How to Make Formative Assessment More Effective

Formative assessment is an important tool to aid in student progress during the teaching and learning process.

Assessment and Evaluation June 4, 2020

Diagnostic assessment is an analysis of a student’s performance before beginning the teaching-learning process to determine their prior knowledge and skill. Summative assessment is the analysis of the student’s performance when their learning has concluded at the end of a unit or subject, in order to issue a formal statement regarding their achievement. Formative assessment is what happens, or should happen, in between. It is an analysis of student performance during the learning process, in order to provide feedback on their progress and to make mid-course adjustments in the teaching-learning process. Let’s examine this matter of formative assessment.

Sometimes we think that formative evaluation is primarily about quizzes or worksheets. Or simply watching students’ expressions and their nonverbal language. Or asking and answering questions. While these can provide some useful feedback, formative evaluation is more effective when it involves all students in a systematic and diverse feedback process.

What can we do to broaden our formative assessment strategies? Here is a start.

  • One-minute paper. With books and notes put away, students write down the “most important” or “most useful” points that they learned from class, assigned readings, lab, or discussion. If time permits, students also jot down some questions that they may have. Usually takes 3-4 minutes.
  • One-sentence summary. Students answer the following questions about a specific topic in a single (long) sentence: Who? What? How? When? Where? Why? Particularly useful for a historical event, the plot of a story, a chemical reaction, a mechanical process, a biological phenomenon, etc. Takes 2-3 minutes.
  • Focused list. Direct students’ attention to a single name, concept or important relationship, and ask them to write down all related concepts or ideas that they can identify. You can limit the exercise to 2 or 3 minutes, or 5 to 10 items in the list.
  • Concept map. Ask students to diagram the key aspects of a given concept (e.g., racism, democracy, natural selection). Start with primary relationships, then add secondary and tertiary connections. Have students try different models (concentric circles, spider webs, hierarchical branches, causal models, etc.). Can take 5-15 minutes, depending on complexity.
  • Hazy matter. Have students write down what they perceive as the most unclear point of a presentation, reading, video, demonstration, discussion, or homework. These can then be clarified in the following class period. Students who are not comfortable with asking questions publicly may find a lifesaver. Takes 1-2 minutes.

How can we go about implementing formative assessments such as these?

Start in a simple way. Try a one-minute paper, a one-sentence summary, a hazy matter. Share with students the purpose of the activity and provide instructions on the board or screen. Emphasize that it will be anonymous and has the potential for mutual benefit.

Respond to the information collected. After you have read over the results, share some of your observations with the class. If you decide to change something, explain what will be different and why. Provide suggestions to students as to how they can strengthen their learning.

You can also use formative assessment to provide feedback regarding student projects. Begin by providing examples of exemplary work and discussing what makes these excellent. Then divide a major project into stages with due dates and feedback at each stage. In providing feedback, comment more on content, reasoning, and organization, and less on mechanics such as style and spelling. Identify some key areas for improvement and specific recommendations on how to do it, focusing comments on the product, rather than directing them at the student. Finally, teach students how to give useful and specific feedback to each other, and then build sessions for peer review into the learning activities of the class.


John Wesley Taylor

John Wesley Taylor V, PhD, is Associate Director of Education at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He has served as teacher and educational administrator in North America, Latin America, and Asia, and in elementary, secondary, and higher education settings. He is a friend of young people and a colleague of teachers.


  • | July 14, 2020 at 10:20 am

    Dr. Taylor,
    In this day and age with certain students, one could ask for a text message, tweet, Insta message, etc. for the “one sentence” summary or the “hazy” exit ticket ideas.

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