Tuesday / April 23

How to Conduct Formative Assessments

Authentic Application of Data Analysis to Advance Your Practices

While you are teaching your students, do you watch their facial expressions and body movements for both confusion and comprehension? Do you ask your students if they understand the knowledge and skills you are sharing with them? Do you pose specific questions to help them focus? Do you plan the way you will grade or score written products? Then, later when you are scoring their assignments, do you discover that perhaps not all of your students understood the lesson as clearly as you may have thought while you were teaching?

And, what do you do when you realize you need to reteach information (maybe to the majority of your students) and yet maintain the anticipated pacing to complete the unit of learning as scheduled by the school? Monitoring and measuring progress during the teaching and learning with formative assessments allows you to eliminate confusion and confirm comprehension immediately, reteach information clearly and directly, and continue with the lesson expectations confidently and competently.

Your insightful actions will increase student engagement and achievement with outcomes for the lesson and the unit; and you and your students will experience greater success and satisfaction!

Gallavan_Assessment cycle

In a previous blog post, I introduced the Assessment Cycle (shown above). Formative assessments may be appear to be just one of the four assessments; however, formative assessments should occur multiple times in every lesson. Analyzing formative assessment data will help you immensely so you can modify your practices immediately to enhance your self-efficacy.

Formal and Informal Assessments

However, before I describe formative assessments, let me explain the difference between formal and informal assessments. Formal assessments are (a) planned in advance, (b) announced to students in advance, and (c) coupled with appropriate student preparation in advance. Informal assessments (a) may or may not be planned in advance, and, most likely, they (b) are not announced to students in advance. Likewise, (c) students may or may not be appropriately prepared in advance for informal assessments.

For example, you may start your class and introduce the day’s lesson with a quiz relating to the previous day’s lesson. If you have (a) planned the quiz, (b) announced to your students that the lesson will open with a quiz, and (c) appropriately prepared the students in advance of the quiz, then this assessment is a formal formative assessments. Some teachers start all of their lessons with this or a similar routine. The formal formative assessment may be a bell ringer such as writing in a journal or completing another written task that allows the teacher to assess comprehension or readiness straightaway. Routines are reassuring for most students. However, you want to be sure that your routines have purpose; otherwise they may become ruts.

Conversely, if you start your class and introduce the day’s lesson with a quiz that you (a) may or may not have planned in advanced, (b) has not been announced to students in advance, and (c) you are not sure if the students are or are not appropriately prepared, then this assessment is an informal formative assessment. An informal formative assessment is not part of a regular routine. You can use many different formative assessments informally; however, beware that you are using informal formative assessments wisely. They should not be used as punishment.

Three Parts of Every Assessment

Like all classroom assessment, every formative assessment includes three parts:

  1. Techniques – the way(s) the assessments is conducted
  1. Tools – the mechanism(s) for which the assessment data are recorded
  1. Alignment – the match between the objectives and outcomes


Formative assessments (in most classrooms) can be conducted in only three ways: watching, listening, and reading written products. (Cooking classes may include tasting.) As teachers are talking they are watching their students’ facial expressions and body movements. These formative assessments are informal yet revealing. Teachers may want to record their observations to increase their awareness of students’ responses and the teacher’s interactions. Likewise, when students are demonstrating outcomes, teachers can conduct formal formative assessments by watching the performance based on specific criteria. For example, a student may point to an object, show a calculation, display an action, etc.  The demonstration may include spoken communications as during a presentation. And many times, teachers combine watching and listening.

The most common technique for conducting formative assessments is by reading written products conducted both formally and informally. Students are engaged in limitless in-class activities and out-of-class assignments/connections. Most teachers monitor and measure student progress by reading the written products generated during these activities and assignments. Using the appropriate tools when reading written products is essential.


Formative assessments include several different tools common to most classrooms and some tools that are unique to individual classrooms. For example, common classroom assessment tools include

  • Anecdotal Records: Teachers write data reporting students’ actions; data frequently are words or narratives that may be handwritten or typewritten
  • Class Rosters: Teachers use the class roster to write data related to specific outcomes or categories of outcomes; data frequently are numbers or representative symbols
  • Checklists: Teachers use a checklist for specific students or groups of students to record data related to specific outcomes or categories of outcomes; data include words, numbers, and representative symbols
  • Rubrics: Teachers use a teacher-prepared form identifying specific outcomes or categories of outcomes; data include words and numbers; rubrics usually are distributed prior to the activity and/or assignment to establish expectations
  • Electronic Apps: Teachers use mobile technology with students for them to record answers; answers may or may not be shared with a larger group or the whole class. The Northwest Evaluation Association has provided a list of electronic apps to help you get started.


Formative assessments must align or seamlessly connect the objective based on the state standard(s) and academic expectation(s) with the anticipated outcome(s). Every assessment includes three conditions: (1) clear instructions; (2) relevant content; and (3) anticipated and/or possible outcomes.

Clear Instructions

In a previous blog post, four types of assessment structure were described. For each type of assessment structure, you must identify the way you want your students to complete it. For example, for a Selected Answer, you must communicate if the students will circle, underline, draw a box around, draw a start next to, place in order, etc., to indicate their answer.

For a Constructed Response, you must communicate if the students will write a single letter of the alphabet, a word, phrase, sentence, the exact number of sentences, a paragraph, the exact number of paragraphs, etc., to indicate their response. For a Demonstrated Performance, you must communicated if the student will show, model, point to, act out, etc., to indicate the performance. And for a Spoken Communication, you must communicate if the student will talk to a neighbor, partner, table mate, specific student, small group, whole class, or you (as the teacher), indicate the communication.

Relevant Content

All formative assessments need to include the content necessary for the student to produce the anticipated outcome. Teachers must include enough information for the student to understand the meaning of the content related to expectation to complete the formative assessment correctly and to contextualize the anticipated outcome.

Anticipated and/or Possible Outcomes

You must plan the possible outcomes in advance. I rely upon a quote to guide me here: Never ask a question for which you do not already know the answer. Consider both the technique and the tool; identify the criteria and practice using a checklist, rubric, etc., before you conduct the formative assessment. Specifically, for Selected Answers, you must provide all of the possible outcomes from which the student will pick the correct answer.

Words of Caution: Too often, teachers prepare their formative assessment quickly and fail to proofread the content carefully to ensure that the student has been provided clear instructions, all of the relevant content, and the anticipated and/or possible outcomes. I suggest that you ask a friend, preferably not a teacher, to read and tell you about the formative assessment. Keep in mind: parents, grandparents, and caregivers of all ages and stages will be reading and attempting to understand your formative assessments.

Formative Assessments Occur Multiple Times During Every Lesson

Just as every lesson you teach includes distinct components for distinct purposes, you want to conduct formative assessments during each part of the lesson. Each of these formative assessments is essential for the teaching and learning to be effective. Here are some recommended formative assessments:

  1. Introduce the Lesson’s Objectives and Motivate Learning – checklist or class roster with three to five expectations, i.e., demonstration, comprehension, completion
  2. Explore Content – electronic apps for quick monitoring and sharing group comprehension
  3. Conduct the Guided Practice – checklist or class roster with three to five expectations, i.e., participation, demonstration, comprehension
  4. Oversee the Independent Practice – rubric with specific expectations listed individually and/or grouped appropriately; rubrics must include both words and numbers as well as allocate space for students to comment and teachers to provide feedback. Rubrics will be discussed in an upcoming blog post.
  5. Close the Lesson – checklist or class roster with three to five expectations; may be conducted as a whole class conversation, small group product, exit slip, etc.

Data Analysis

After recording your formative assessment data, you must analyze these data and modify your practices to accommodate your students’ progress. When the data show that students understand and demonstrate the anticipated outcomes, then you can continue as planned. When the data show that students, or some of the students, need additional instruction and review, you must modify your practices. By analyzing the data, you can make well-informed decisions for modifying the curriculum, instruction, and/or assessment specific to the lesson introduction, content exploration, guided practice, independent practice, and/or closure.

Written by

Nancy P. Gallavan, Ph.D., is Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Central Arkansas where she specializes in classroom assessments and cultural competence in the Department of Teaching and Learning MAT Program, which she helped to start in 2006. The UCA MAT Program was recognized as the Distinguished Program in Teacher Education by the Association of Teacher Educators in 2010. Dr. Gallavan also serves as the UCA Academic Liaison to Institutional Diversity.

Receiving university and college awards for her teaching, scholarship, and service, Dr. Gallavan has expertise in K-12 education, classroom assessments, curriculum development, cultural competence, social studies education, and teacher self-efficacy. With more than 120 peer-reviewed publications in journals, as chapters in books, and as books, Dr. Gallavan authored two versions of Developing Performance-Based Assessments, Grades K-5 and Grades 6-12 with Corwin Press in 2009. She also authored Navigating Cultural Competence: A Compass for Teachers, Grades K-5 and Grades 6-12 with Corwin Press in 2011. With Ellen Kottler, she co-authored Secrets to Success for Beginning Elementary School Teachers with Corwin Press in 2007 and Secrets to Success for Social Studies Teachers with Corwin Press in 2008. Most of these books have been republished in multiple languages.

Her research agenda focuses on classroom assessments and teacher self-efficacy. Her chapter, “If you want your students to change, then you need to change: Mediating the sources and benefits of teacher self-efficacy with teacher candidates,” will be published in the Handbook of Research on Professional Development for Quality Teaching and Learning in 2016. Dr. Gallavan serves as the editor of the Arkansas Association of Teacher Educators Electronic Journal (ArATE EJ) and co-editor of the Association of Teacher Educators (ATE) Annual Yearbook of Research.

An active member of American Educational Research Association (AERA), Association of Teacher Educators (ATE), Kappa Delta Pi (KDP), National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME), and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), she is involved with the AERA Classroom Assessment Special Interest Group and serves as Chair of the ATE Commission of Online Teaching, Learning, and Schooling. Dr. Gallavan is a Past President and a Distinguished Member of the Association of Teacher Educators (ATE), a Kappa Delta Pi (KDP) Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Chapter inaugural member, and a member of Phi Delta Phi (education honor society).

Prior to joining the University of Central Arkansas, Dr. Gallavan was an Assistant/Associate Professor with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, specializing in social studies education and cultural competence. She began her career in education as an elementary school and middle level classroom teacher primarily in the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado. She earned her undergraduate degree in Elementary Education with an emphasis in Literacy from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University); her master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction with an emphasis in Gifted and Talented Education from the University of Colorado, Boulder; her school administrator license from the University of Colorado, Denver; and her doctoral degree in Curriculum Leadership with a cognate in Cultural Competence from the University of Denver. At the University of Denver, she received the Phi Delta Kappa Outstanding Dissertation Award.

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