Creating Formative Assessments

What is formative assessment? 

Assessment is often described as being either formative or summative. Summative assessment is used to evaluate student learning at the end of a unit, module, course, or program, and its primary goal is to assign grades. By contrast, formative assessment provides low-stakes (or no stakes) opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning throughout a course. It is an opportunity for students to practice and to receive actionable feedback, and for instructors to monitor student learning. The goal is to improve students’ learning by providing quality information regarding the status of their learning and how they are progressing towards the attainment of course learning outcomes.

What are some examples of formative assessments?  

  • a ticket-out-the-door identifying the main point of a lecture in one or two sentences  
  • a research proposal or essay outline that allows an instructor to provide feedback on students’ work in progress 
  • a short, low-stakes, online quiz that permits multiple attempts at questions or has hints that help students learn course material 
  • a peer-reviewed writing exercise, guided by a rubric, to help students gain insights about the writing process 
  • student response system (e.g., Clicker) questions during a lecture that allow students to apply their learning and help the instructor identify students’ misconceptions and adapt their instruction accordingly 

How do I add opportunities for formative assessment to my existing assessments? 

Look for opportunities throughout your course to provide timely feedback on students’ learning progress that would give students time to practice, reflect on the results, and incorporate previous feedback before submitting a summative assessment.

One of the most common ways instructors build formative assessment opportunities into their courses is by breaking a large, high-stakes assignment into smaller, low-stakes activities and assignments with deadlines distributed throughout the course.  For example, before submitting a research paper worth 40% of their final grade at the end of the course, students might be asked to submit a proposal, outline, and annotated bibliography, each worth 5% of their overall grade and due well before the end of the course. Ideally, students would receive feedback on each of the smaller components that they could use to improve the quality of their final submission. Or, before writing a final exam, students could be asked to complete several small quizzes with similar types of questions, which would scaffold students’ learning and oblige them to distribute their studying over the course of a term.


Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2016). Learning assessment techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 

Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation. (2015). Formative Assessment Practical Strategies. Tune into Teaching, Back-to-School Series. Toronto, ON: Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation at the University of Toronto. Retrieved from: 

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.