How Does Formative Assessment Help in Learning

Formative assessment is not supposed to be just another buzz word in education. It is gathering of information on a regular basis regarding what students are learning and what students need. There is no doubt that such exercise is necessary to make a good connection between teaching and learning. Formative assessment unfortunately becomes a sound bite if it is taken as a magic bullet independent of other factors that define quality teaching. Formative assessment alone cannot improve learning as its effectiveness depends on other more traditional features associated with quality teaching.

In a paper published in the American Educational Research Journal, a group of German researchers has shown the important relationship between formative assessments and the more general features of quality teaching. The study involves 28 teachers and 551 third grade students from 18 public elementary schools in Germany who are learning a specific topic in science, floating versus sinking. The research is a randomized controlled study that measures the effect of formative assessments on students' learning outcomes with a careful consideration of the following general features of quality teaching:

  • Cognitive Activation or Instructional Support - How well does a teacher choose or develop strategies that specifically address students' current understanding
  • Supportive Climate or Emotional Support - How positive is the relationship does the teacher try to foster with students
  • Classroom Management or Classroom Organization - How clear are the procedures and rules inside the classroom

The results indicate that formative assessment provides benefits to student learning with Cognitive Activation and a Supportive Climate:

Above copied from
Jasmin Decristan, Eckhard Klieme, Mareike Kunter, Jan Hochweber,Gerhard B├╝ttner, Benjamin Fauth, A. Lena Hondrich, Svenja Rieser, Silke Hertel,and Ilonca Hardy. Embedded Formative Assessment and Classroom Process Quality: How Do They Interact in Promoting Science Understanding?American Educational Research Journal December 2015 52: 1133-1159, first published on August 14, 2015 doi:10.3102/0002831215596412

First, the two groups (without and with formative assessment) do not show any significant difference between high and low quality classroom management. In other words, classroom management seems to be an independent factor. On the other hand, there is obviously an interplay between formative assessment and the other two features of quality teaching, cognitive activation and supportive climate. Without formative assessment, a responsive and caring teacher does not increase student learning. This makes sense since a teacher cannot really be that responsive without knowing the students. Formative assessment therefore provides teachers with the necessary information for deciding what instructional support to employ. The interplay with supportive climate probably occurs at the other end. It indicates that care must be taken when employing formative assessments. The following are additional insights provided by the authors. One must take note that the authors have developed the study from the ground and actualy trained the teachers for this study. Thus, the following are well-informed opinions and therefore should be taken seriously:
"It should be noted that in our study the diagnostic tests and semistructured student feedback sheets given to the teachers had been designed for implementation in the curriculum. The standardized materials for the use of embedded formative assessment in class had been developed to examine students’ current level of conceptual understanding and to guide future teaching and learning. Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the intervention varied with the quality of classroom processes. Thus, it can be speculated that training teachers in the use of embedded formative assessment in class and providing them with high-quality materials is necessary but not sufficient to ensure appropriate use in the classroom. Rather, our results indicate that the effectiveness of embedded formative assessment for student learning depends on how the teacher supports students and how he or she keeps them cognitively active during lessons... These global factors of classroom process quality are not necessarily improved by providing assessment tools and teacher training in formative assessment practices...."
Formative assessments can work but they do require good teachers. The authors also add the fact that in this study, content is defined and made uniform in all classes. Without doubt, content-related factors likewise play a very important role. A teacher who is able to stretch and extend the subject matter to specifically address the needs and and take advantage of the strengths of the students can bring even greater effectiveness to formative assessments.