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Formative assessment

A page within CATL Teaching Improvement Guide

Brief Description

Formative assessment refers to any diagnostic procedure in which a teacher collects and uses feedback about student learning—while students are in the process of learning new knowledge or skills, working on assignments or learning activities, etc. The purpose of formative assessment is to use feedback to modify teaching practices, course materials and learning activities to improve student learning. Think of using formative assessment as establishing a feedback loop in class by which the teacher can monitor and diagnose student progress and adjust instruction to improve the quantity, quality and efficiency of student learning.

Instructors may already use some types of formative assessment without recognizing it as such, e.g., diagnostic quizzes or drafts of student papers. Even help sessions held prior to major exams are a kind of formative assessment activity in which students demonstrate their understanding of material [feedback to the instructor] and the instructor can respond with constructive comments [feedback to students]. The table below describes additional types of classroom assessment techniques (a.k.a. CATs) which can help you collect timely feedback about student learning. The table also indicates which CATs are effective learning techniques in their own right. For example, the minute paper is used at the end of a class period; students are asked to write about the most important point they learned that day, and what remains least clear to them about the materials (sometimes called muddiest point). Based on students’ responses instructors can identify what students understand and don’t understand, and then decide how to address students’ emerging understanding in the next class [formative assessment]. In addition, the act of writing a minute paper can strengthen student understanding and memory [learning technique]. Research shows that trying to remember what one has just learned is a potent way to learn and remember material. Moreover, the act of identifying poorly understood material can help students monitor their own comprehension and to become aware of what they still do not know very well.




Using the Feedback

How the Activity Facilitates Learning

Minute paper

During the last few minutes of the class period, ask students to write answers to: "What is the most important point you learned today?" and "What point remains least clear to you?"

Scan responses quickly to identify patterns of difficulties or gaps. Respond to students online before the next class, or respond during the next class period to clarify or explain material students identified as confusing.

Trying to recall material or retrieval practice is a potent way to learn new material. And, the act of identifying poorly understood material can help students monitor their own comprehension to become aware of what they still do not know very well.

Group Grid

Students are given pieces of information and asked to place them in blank cells of a grid according to categories or a rubric. For example, in art appreciation students insert artists’ names into a grid by time period and type of work.

Look for patterns of misconceptions or gaps. In class, focus on clarifying the problem spots in student understanding.

Organizing and re-organizing information is a potent way to learn material. Students establish connections between newly learned concepts and categories and information in long term memory.


Ask students to write an explanation of one or more key concepts from class.

Categorize the responses based on how well students translate the concept(s) into their own language, give appropriate examples, use relevant course material, etc. This provides a rough estimate about students’ depth of understanding, and helps to identify where they still need help.

Explaining is a potent learning strategy in which students identify connections between prior knowledge and new material, identify gaps in their understanding, and develop a mental representation of the concept(s).

Application cards

After teaching about a theory, principle, or procedure, ask students to write a real-world application for what they have just learned.

Sort students’ examples according to their appropriateness. Select examples to present and analyze in class.

If students’ applications and examples are apt, this activity can extend students’ understanding of the material. Practice in creating examples or applying material may help students map abstract concepts onto concrete events or objects.


The instructor poses a thought-provoking question in class. Students write a response to the question and then discuss it with a classmate. The instructor can direct students to debate, synthesize, or critique their answers during discussion.

Instructors can collect the pre- (individual) and post- discussion (paired) responses to review after class. In class, the instructor can use some of the paired responses to discuss, analyze and give group feedback. 

Depending on the instructor’s question and assigned task, students will engage in explaining, synthesizing, and evaluating the material. These types of deeper processing led to better understanding. Students also have the opportunities to identify and work through ideas they do not yet know well. 



  • Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques (second edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers. A higher education classic that describes 50 different classroom assessment techniques.
  • McMillan, J.H. (editor), (2007). Formative classroom assessment: Theory into practice. New York, Teachers College Press. Collection of articles about the theory and practice of formative assessment. Examples geared toward K-12 education.
  • Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solutions Tree. Includes 50 strategies to embed formative assessment in class. Focus on K-12 but relevant for higher education.

Cerbin, W. (2015). Formative assessment. In Teaching Improvement Guide. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from