Friday / June 14

Implementing Formative Assessment Practice #3: Provide “Formative Feedback” to Students to Guide Their Learning

Formative Assessment

Contributed by Susan Creighton

In my blog post, “Using Formative Assessment to Create Active Learners,” I listed five key practices that teachers can use to help students learn to make use of their own formative assessment data. Read Practice 1 and Practice 2. Here, I discuss Practice #3 from that list:

Provide “formative feedback” to students to guide their learning.

If students are to learn to make use of their own formative assessment data, they need to understand the answers to these questions (Hattie & Timperley, 2007):

  • What is the learning goal I’m aiming for?,
  • Where is my learning currently in relation to that goal?, and
  • If I have not yet met the goal, what do I need to do next to be able to meet it?

Effective feedback can help students understand the answers to the latter two questions; I call this “formative feedback” because it helps students adjust their learning while instruction is still underway. (The first question is answered by sharing the learning target: see the blog posts for Practice #1 & Practice #2).

Formative feedback tells the student three things:

  1. what elements of the learning target have been met or partially met;
  2. what elements have not yet been met;
  3. a specific suggestion for next steps to meet the target.


Consider the example of a 3rd-grade mathematics lesson with the following two-part learning target:

Math idea for today: Word problems can be represented using addition or subtraction equations.

            How you will know if you’ve learned it:

  • I can explain how I know whether to use addition or subtraction.
  • I can write the equation that represents a word problem.


Here’s a sample of student work on one task from the lesson:

Ms. Marino’s 3rd grade class has 63 students. Mr. Piper’s 2nd grade class has 12 more students than Ms. Marino’s class. How many students are in Mr. Piper’s class? (Adapted from New England Common Assessment Program, 2011)


(The correct answer to the problem is that Mr. Piper’s class has 75 students, adding 63 + 12.)

  1. Decide if you will add or subtract to solve this problem. Explain why you chose this strategy.Creighton3.13.15post_1
  2. Solve the problem.Creighton3.13.15post_3
  1. c) Write an equation to represent the problem.Creighton3.13.15post_2


The primary goal of the lesson is developing understanding of the idea that you can represent problems using addition and subtraction. Therefore, formative feedback would focus on determining which operation is appropriate, not just on how to compute correctly.


Feedback that is not formative might sound like: “That’s not quite right. What’s 12 more than 63? You would add, right?” While informative, the teacher has just done all the thinking for the student. Formative feedback references the learning target bullets and might sound like this:

I can see that you decided to subtract to solve this problem and you explained your choice. You also wrote an equation to match what you did. But, the equation does not match the problem. Think about which class is larger: Mr. Piper’s 2nd grade or Ms Martino’s 3rd grade? See if making a diagram might help you think about the operation.


The primary purpose of formative feedback goes beyond helping the student produce correct work; it helps students learn to use feedback to adjust their own learning.


What can you do in your classroom to build your own use of formative assessment feedback?

  • Try to give feedback that includes the three important components listed above.
  • Be aware of when formative feedback can be used effectively. There are certainly times when formative feedback is not appropriate and it’s best to tell students what to do. Formative feedback works best when students have partially met the learning target in some way, and you judge that they understand enough that they could benefit from feedback you give them.
  • Plan for formative feedback during your lesson planning. When in your lesson does it make sense to give students feedback? How/When will students have an opportunity to act on that feedback?


Several experts on formative assessment have underscored the importance of giving students opportunities to then respond to the feedback (Wiliam, 1999; Heritage, 2011). Feedback is not “formative” until the student has done something with it. My next post will share ideas to set students up for success in acting on feedback they receive.


Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Education Research, 77, 81-112.

Heritage, M. (2011). Formative assessment: An enabler of learning. Better: Evidence-Based Education, Spring 2011, 18-19.

Wiliam, D. (1999). Formative assessment in mathematics—part 2: Feedback. Equals: Mathematics and Special Educational Needs, 5(3), 8–11.

(2011). New England Common Assessment Program: Released Items, 8.



Susan Janssen Creighton

Susan Janssen Creighton has worked in mathematics education for 30 years, both in schools and at EDC, where her work has focused largely on K–12 mathematics curriculum development and mathematics teacher professional development. Currently, her work focuses on helping mathematics teachers adopt and successfully implement formative assessment practices, and on supporting teachers’ understanding and use of the CCSS Standards for Mathematical Practice. She is a co-author of Bringing Math Students Into the Formative Assessment Equation.


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