Wednesday / May 29

Implementing Formative Assessment Practice #5

Build in structures and routines to help students learn to self-assess their learning against the success criteria

In my previous 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. Here, I discuss Practice #5 from that list:

  • Build in structures and routines to help students learn to self-assess
    their learning against the success criteria

To make sense of this final practice, it’s important to review several points about formative assessment. I’ve framed formative assessment as a set of instructional practices that do far more than provide the teacher with diagnostic information about students’ learning; formative assessment creates an instructional environment in which students becomes the key consumers of the formative assessment information they generate.

So what does it mean for students self-assess their learning against the success criteria? The arrow diagram below summarizes the key pieces of this self-assessment:


In order for students to be able to use their own formative assessment data, they need a clear understanding of the learning goal. This results from Practice #1, sharing the learning target with students in a way that ensures they understand it and can use it as a guide, with a particular focus on the success criteria that are part of that learning target.

They then need to understand where their learning is in relation to the learning goal. This results from Practices #2 and #3, revisiting learning targets during a lesson to refocus, clarify, summarize or provide feedback on students’ learning.

For the parts of their learning goal that they have not yet met, students need a clear understanding of what to do next in order to move closer to meeting the goal. This results from Practice #3, providing “formative feedback” that conveys particular information to students that points toward these next steps.

Finally, they need opportunities to act on that feedback, Practice #4.

The focus of practice #5 is on building structures and routines into your instruction that teach students how to do all this. There are numerous ways to do this, highlighted in our book and based on many years of work with mathematics teachers who learned these practices; I’ll highlight several here.

  • Students need to learn to use learning targets as reference points for their learning. There are various strategies you can use to share and revisit the learning targets, but as importantly:
    • Be explicit with students not only about what’s in the learning target, but how you will use it, and how you’d like them to use it.
  • Students need to learn how to talk about their thinking, so that both you and they can understand how they are making sense of the lesson content (especially key in mathematics where the focus can disproportionately favor answer-getting over conceptual understanding!). They also need to learn to look for evidence of success, not just evidence of lack of success. You can:
    • Model for your students what it sounds like to talk about their thinking, and not just about their answers. “Think-aloud’s,” common in reading instruction can be adapted well for mathematics or any subject. These can be adapted in turn to “Reflect-aloud’s” in which students learn to pause and reflect on their learning in relation to the success criteria.
  • Students need to learn to look for evidence of success, not just evidence of lack of success. They need to learn that formative feedback will provide them with information on how they are and are not meeting the goal and suggestions for next steps, and can learn to look for that suggestion, and act on it. You can:
    • Use templates, handouts or visual organizers to teach them what formative feedback is, and how to use it. Devote a lesson or two to it, such as the ones described in previous posts.
  • And last but not least, give yourself and your students the time to learn this.
    • Repeat these strategies over subsequent classes to turn them from strategies into routines.

This vision of “formative assessment” is ambitious, but it can be, and has been, done successfully.


Written by

Susan Janssen Creighton is a senior mathematics associate at Education Development Center (EDC) in Massachusetts. She 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. As a member of the NSF-funded project, Formative Assessment in Mathematics Classrooms: Engaging Teachers and Students (FACETS), she was a lead facilitator for several of the participating districts. She is a co-author of Bringing Math Students Into the Formative Assessment Equation.

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