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Formative Assessment

Formative Assessment is a powerful tool for checking on the effectiveness of classroom instruction and student learning.

At its most basic, formative feedback is defined as ungraded, usually anonymous, feedback from students on either a student’s impression of his or her own learning or a student’s opinions about elements of the course.

I feel that I learned better on the days that the desks were placed into a giant circle. It made it easier to see every one of my classmates and who was talking when. -FYS student reporting on a new technique

The most frequently cited resource for formative assessment is Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross.  When asking for feedback, the rule is to always return the favor by telling students during the next class session or through email what you learned.  Then, address their concerns, in terms of  what you can address (and what you can not address and why, such as due to restrictions on a departmental syllabus).  Promptly responding with your thoughts to their feedback indicates to students that you respect and value their opinions, which they took thought and time to communicate to you!

Decide whether you want feedback on how well your students are learning course content or whether students are benefiting from the pedagogies that you are using in the course.  For the former, you can use any of the classroom assessment techniques listed below.  For the latter, you may use similar feedback techniques, just redirect the questions to ask about what students experienced in class and whether a technique was helpful and engaging in terms of their learning.

For instance, to obtain feedback on teaching, you could ask them to write answers to a small number of questions.  For example 1. How well did our group work help you understand today’s lesson?  2. What is helpful and what could be improved about today’s lecture?  3. Did our “pair share” activity help you organize your thoughts for our class discussion?

When asking for feedback, explain your concerns, telling them why you are asking for feedback (such as, you are just checking or you are trying something new).  Respond to their feedback by thanking them (first of all) and then by letting them know what you will try to address.

To investigate how well students are learning the material, a summary of several CAT techniques is provided below (or print out Classroom Assessment Techniques).    Why use formative feedback?  It works best when you request and report back on frequent feedback.  If you do, students will tell you all sorts of useful things.

Another activity that was very helpful was the interactive wiki pages…it required students to actually become familiar with the Blackboard website. … It allowed me to dig deeper into the meaning of the chapter that I was assigned. -FYS students reporting on a new assignment

Formative Feedback Activities

The following is a selection of formative assessment techniques given to students, usually anonymously and not graded, in order to obtain feedback about student learning or effectiveness of teaching strategies.  Adapted from Angelo, T.A. & Cross, P.K. (1993), Classroom Assessment Techniques and Davis, B.G. (1993, Tools for Teaching.  Other information on CATS can be found at classroom assessment and Brookfield’s Questions  (from the National Teaching and Learning Forum).

Background Knowledge Survey

A good starting point for classroom assessment is to gauge the level of knowledge and understanding that students bring into the classroom at the beginning of the semester. A background knowledge survey asks students not only basic questions about previous coursework and preparation, but it also focuses on identifying the extent to which the student may or may not be familiar with key concepts that will be covered in the course. It is best to use the background knowledge survey at the beginning of the semester, at the start of a new topic or project.


  1. What is your major and class year?
  2. Do you have a minor? If yes, what is it?
  3. What preparation have you had (courses, work experience, etc.) that you believe will help you do well in this class?
  4. What goals do you have for this course?
  5. What do you already know about ‘X’?

Muddiest Point / Clearest Point

The muddiest point exercise is completed quickly. Administered during or at the end of a lecture or class discussion, the muddiest point exercise asks students to think about what went on in the class that day and to write about what was the ‘muddiest’ (least clear) point during that class.  Ask about the clearest point so that you know what they heard as important and what engaged their brains the most.

Minute Papers

The minute paper may be one of the most widely-used and accepted methods of classroom assessment. This method offers a quick and easy way to assess student learning at a particular point in time. It provides helpful feedback and requires little time or effort to administer. Several minutes before class ends, stop your lecture and ask students to take out a clean sheet of paper to answer one or two questions you pose to them. Students turn the anonymous papers in before leaving.


  1. What was the most important thing you learned today?
  2. What are the five most important points from this section?
  3. What questions do you still have about the material we covered today?
  4. What stood out to you most about today’s lecture?
  5. How did this week’s assignment help you learn?  What could be improved in the assignment?


Misconception/Preconception Check

This check is a way to assess what students bring with them into class, or how they are processing information at various points in the semester. Used at the start of a course, the check is a short survey, questionnaire, or essay-type evaluation that asks students to comment on information and key points relevant to course content. Student answers provide the instructor with an understanding of the extent of ‘real’ understanding or knowledge that students bring with them on the first day of class. It also offers information about misconceptions that students may have which the instructor may subsequently address.

Punctuated Lectures

This technique provides immediate feedback on how students are learning from a lecture or a demonstration and how their behavior may be influencing the process. It also encourages student to become self-monitoring listeners and self-reflective learners. The five steps are:

  1. Listen– students begin by listening to a lecture or demonstration
  2. Stop– after a portion of the presentation has been completed, the instructor stops the action
  3. Reflect– students reflect on what they were doing during the presentation and how their behavior may have helped or hindered their understanding of the information
  4. Write– students write down any insights they have gained
  5. Feedback– student give feedback to the instructor I the form of a short anonymous note

Reflection Paper

Ask students to write a short response about what activities and assignments have been most helpful to their learning and why.  Encouraging formative feedback of this type can be encouraged by giving students a homework point or some other small point in their overall grade.

I think the library assignment could be helpful, but it needed a little more instruction on navigating the stacks. -FYS student reporting on a new assignment

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