing their response.

#3 Postcards

This formative assessment strategy works particularly well for history or social studies students, but can be used in other context like ELA or current affairs.

Ask students to take on the persona of a historical figure, a fictional character from a novel, or a person in the news to write a postcard to another individual. Students should think beyond the historical facts, such as dates or locations, and more closely consider context, causes and effects, and other social factors. You may, perhaps, choose to provide them with a series of questions to help them get writing.

#4 Two Stars & a Wish

Peer review and collaboration are another way to implement formative assessment in your classroom. Allowing students to see others work not only promotes collaboration, but may further their own understanding of the material. This K-12 assessment strategy works well for many assignment types, including oral performances, written assignments, or art pieces.

After discussion of the work, ask each student or group to write down two stars (areas where the work excelled) and a wish (an area where it may be improved) about a peer’s project or essay.This formative assessment example is designed to keep things positive, while still providing each student with constructive feedback.

#5 Bullet List

Assessing each student’s level of understanding at the conclusion of class time can help you prepare for the next day’s lesson or determine if you need to assign additional activities. Asking them to put their thoughts in writing will also save you from the dreaded silence that can happen when asking for their questions aloud.

At the end of a lesson, encourage students to itemize three things that he or she didn’t understand about the material. Students may write down their responses or send them electronically via a classroom edtech system. After writing them down, you may also ask them to share their questions out loud to provide an opportunity to receive peer feedback. For younger grades, hold “carpet time”, when students sit down to go over questions as a group.

#6 Quiz Bowl

Formative assessment can be fun and games when you add in a little friendly competition. The activity not only adds a layer of excitement to learning, it promotes teamwork and collaboration among students.

To hold a bowl of your own, separate the class into teams. Use a buzzer, bell, or raised hands for teams to answer, with each correct answer earning the team points. Our personal favorite, of course, is holding a Socrative Space Race, during which students race their icons (even unicorns!) across the screen.

#7 Collages

Spark creativity in your students by asking them to create collages with a mix of images they believe demonstrates their understanding of a concept. This formative assessment idea can be used in nearly every subject for any age group, and can be done individually or in groups.

Ask students to present their collages to the class and explain why they chose to include each image. Allow students to ask questions or provide feedback. Or hang collages on a gallery wall where students can view others’ work.

#8 Mini Meetings

Singling out an individual can cause anxiety for the student. No student, after all, wants to hear, “See me after class.” However, when teacher-student meetings are scheduled as a standard among the entire classroom, it can promote learning while sparing any unintended embarrassment. This formative assessment activity can be particularly helpful for introverted students who may be too shy to speak up in front of a group.

Meet with each student, perhaps even for a few minutes or once per week, to discuss a specific assignment or concept or to allow them to ask questions or receive feedback. Scheduling these meetings while the rest of the class is working on a project ensures learning continues for all students.

#9 Fists to Fives or Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down

A twist on the all-time formative assessment classic (raising hands) “fists to fives” or “thumbs up / down” allows students to communicate their level of comfort with the day’s materials with an easy visual cue.

Ask your students to quickly show their understanding with a numerical rating or with a simple thumbs up or down. Or, if you have a tech solution, ask them to send in their rating anonymously from a laptop, tablet, or hand-held device.   

#10  A Quick-Check Quiz

Although you may already have chapter or unit-end quizzes planned, a quick-check quiz—or even a single question—will give you valuable insight into student growth before moving on. Be sure to keep it informal to alleviate pressure on students.

Ask students to answer questions that will demonstrate their mastery of material. Their responses will help you determine if it is time to move on, divide students into groups, provide more examples, or identify students that needs a little extra help.

If you’re a formative assessment fanatic, share your strategies with us on Twitter, on Facebook, or at blog@masteryconnect.com. We’d love to hear how you’re helping students conquer the world!



MasteryConnect provides K-12 web and mobile solutions to help educators visualize student levels of understanding in real time, so you can more easily use formative assessment data to drive student outcomes.
Ready to talk to about how we can help your school or district? Let us know!