Formative Assessment

Assessment comes in two forms: formative and summative (see Learning Assessment; Summative Assessment). Formative assessment occurs during the learning process, focuses on improvement (rather than evaluation) and is often informal and low-stakes.

Adjustments in Instruction

Formative assessment allows instructors to gain valuable feedback—what students have learned, how well they can articulate concepts, what problems they can solve. Instructors can then make changes to increase effectiveness, which can lead to substantial learning gains (Black and Wiliam, 1998).

The Problem of Student Over-Confidence

Formative assessment also helps students accurately assess their own knowledge, which is crucial for learning. Especially for lower-performing students, a significant gap exists between what students think they know and what they actually know (Bell and Volckmann, 2011). This confirms what in psychology is called the Dunning-Kruger effect: the less competent or skilled an individual is, the more likely he or she is to be overconfident in his or her abilities (Kruger and Dunning, 1999). Overconfidence has a strong negative effect on learning. Students who are overconfident have significantly smaller normalized learning gains than students who were more realistic in their assessments (Mathabathe and Potgieter, 2014).

Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs)

Classroom Assessment Techniques are a specific set of formative assessments designed to give the instructor and the students a clear picture of what they know. The term CATs was popularized in Angelo and Cross’ book Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. The following are a few of the most popular CATs that, because of their simplicity and flexibility, can be used in almost any subject:

  • The Minute Paper. At the end of class, give the students one minute to answer the following two questions:
    1. What was the most important thing you learned during this class?
    2. What important question remains unanswered?
  • The Muddiest Point. Like the minute paper, at the end of class ask your students:
    1. What was the muddiest point of the class?
    2. What made this point so difficult to comprehend?
  • One-Sentence Summary. Choosing a single topic addressed during a class session, ask the students to answer the question: who does what, to whom, when, where, why, and how?
  • Student-Generated Test Questions. Have students generate test questions and practice answering their questions thoroughly. Additionally, integrating student response systems such as Clickers in the classroom have been proven to result in increases in a number of significant areas including: students' ability to assess their learning, the amount of pages students read before class, their overall understanding of the material, and their exam scores (Hedgcock & Rouwenhorst, 2014).

For a pre-constructed assessment worksheet see Fast Feedback Form or find additional CATs here:

Retrieval Practices Enhance Learning

Formative assessment can also help students learn material. Although students may prefer “cramming” before an exam by re-reading texts and notes, they remember more and have a deeper understanding of material when they must mentally retrieve it regularly, at spaced intervals interleaved with other unrelated material. From short writing exercises to low-stakes quizzes to answering polling questions (e.g., with Clickers), formative assessment can facilitate these retrieval practices that enhance learning (Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014).


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. Second Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Bell, P., & Volckmann, D. (2011). Knowledge surveys in general chemistry: Confidence, overconfidence, and performance. Journal of Chemical Education, 88(11), 1469-1476.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2006). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 5(1), 7-74.

Brown, P., & Roediger III, H., & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Hedgcock, W., & Rouwenhorst, R. (2014). Clicking their way to success: Using student response systems as a tool for feedback. Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education, 22(2), 16-25.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134.

Mathabathe, K. C., & Potgieter, M. (2014). Metacognitive monitoring and learning gain in foundation chemistry. Chemical Education Research and Practice, 15(1), 94 104.

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