There have certainly been many f words saturated in education over the last ten months for a myriad of reasons (with due cause). But there’s an f word that was present far before the pandemic… it’s formative… as in formative assessment.

What’s the reason this word causes a cringe among educators? Likening it to self-care is a good place to start. We all know that self-care is good for us and necessary to live life abundantly, yet so many avoid it. Why? Many people simply don’t know the right definition or where to start.

Novices spin on questions like, “What exactly is healthy eating? Is it eggs and bacon and no carbs? Is it veganism? Is it eating what you want in moderation?” Or regarding exercise, “Do I need to train for a marathon? Is walking 3 times a week enough?” The myriad of differing opinions and options…are so complicated! This causes such confusion and stress at the onset that people give up quickly, water it down, (or don’t start in the first place!).

Just like self-care, Formative assessment is more of a process. And although there is no single officially sanctified and universally accepted definition of formative assessment, the majority of educational researchers agree it’s transformative with impactful results for learners for a healthy educational system. But varying definitions have muddied the waters. So, let’s start there. Formative assessment is:

“the process of monitoring student knowledge and understanding during instruction in order to give useful and productive feedback and to make timely changes in instruction to ensure maximal student growth.

This process starts with establishing clear learning targets and success criteria that offer students the opportunity to do new learning –productively. This also provides educators real time to observe learning during instruction to determine how aligned learners are to the learning targets. As leaders and teachers, we are sometimes guilty of “over-teaching” and we dominate the learning. In other words, it means… STOP TALKING, LISTEN, AND WATCH!  By doing so, educators can meet students where they are, knowing where they need to go but not starting at where they need to be and working backwards. Instead, seek to discover what students do know instead of confirming what they don’t know.

One way to do this is through offering structured and engaging opportunities to learn. Here’s an example:

I observed a virtual class where the teacher presented her middle school students (36 online at the time) with this prompt: “Can good leaders be bad people?”

Students were offered individual think time, then time with peers in a virtual “breakout room” where they facilitated their own small group discussion time. The success criteria was clear; share your thinking and get one new idea – even if it is in opposition to yours – and practice what you will share with the whole group. Some students (not all) had language supports such as conversation starters, key terms and the prompt.

Every student in the class had something to share in the whole group, including emerging English learners, students with IEPs, and traditionally “quiet” students. While students were sharing, the teacher took notes on each student’s response related to the learning target and individual growth targets (monitoring student knowledge and understanding during instruction). In our debrief, I asked what she would do with the information she observed? She explained what she learned about her student’s strengths, and that her next steps were to adjust her plan to include how/where to find textual evidence to back up ideas and expand on their original thinking (give useful and productive feedback and to make timely changes in instruction).

Engaging with topics that are worthy of a discussion for the purpose of observing and monitoring collaborative student learning is essential for a healthy educational system and allows instruction adjustments to meet rigorous standards.

Why did it work so well for this situation? This teacher, like countless others, builds trusting and authentic relationships to provide productive feedback for learners – without simply telling them what to do. Leading to learner agency and autonomy, which is incredibly valuable for all students and even more so for multilingual and culturally diverse learners as they practice alongside their proficient English-speaking peers.

Formative assessment is not a multiple-choice test and it’s not checking learning points off a list. It dives into a deeper knowledge of the actual learning process. To propel students forward, especially in a time of compounded unfinished and interrupted learning, high-quality formative assessment is vital.

While self-care is a transformative component of overall health and wellness, it is important to understand the purpose and value the process. Likewise, high-quality formative assessment requires a common definition (what it is and isn’t), uncomplicated process, and clear examples to use in practice. Formative assessment can transform a system. So, don’t avoid it! If you’re struggling of where to start, like launching into self-care, simply ask students where they are in their learning and then LISTEN! Who knows… maybe you will also transform your own health!

This blog is the first in a series of four on Formative Assessment…stay tuned! 


Bailey, A. L., & Heritage, M. (2008). Formative assessment for literacy: Grades K–6. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Lambert (2020) The Role of Formative Assessment in Remote Learning for Multilingual and Culturally Diverse Learners. Retrieved from