How Formative is Assessment for Learning.

In one of my Professional Learning hubs this month we had a discussion about Formative Assessment. The discussion generally centred around the amount of work involved in establishing tasks and recording and analysing student data. This makes the most sense when you view formative assessment as an event, rather than a process. However, Formative Assessment doesn’t need to be a formalised task or activity where every student’s response is marked, recorded and analysed, instead, it can look more like a conversation where attention to student responses and ideas is used to recognise opportunities for future learning and direction.

Duckor (2014) proposes seven moves aimed at developing successful formative assessment and, despite reading more like a strategy for effective classroom questioning, his approach does have merit.

  1. Prime students first
  2. Pose good questions
  3. Pause during questioning
  4. Probe student responses
  5. Bounce questions throughout the classroom
  6. Use tagging to generate a wide range of responses
  7. Build your bins

Most interesting are the last two moves. Tagging refers to writing down student contributions to questions posed by the teacher or other students, commonly through the development of a mind map (or word web). This technique enables the teacher to build a picture of student understanding of a topic.

The final step, build your bins, proposes teachers broaden the ways in which they categorise student responses. Rather than listening for the correct answer, Duckor suggests teachers use student responses as a means of understanding where students are on the continuum that is the learning process.

formativeassessmentwordle3Coffey et al. (2011) support this approach to formative assessment and have raised concerns about the disciplinary substance of what teachers traditionally consider to be formative assessment, using examples of questioning techniques and student responses to build their argument. They contend that a focus on student thinking and the development of effective responses to evidence of student thinking is much more appropriate than the implementation of generic teaching strategies or routines. Vlachou (2015) explains “Teachers appear to apply strategies and practices mechanistically, without understanding their purpose and the cognitive principles behind them. Moreover, students appear to have a peripheral role in [Formative Assessment] procedures, rather than becoming responsible for their own learning” (p. 102).

A student centred approach to Formative Assessment represents a view of teaching in response to student actions and ideas and implementing practices connected to the identified subject matter. In the words of Coffey et al. (2011) “Formative assessment becomes about engaging with and responding to the substance of [student] ideas and reasoning, assessing with discipline-relevant criteria, and, from ideas, recognizing possibilities along the disciplinary horizon” (p. 1131).

We often hear the terms Assessment for learning and Assessment of learning. The view of Formative Assessment presented above infers all teaching activities are really Assessment for learning and I support this argument. By considering Formative Assessment as a process, it becomes the heart of what we are doing in the classroom; checking for student understanding, responding to student thinking and developing content appropriate for the current ideas expressed by our students. In this way we are constantly paying attention to what is being said and done in our classrooms, which enables us to respond much more effectively when teachable moments unexpectedly arise.

I have heard it said that assessment is not for checking student performance; rather it should be used for measuring teacher performance. This really seems to be at the crux of Assessment of learning; how affective has the teacher been in teaching a particular topic. The more we can separate Formative and Summative assessment, both in the way we look at the data they produce and in the types of tasks we consider them to be, the more effectively we can use them to benefit teaching and learning.

I am keen to know your feelings and approaches towards Formative Assessment. Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts and I look forward to the discussion.


Coffey, J., Hammer, D., Levin, D., & Grant, T. (2011). The missing disciplinary substance of formative assessment. J. Res. Sci. Teach., 48(10), 1109-1136.

Duckor, B. (2014). Formative Assessment in Seven Good Moves. Educational Leadership, 71(6), 28–32.

Vlachou, M. (2015). Does Assessment for Learning Work to Promote Student Learning? The England Paradigm. The Clearing House: A Journal Of Educational Strategies, Issues And Ideas, 88(3), 101-107.


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