In thinking about formative assessment, we have found the work of Margaret Heritage (2007) to be particularly helpful.  Heritage describes formative assessment as an organized and planned process used to “gather evidence about learning.”  In this process, the data gathered about student learning are analyzed in order to determine students’ skills and understandings so the teacher can then shape learning activities to better support the students as they move towards their learning goal.  Heritage writes that, “In formative assessment, students are active participants with their teachers, sharing learning goals and understanding how their learning is progressing, what next steps they need to take, and how to take them” (p. 141).

Heritage then describes three primary types of formative assessment:  “on-the-fly assessment, planned-for interaction, and curriculum-embedded assessment” (p. 141).  On-the-fly assessments take place in the moment of instruction, for example when a teacher notices a student misconception about an important concept and uses a Stop and Jot writing exercise to quickly gather information on the prevalence of this misunderstanding across the whole class. Planned-for-interactions are moments built into lesson plans where the teacher gathers information about student understanding in order to inform instructional moves going forward in the lesson.  This might involve, for example, planned small group discussions about a key question or process in the lesson followed by groups presenting a graphic organizer representing their thinking.  The teacher can then make informed choices about  re-teaching important ideas or moving forward in the lesson.  Curriculum-embedded formative assessments are, as suggested in their name, built into curricula or instructional sequences and are placed at important points in learning progressions to provide teachers and students with insight into the thinking and learning taking place.

Finally, Heritage identifies four “core elements” of formative assessment:

  • identifying the “gap,”
  • feedback, and
  • student involvement,
  • learning progressions (p. 141)

Formative assessment first needs to “identify the gap,” or evaluate a where a student currently is with respect to some pre-determined goal for learning activity.  Formative assessment also has to include feedback, and this feedback needs to be geared towards helping the student move closer to the learning goal.   As already implied, the student needs to be involved in this process, and very importantly, aware that this is the process taking place.  In other words, students need to know about the learning goal, they need to know where they stand, and they need feedback that is is designed to help them achieve the learning goal.  Underlying of all of these other core elements is the notion of learning progressions;  the final learning goal needs to have identified sub-goals so that the students can set short-terms learning goals they can achieve as they advance and learn.

Heritage, M.  (2007).  Formative Assessment:  What do teachers need to know and do?  Phi Delta Kappan 89(2):  140-145.