Introducing Formative Assessment

Listening to the so-called experts on the radio arguing that exams must take place in England next summer despite all the disruptions to education caused by Covid has made me reflect on how tied we are to a traditional and rigid testing system which these ‘experts’ tell us is ‘the single best way to evaluate students’ knowledge’. I think it is time to reappraise formative assessment and consider its wider and long-term benefits. 

It is worthwhile reviewing why we assess students beyond the need of Universities to see grades on which to base their decision to allow a student to study at their esteemed educational establishment. We assess students because as teachers an important part of our job is to monitor our students’ progress and to diagnose how we can help them overcome difficulties as well as develop their learning skills and all those other important life skills that are fostered alongside language like communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. 

We want to be able to point out evidence of their progress to students and in doing so increase their motivation. There is nothing more motivating than that sense of success.

We also need to know how successful our teaching is. Have we managed to find the right ways to present and practise key language items that ensure students not only understand it but can use it appropriately and with ease later? This is not straightforward and we need indications of where we have been less successful, so we can return to areas of language if necessary probably in different ways. And we need indications of what we have done well, so we can do it again!

And, of course, we need to provide something tangible in terms of information for parents, colleagues and school authorities

Traditional approaches to assessment are based on assessment of what students have learnt and is mostly typified by tests and examinations taken at the end of a period of learning e.g. end of unit tests, end of year exams. I want to make it clear that I believe that exams serve a purpose, and I am not arguing to get rid of them at all. For one thing, they give students a sense of direction, something to aim for:

Everyone can experience feelings of resolve and a commitment to think more and to dare more … and of being poised to learn and ready to take the next step.

Martin V. Covington, The Will to Learn, Cambridge University Press

As students work their way through a suite of exams they can feel a clear sense of progress over an extended period of time. e.g.’ ‘ was at A2 a couple of years ago and now look, I’ve passed a B2 exam!!’ And with that a sense of completion

Very importantly, established international exams like those provided by Cambridge Assessment are incredibly well researched by experts in their field, reliable and valid as well as recognised the world over. This give students an even greater sense of accomplishment when they get their certificates. 

And exams do provide clear numerical information for stake holders, which is needed for record keeping and analysis.


Traditional testing doesn’t always reflect 21st Century teaching methodology, which appreciates and accommodates multiple learner differences, like the fact that we don’t always work at the same speed and a timed exam may not give every student enough time to do the best they could.

Unfortunately, in my personal experience I have witnessed how teaching becomes test-driven and creativity is pushed out, with teachers spending the majority of their time dishing out practice tests to students and not giving enough attention to actual teaching. This could be in part the result of teachers being judged primarily on test results rather than the quality of their teaching.

And there is that awful situation of students judging class activities a waste of time if they can’t see a direct link to the exam.  Leaners only want to study ‘for’ the test because that has become the be all and end all of their learning experience.

This focus on just ‘passing’ the exam can lead to a culture of rote learning, which is dangerous as what is learnt this way is quickly forgotten.

You may enjoy this ‘slightly cynical’ definition of a grade:

A grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgement by a biased judge to the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material.

Dressel, 1983

One of the major issues for me is that if teachers overly rely on the information they get about students’ progress from end of year exams, that information has come too late for them to take any remedial action to help those students in need.

This is where formative assessment comes in, as it happens throughout the learning process and students are encouraged to take an active role and develop skills and confidence to continue learning beyond school.

These are some simple tools to use in any lesson with any class (even lower Primary or University level students). Students use these to indicate how they are managing / progressing during or just after a lesson (or perhaps at the end of the week). They are all techniques that encourage metacognition – the ability of students to think about their learning. How are they learning? What helps them to remember? What are they confused about? etc.

Signs – these can be as simple as a red and green card which they put in the middle of their table (individually or as a group), which indicate whether they are happy for you to proceed (green) or they want you to stop (red) and help them more.

KWL – At the start of a lesson or series on lessons e.g. a unit of a course book (this could even be a single text), students brainstorm what they know of the key topic they will cover. This could be, for example, volcanoes or the passive voice. After sharing this information, they consider what they want to know and document this. As they work through the portion of material they register when they have found answers to their questions and at the end consider what they have learnt.

Mind Maps – are a great example of graphic organiser of what you know.  Again, students can start filling in the mind map in groups before embarking on something new and add words / information as they progress. These can be displayed on the class walls while being used and recorded (e.g. photographed on their mobile phones) for students to use a reference.

321 – at the end of a lesson or unit, students record 3 things they learnt, 2 things they found interesting and one question they still have. This can be shared as class or given to the teacher anonymously, especially at first when they may be reluctant to share with the whole class. This is a habit that needs to be developed as it flies in the face of traditional competitive learning.

If you are teaching online there are tools inbuilt to may platforms that can replace the four techniques mentioned above. For example, students can be asked to use the polling tool to indicate how they are managing with the material. Or they can use the chat box (which can be set to be read only by the teacher) to say if they are confused or need extra help.

Most course books have regular review sections after a few units, which many teachers set as a test. But these can be used for students to reflect on their own progress and gaps in their knowledge. This will encourage them to become more independent and take steps themselves to rectify these gaps or to seek help.

Journals/ letters – Students can be introduced to ways of verbalising their learning journey by keeping a personal journal or writing regular letters / notes / emails to you. This makes them really think about what they are learning and how and hopefully identify their success and where they need extra support.

Many books now begin a unit with a list of what you Can Do by the end of the unit. Try getting students to refer to this on their own and gauge whether they can. Maybe using %s.

Something I have found very successful over the years is arranging regular short individual tutorials / meetings with students to discuss how they are doing, where I can make suggestions of personalised work that can help / be of interest to them and allow them to ask questions. I was pleasantly surprised by how my lower secondary students in Greece responded with maturity and openness to this opportunity to focus on how and what they were learning. And these are possible even if you are having to teach online.

Formative assessment is a collaborative way that teachers can work with students to highlight day to day progress as well as problems in the learning process to facilitate success for all.


Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Albert Einstein