Formative assessment: Not just for students any more

March 18, 2016 / By: Cynthia Sarver and Michael Wilder, Instructional Designers

LyrisThough it seems as if we’re just getting started, midterm grading will be upon us before another issue of Synergia crosses your desktop.  This feedback lets students see how they are faring in courses, activating, if need be, a network of support to help them get back on track before the semester’s end.  But midterm grading can also provide faculty with a valuable opportunity for reflecting upon how they are faring as teachers.

Keeping in mind that midterm grades are a type of formative assessment helps illustrate our point. Formative assessment is best understood in opposition to its counterpart, summative assessment, with the key difference being the directionality of the evaluation. Summative assessment looks backward, letting students know how well they performed on a learning task that is in the past: it provides a type of summary of students' learning (final exams and final grades are great examples). In contrast, formative assessments look forward.  Formative assessments such as midterm grades let students know how well they are grasping course concepts and skills so that they can improve, if necessary, their study habits by the end of the term.

But formative assessment serves teachers as well, and whether they know it or not most faculty use it nearly every class period.  Class discussion is perhaps the most widely used type of formative assessment since it provides instructors with valuable information “on the fly” about the extent to which students are grasping course concepts and whether more—or different— instruction is needed. Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross’s Classroom Assessment Techniques (1993) lists an array of simple yet comprehensive and engaging formative assessment techniques. For instance, by assigning “Minute Papers” or “Approximate Analogy” exercises teachers can stay informed about each student’s learning while also engaging the class in active learning.

In addition, midterm grades can furnish instructors with crucial feedback about the effectiveness of their instructional methods, as long as they are framed as a “formative practice” (Black and Wiliam, 2009):

Practice in a classroom is formative to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers, to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have taken in the absence of the evidence that was elicited. (p. 9)

From this perspective, midterm provides instructors with a bird’s eye view of their courses and teaching effectiveness.  If assessments are designed to measure whether students are meeting course learning objectives (and they should be), then by mid-semester instructors should have a pretty good sense overall of the extent to which their teaching methods are helping students obtain those objectives.  Are students “getting it” or not? And if not – here’s the key -- how can the instructor adjust his or her teaching so that those who aren’t, might?

Of course, instructors are not the sole drivers of student success in their courses:  students need to be equal players. But if students areengaged in the learning process, ideally any assessment before the final should provide faculty with an opportunity to reflect upon their teaching.  For example, if over half the class is failing at midterm, it is time to explore whether that weekly read/lecture/quiz model is working as well as you had hoped. Or, if a few students are really struggling, and you know it’s not due to attendance or lack of effort on their part, you could consider whether they might benefit from alternative ways of receiving the information or of engaging in assignments, two guidelines of Universal Design for Learning.

In order to balance out their perspective on student performance, at midterm instructors can also ask students for their input on the course and their learning. The Midterm Feedback Survey is a handy tool for canvassing students anonymously about their progress and thoughts on the course and gauging students' progress toward the instructor's IDEA objectives. The Midterm Feedback Survey is available as a Word document to print or as a Blackboard survey file for easy import into your course site. Both formats are available for download from the Faculty Development website.

We would be happy to meet with you if you would like more information about assessment strategies and tools, or need help downloading and using the Midterm Feedback Survey in your classroom or course site. We’re also available to help you improve your teaching through curriculum design, technology integration, and course accessibility. Contact Cynthia at 651-962-6015 or by email at Get in touch with Michael at 651-962-6017 or by email at 


Angelo, T. A., & K. P. Cross. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques.

Black, P. & D. Wiliam (2009).  Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability (21:1), pp. 5-31.

Books available to borrow from the Faculty Development Library

Angelo, T.  (Ed.). Classroom assessment and research:  An update on uses, approaches, and research findings.[Special issue].New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 1998 (75).

Angelo, T. A., & K. P. Cross. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques.

Butler, S. (2014). A teacher's guide to classroom assessment:  Understanding and using assessment to improve student learning.

George, J. A. (2005). Handbook of techniques for formative evaluation.