Formative Assessment: Using Feedback to Improve Student Learning

Image: Allison Minnich

Sol Koemhong
International Christian University
Tokyo, Japan
November 02, 2020


What is Formative Assessment?

Assessment is viewed as having a vital role in the learning process because it helps improve student academic achievement through its meaningful and collaborative feedback. There are two main types of assessment: formative and summative. Formative assessment is also known as assessment for learning (Clarke, 2014; Wiliam, 2013). According to Torrance and Pryor (1998, p. 8), formative assessment is “generally defined as taking place during a course with the express purpose of improving pupil learning.” Using a gardening analogy, Clarke (2001) describes formative assessment as feeding and watering plants to affect their growth.

Another interesting definition of formative assessment is given by Black and Wiliam (1998) who defined formative assessment as “all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or by their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged” (p. 1). Boston (2002, pp. 1-2) sees formative assessment as a “diagnostic use of assessment to provide feedback to teachers and students over the course of instruction.” Despite a range of different definitions given above, formative assessment needs to be ongoing, frequent, and interactive for the purpose of assessing student progress, understanding and identifying learning needs, and adjusting teaching approaches and instructions. 

Purposes and Benefits of Formative Assessment

Several texts in the academic and practitioner literature have confirmed the power of formative assessment in guiding student learning (Wiliam, 2004). Danielson (2013) makes an interesting remark that “formative assessment is no longer regarded as a nice thing for teachers to do if they have the time; it is now regarded as integral to teaching itself” (p. 196). In this regard, formative assessment is for in-classroom assessment activities that aim to shape or guide learning activities. It is not used as a standard assessment to anticipate student performance. Fundamentally, formative assessment is seen as all activities undertaken by both teachers and students to obtain the necessary information that can be used deliberately to adjust teaching and learning. Boston (2002) firmly expresses that:

When teachers know how students are progressing and where they are having trouble, they can use this information to make necessary instructional adjustments, such as reteaching, trying alternative instructional approaches, or offering more opportunities for practice. These activities can lead to improved student success. (p. 9)

Black and William (1998) reviewed 250 journal articles and book chapters concerning formative assessment to see if it raises students’ academic standards in the classroom; their extensive review revealed that formative assessment brings about learning gains. Formative assessment is generally considered internal to the classroom, and while it may be seen as informal, it can be systematic. Teachers use it to discover their students’ strengths and weaknesses based on their performance so that proper adjustments to teaching and learning can be made or strengthened (Danielson, 2013). It is believed that formative assessment can be diagnostic because obtained information can be used diagnostically to adapt teaching and learning in order to meet student needs (Black & William, 1998; Boston, 2002; Danielson, 2013). With this information, “teachers are able to ascertain where each student is in his or her learning, and which aspect(s) of the desired learning has not yet occurred” (Danielson, 2013, p. 197).    

Feedback as a Form of Formative Assessment

Feedback is an essential aspect of formative assessment involving three fundamental stakeholders, including teachers, students, and their peers. Feedback in the learning process is usually viewed as information given to students and/or teachers about students’ performance in order to provide guidance for improvement. Ramaprasad (1983) and Sadler (1989) as cited in Boston (2002, p. 2) assert that “feedback given as part of formative assessment helps learners become aware of any gaps that exist between their desired goal and their current knowledge, understanding, or skill and guides them through actions necessary to obtain the goal.” In formative assessment, feedback information needs to be used. Feedback should be focused on specific qualities of students’ work, with useful guidance on what students can do, and should stay away from comparing students with one another (Black and Wiliam, 1998) because any feedback that threatens students’ self-confidence will bring about negative effects (Clarke, 2014). Furthermore, comparisons have a direct impact on students’ self-efficacy or how they perceive their abilities (Clarke, 2003).

It is sometimes misunderstood that feedback is only something that teachers provided to students. On the contrary, feedback is also provided from students to teachers, and even from their peers. Hattie (2012) argues that feedback from students to teachers is most powerful because it makes learning visible. He notes that:

Feedback is most effective when students do not have proficiency or mastery – and thus, it thrives when there is error or incomplete knowing and understanding. Errors invite opportunities. They should not be seen as embarrassments, signs of failure, or something to be avoided. They are exciting because they indicate a tension between what we now know and what we could know; they are signs of opportunities to learn, and they are to be embraced. (pp. 139-140)

It is worthwhile to bear in mind that feedback can also have negative effects if it is not given in a way that helps students to learn better. For example, Boyle and Charles (2013) argue that it is pointless to give students feedback if it is treated as “noise” or regarded as needless rather than as information to help them understand, remember, absorb knowledge, or develop skills. However, many of the feedback comments given by teachers do not achieve this aim; consequently, it leads to negative effects on students’ performance. Therefore, Boyle and Charles (2013) suggest that feedback be effective when it takes place on a regular basis and when teachers have an explicit understanding of how students work and how they take in contributions external to their own thought processes.

Moreover, it is believed that the more students get involved in feedback, the more effort they will make, and the more likely the feedback will be effective. Simultaneously, feedback needs to consist of information about students’ progress and how to get going (Boyle and Charles, 2013). Another negative aspect to be kept in mind is that traditional forms of feedback have, in many cases, led to a regression in students’ learning progress; one of those is giving grades for every piece of work (Black and Wiliam, 1998). However, there are many more complex aspects, such as the teacher’s’ tone of voice and body language used with students (Clarke, 2003). Therefore, as advised by Broadfoot et al (2002), teachers need to be aware of the impact that comments, marks, and grades might have on students’ self-confidence and enthusiasm. As much as possible, the feedback they give should be constructive.

Characteristics of Constructive Feedback

Ovando (1994), who sees feedback as a two-way process, conceptually advocates that constructive feedback should have the following characteristics:

  • Relevant: Addresses student and teacher-specific achievements, needs, and interests as well as specific learning and teaching behaviors,
  • Immediate: Provided as soon as information about student and teacher performance is available,
  • Factual: Based on actual student achievement (performance on a test, assignment, or project) and teacher’s instructional behaviors,
  • Helpful: Provides suggestions for improvement of teaching and learning,
  • Confidential: Given directly to student or teacher without an intermediary,
  • Respectful: Respectful of student’s and teacher’s integrity and needs,
  • Tailored: Designed to meet an individual student or teacher’s specific needs and circumstances, and
  • Encouraging: Motivates student and teacher to continue and to increase teaching and learning efforts. (p. 21)

Hattie (2012)  suggests several ways that feedback can be provided:

Feedback can be provided in many ways: through effective processes, increased effort, motivation, or engagement; by providing students with different cognitive processes, restructuring understandings, confirming to the student that he or she is correct or incorrect, indicating that more information is available or needed, pointing to directions that the students might pursue, and indicating alternative strategies with which to understand particular information. (p. 129)

Benefits of Comment-Only Feedback

Feedback can be given on both oral and written work in the form of oral and/or written feedback. It can be comments, marks or grades. There have been a lot of discussions and arguments regarding how feedback is given. Research has showed that students who received feedback by comments gained more improvement in learning than those receive it by marks, grades, or a combination of marks or grades with comments (Black et al., 2002; Black et al., 2003). Another positive aspect of comment-only marking was that it helped parents pay more attention to their children’s learning issues rather than trying to understand a mark or grade (Black et al., 2002).

The above findings indicated that students became more involved in improving their work when they received comment-only feedback. These findings shocked some teachers because they could not believe how it would be possible to give feedback by using only comments (Black et al., 2003). Nonetheless, it would be useless if teachers give only a numerical mark and do not tell students how to enhance their work because, in so doing, students lose the opportunity to improve their learning.


This article advocates that assessment lies at the heart of good teaching and learning. Formative assessment, an integral part of assessment, plays a vital role in the process of effective teaching and learning. Previous research studies have indicated that formative assessment would enhance students’ achievement if properly utilized. Information from formative assessment, particularly feedback from teachers to students and from students to teachers, helps teachers adjust and modify their teaching and learning activities so as to fit the needs of students. At the same time, students can be more active in their own learning because they know what and why they are trying to learn (learning intentions) and what is expected of them (success criteria).

To provide students with meaningful feedback, teachers should be trained to be good classroom observers. They should be able to collect meaningful information about their students’ learning and use that information to enhance the learning process and inform their teaching practices simultaneously. The practice of providing comments as a form of formative assessment can be time-consuming and demanding for teachers. However, as confirmed by research, it makes a remarkable difference in students’ learning progress and in their ability to become self-confident and critical learners. Students are more likely to achieve more through formative assessment.


Black, P., Harrison, C., & Lee, C. (2003). Assessment for learning: Putting it into practice. Berkshire: McGraw-Hill Education.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2002). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. London: GL Assessment.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 7-74.

Boston, C. (2002). The Concept of Formative Assessment. ERIC Digest. Retrieved from

Boyle, B., & Charles, M. (2013). Formative Assessment for teaching and learning. London: Sage Publications.

Broadfoot, P., Daugherty, R., Gardner, J., Harlen, W., James, M., & Stobart, G. (2002). Assessment for learning: 10 principles: research-based principles to guide classroom practice. London: Assessment Reform Group.

Clarke, S. (2014). Outstanding Formative Assessment: Culture and Practice. London: Hodder Education.

Clarke, S. (2003). Enriching feedback in the primary classroom: Oral and written feedback from teachers and children. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Clarke, S. (2001). Unlocking formative Assessment: Practical strategies for enhancing pupils’ learning in the primary classroom. London: Hodder Education.

Danielson, C. (2013). Assessment for learning: For teachers as well as students. In Dwyer, C.A. (Ed.), The future of Assessment: Shaping teaching and learning (pp. 191-213). New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Ovando, M.N. (1994). Constructive Feedback: A Key to Successful Teaching and Learning. International Journal of Educational Management, 8(6), 19-22.

Torrance, H., & Pryor, J. (1998). Investigating formative Assessment: Teaching, learning and Assessment in the classroom. Berkshire: McGraw-Hill Education.

Wiliam, D. (2004). Keeping learning on track: Integrating assessment with instruction. Invited address to the 30th International Association for Educational Assessment (IAEA). Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved from

Wiliam, D. (2013). Assessment: The bridge between teaching and learning. Voices from the Middle, 21(2), 15-20.

The Author

SOL Koemhong is currently a Japanese Government (MEXT) scholar pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Education at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of the International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan. In 2016, he was awarded a Chevening scholarship to undertake his Master of Arts in Education Management and Leadership at the University of South Wales in the United Kingdom. Prior to leaving for Japan, he was a lecture at the Faculty of Education of the Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia. His research interests center on teacher education and policy, continuous professional development (CPD) for EFL teachers, and learning and teaching assessment.

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