The method of formative assessment was first introduced by Michael Scriven in 1967, and later re-introduced by Benjamin Bloom, who suggested that the term be applied to student learning in 1969. Bloom suggested that formative assessment would be a much more powerful tool if it were separated from the grading process and used primarily as an aid to teaching. Many believe that the practice of formative assessment is rooted in Bloom’s concept of “mastery learning. This concept is an instructional approach that uses assessments to gauge students’ progress toward mastering a goal (Bloom, Hastings, & Madaus, 1971).
In Developing the Theory of Formative Assessment, authors Black and Wiliam name five key strategies in formative assessment: 1. Clarifying and sharing learning intentions and criteria for success; 2. Engineering effective classroom discussions and other learning tasks that elicit evidence of student understanding; 3. Providing feedback that moves learners forward; 4. Activating students as instructional resources for one another; and 5. Activating students as the owners of their own learning (2009).
These strategies encompass the idea that formative assessment is meant to be used by the teacher to individually assess student knowledge and let the information gathered from the formative assessments guide the lesson and the lesson planning process. Trumbull and Lash state in their review of formative assessment entitled Understanding Formative Assessment: Insights from Learning Theory and Measurement Theory (2013), that formative assessment should be “tailored to the particular students being assessed, the relevant learning targets, and a specified point in the instructional process; also, it should take a form most likely to elicit the desired learning evidence” (p. 3). Most often, formative assessment takes place during instruction and is typically in the form of an exchange between the teacher and students.
However, there is no specific definition for what formative assessment should, or must, look like in any given classroom. Catherine Garrison and Michael Ehringhaus describe formative assessment as a way to provide the information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are happening (2013). Because these assessments can be done in a variety of formats, Garrison and Ehringhaus suggest that there are ways to distinguish these types of assessments from summative assessments. One distinction is to think of formative assessment as “practice” that a student is not held accountable for.
The second distinction they describe is student involvement. Garrison and Ehringhaus state that students should be “involved as both assessors of their own learning as well as resources to other students” (2013). While there is some confusion about the concrete definition and purpose of formative assessment, most scholars and theorists agree that its intent is to shape a student’s learning and actually alter the outcome based on the information gathered by the formative assessment. Based on this concept, there are many positive attributes of the method of formative assessment.
If a teacher uses this type of assessment regularly and effectively in his or her classroom, the impact on student learning would be exceptionally great. By continuously gauging a student or group of students’ knowledge of particular concepts and shaping the approach taken to teach those concepts in order to reach the students’ learning styles and effectively engage students, there would unquestionably be positive results. In a critical review of the research on formative assessment, Karee E. Dunn and Sean W.
Mulvenon (2009) found that formative assessment does improve student achievement. Based on studies by Black and Wiliam (1998), Dunn and Mulvenon explain in their review that research “shows conclusively that formative assessment does improve learning,” and that the gains in student achievement were “amongst the largest ever reported” (p. 61). However, it has been reported that there were issues with some of the studies and research that led to these findings, thus, making them less reputable.
For classroom teachers, the use of formative assessments, under the definition given by Chappius and Stiggins (2002) that they are assessments designed to monitor student progress during the learning process, can be a very useful tool to gauge mastery of concepts and direct re-teaching. Examples of how classroom teachers can utilize formative assessments include observation of students, questioning, discussion, and the use of exit slips. These are just a few of the techniques used to formatively assess student learning throughout the learning process.
These, as well as many other types of formative assessments, can be a very efficient way to monitor progress. While formative assessments do yield useful information for teachers, the results are only as valuable as the assessor allows them to be. For example, if a classroom teacher facilitates formative assessments during lessons, but does not use the data collected to redirect teaching, plan lessons, or modify content for his or her students, the assessment becomes ineffective. Furthermore, in recent research studies, it has been proven difficult to find evidence that formative assessments are improving student learning.
In 2004, Wiliam, Lee, Harrison, and Black conducted a study of 24 teachers’ use of formative assessment after a 6 month training period (Dunn & Mulvenon, 2009). Because of the many inconsistencies involved in the experiment, such as using different methods of comparison, the findings were deemed “difficult to interpret” (Wiliam et al. , 2004; p. 62). To conclude, it seems as though there are many inconsistencies in the way formative assessment is defined and put into practice, however, it could potentially prove to be one of the most effective practices used in today’s classroom.
While there have been research studies that do provide support for the impact of formative assessment, there is a need to conduct further studies in an effort to find more conclusive results. Because of the nature of this method of assessment, it lacks much of the concrete information that can be found for other methods, such as summative or diagnostic assessment. It must also be stated that formative assessment is by no means a modern practice, and it has been utilized in classrooms by effective teachers throughout history.
The term “formative assessment” may not have been the verbiage used to describe the probing and prompting initiated by educators to better understand their students thought processes, but it was nonetheless what was occurring. Whether or not this method of assessment acquires the needed support from researchers, effective classroom teachers will continue to informally assess their students using a variety of techniques that will, in turn, shape their instruction. This is the idea of the method of formative assessment, and educators will prove to make strides if this practice is used effectively.