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Defining formative assessment with underpinning pedagogy


Explicit and planned activities that feature throughout a programme, usually within a module, and are designed for all students studying on it. Formative Assessment is not credit-bearing. Its purpose is to provide high quality feedback to students on their current knowledge and skills so that these can be developed and demonstrated in subsequent summative assessments.


This definition is distinct from ‘formative uses of assessment’, which is more about pedagogy and is the definition commonly used in schools, for examples see Black and Wiliam (2009). When we talk about Formative Assessment at institutional level, however, we are talking about the design of tasks.


Explicit and planned

This is the key distinction between Formative Assessment and formative uses of assessment (i.e. any use of assessment which is more about improvement than measurement). Formative Assessment events are interwoven throughout a module and programme design. These tasks generate feedback or stimulate reflection on specific aspects of how we expect students to learn at that point in their programme (Gibbs et al., 2005).


Throughout a programme

Spreading assessment more evenly throughout a course improves the amount of time students spend learning (Mcalpine, 2004). Learning time is deliberately structured around long-term goals. • For all students All students are monitored by the same formative means. This is important to avoid the appearance of only giving support to students who are struggling. This said, Formative Assessment has demonstrably improved outcomes for specific groups of students, most recently those on the autistic spectrum (Ravet, 2013).


Not credit bearing

The aim of Formative Assessment is that learning is its own motivation. Formative Assessment should challenge surface approaches to learning.


To provide high quality feedback to students on their current knowledge and skills

Feedback is not just the transmission of knowledge from tutor to student. High quality feedback must take a long-term focus and engage students in dialogue and self-evaluation (Nicol & Macfarlane‐Dick, 2006).


Developed and demonstrated in subsequent summative assessments

Formative Assessment should consider programme-level needs, and not all of these will be able to (nor should) be summatively assessed in each module. Constructive alignment, as discussed by Boud and Falchikov (2006), at programme-level ensures that all learning is worthwhile and rewarded.


Overall intentions

The core aim of Formative Assessment is to know how learning is going rather than how it has gone: it should always lead to improvements and feed into future tasks. If a task does not lead to progress (e.g. a test which is not returned to), it is a small summative task and therefore not formative. Formative Assessment should also improve teaching, not just learning. It challenges staff to think beyond their particular module and to be reflective about our own teaching. Formative Assessment should improve our teaching as well as our students’ learning.


Eventually, we would aspire that all our assessment would have some formative function and help students learn not just on a module or programme but beyond graduation – a principle known as “sustainable assessment” (Boud, 2000).



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


Boud, D. (2000). Sustainable assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society. Studies in continuing education, 22(2), 151-167.


Boud, D., & Falchikov, N. (2006). Aligning assessment with long‐term learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(4), 399-413.


Gibbs, G., Simpson, C., Gravestock, P., & Hills, M. (2005). Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning.


Mcalpine, L. (2004). Designing learning as well as teaching A research-based model for instruction that emphasizes learner practice. Active Learning in Higher Education, 5(2), 119-134.


Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.


Ravet, J. (2013). Delving deeper into the black box: formative assessment, inclusion and learners on the autism spectrum. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17(9), 948-964.