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Formative Assessment: Closing the Feedback Gap

While few would argue the importance of feedback in the learning process, this is still an area that could use considerable improvement in education. Recent studies indicate that college students are dissatisfied with the level, quality and timeliness of feedback they receive, while college professors indicate that they feel students often disregard the feedback they provide (Al-Bashir, et al., 2016). Meanwhile, there is a wealth of strongly established evidence to support the use of formative assessment, which is centered around providing students with regular feedback (Black & Wiliam, 1998b).

As a leader of the student learning experience and faculty development at a community college, I am uniquely positioned to address these concerns on my campus. I am compelled to analyze the evidence related to the application of various systems of feedback in relation to formative assessment in order to determine a way to close the gap between the evidence and practice. Considering that both teachers and students are unhappy with our current prevailing system of providing feedback, my aim in this article is to identify innovative applications of formative assessment that address student and faculty concerns surrounding feedback.

What is formative assessment?

Formative vs. Summative Assessment, (Moss & Brookham, 2019)

Formative assessment is most clearly understood in contrast to summative assessment, wherein summative assessment is assessment of learning and formative assessment is assessment for learning. When implemented at its best, formative assessment becomes an embedded component of the learning. The table above outlines some of the major differences between summative and formative assessment. Beyond the most obvious difference of assessing during and throughout the learning versus after the learning has occurred, one of the most important distinctions between formative and summative assessment is the collaborative aspect of formative assessment. Both teachers and students use the evidence they gather from the formative assessments to improve teaching and learning. In this way it is a collaborative and fluid process “influenced by student need and teacher feedback” (Moss & Brookham, 2019).

The table below further illustrates each participants’ function in formative assessment. As the table demonstrates, the formative assessment classroom is one in which the teacher is but one component of the learning. Learners are activated to own their own learning, and peers are activated to act as instructional resources for one another. This structure is a key aspect of formative assessment in that it encourages learner autonomy and teaches learners how to learn (Black & Wiliam, 2009).

Aspects of formative assessment, (Black & Wiliam, 2009)

In the clip below (2:30-5:04), Wiliam explains the necessity of focusing on the “adequacy of the evidence” obtained through formative assessment. While the best teachers have always relied on the signals they receive from students during the learning process to gauge what learners understand and adjust teaching practices as necessary, the assessments that they are using to gauge student understanding are usually very poor quality. He cites the common use of asking the class a question about what they have learned, and relying on the answers received from one or two students to determine how to adjust their teaching. He goes on to describe better ways of determining where students are (Wiliam, 2020).

Adequacy of the evidence, (Wiliam, 2020)

What is feedback?

In the field of education, feedback can be understood as information provided by a teacher, peer, or oneself concerning one’s performance or understanding. The purpose of feedback is to reduce the gap between current performance or understanding and an intended goal (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). The chart below outlines an effective model for how feedback can enhance learning. As the chart demonstrates, effective feedback tells students three things:

  • Where they are going? (specified goals)

  • How they are going? (providing information on performance relative to goal; success or failure on specific aspects of the performance)

  • Where they are going next? (providing remediation in the form of alternative steps; should lead to the refinement and seeking of more challenging goals)

A model of feedback to enhance learning, (Hattie & Timperley, 2007)

It is also important to identify what does not constitute feedback. A grade without qualifying information provides students with an assessment of their work, but no feedback to contextualize the grade. Even if feedback were provided alongside the grade, it would not constitute useful feedback, as the summative assessment provides feedback after the learning has occurred. Therefore, the feedback is provided at the least useful time and does not constitute feedback for the purposes of this work.

The evidence for formative assessment

“There is a firm body of evidence that formative assessment is an essential component of classroom work and that its development can raise standards of achievement. We know of no other way of raising standards for which such a strong prima facie case can be made.”
-Paul Black & Dylan Wiliam, “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment” (1998)

There is a wealth of evidence that points to learning gains associated with formative assessment practices. In their seminal literature review on formative assessment published in 1998, Black and Wiliam focused on eight different studies of formative assessment in the classroom. In summation of their review, they note that the consistent feature among all of the studies they reviewed is that they all show significant learning gains as a result of attention to formative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 1998a). For more details on the specific studies that were reviewed by Black and Wiliam, please refer to the embedded PDF of their article below.

Download PDF • 5.24MB

Assessment and Classroom Learning PDF (Black & Wiliam, 1998a)

A poverty of practice

Though there is a wealth of available research on the effectiveness of formative assessment, there is a conspicuous lack of widespread implementation of the practice. A 2010 study on college student perceptions of feedback revealed that most surveyed students perceived they were not receiving enough quality feedback in time for it to be useful (Murphy & Cornell, 2010). Since feedback is a central component of formative assessment, this information can be extrapolated to reach the larger conclusion that formative assessment is not a common practice within higher education. Perhaps one of the most obvious reasons for this is that our current educational system is in opposition to such a paradigm. Teachers are bound by state and district mandated tests that encourage superficial learning demonstrated by rote memory. This creates a conflict in trying to implement formative assessment for students who will ultimately be asked to demonstrate their knowledge in a less-meaningful way.

Synergistic Assessment

There is a common understanding of instruction and feedback as a continuum with one on each end. Even in classrooms that implement formative assessments, often these assessments are intended solely to provide instructors information on student progress to determine their next teaching moves, and not to provide students information on their own progress, thus students do not receive feedback on their performance. Because we know that feedback is effective in helping students reach set goals, the process of instruction and feedback should be intertwined and recursive.

Formative assessment and feedback are inherently linked, wherein feedback is central to the work of formative assessment. In New Learning, Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis emphasize the importance of timely feedback in their innovative synergistic feedback model. In order to attain a system of continuous improvement, one must be provided with timely, recursive feedback when it is most useful. Under a synergistic feedback system, learners are provided with many cycles of feedback during the learning process, allowing them to learn and apply their learning to work in progress.

Agenda for New Learning and assessment, (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012)

The graphic above demonstrates what Cope and Kalantzis have identified as the seven key principles of synergistic assessment, a formative assessment model. Here is how they describe each of these principles:

Ubiquitous learning: Learners are not constrained to making knowledge within the traditional four walls of the classroom. Their “classroom” is accessible at anytime from anywhere, allowing peers to collaborate more organically, and provide feedback more organically as well. This creates a learning community consisting of continual reciprocal support and responsibility for learning.

Recursive feedback: Learners receive feedback from multiple sources throughout the learning process. These sources can include peer, self, parent, expert and others. This feedback is recorded and moderated based on rater reliability. Then, this data is used to draw assessment conclusions of learning (summative assessment). The synergistic feedback flows ensure that all assessment is for learning.

Multimodal meaning: A multimodal representation of knowledge is encouraged over a “random sampling of things remembered” or written text (i.e. the traditional essay). Students are encouraged to include audio files of their discussions, video of experts speaking during a field trip, etc. in their assessment to demonstrate not only their knowledge, but also their ability to distinguish their own voice from the sources they cite.

Active knowledge making: Assessment feedback supports the active knowledge making process. This formative assessment positions learners as active knowledge producers rather than passive knowledge consumers.

Collaborative intelligence: Shared knowledge is encouraged through collaborative projects and recursive feedback. The teacher is not the only purveyor of knowledge, but rather one among a collaborative community of knowledge makers.

Metacognition: The shared assessment responsibility between teacher and learners through self- and peer-assessment creates a culture of knowledge reciprocity where learners benefit from the metacognitive insights of one another.

Differentiated learning: In a space of ubiquitous learning, genuinely differentiated instruction is more easily attainable through individualized projects that maintain the standards and expectations of each learner.

Criticisms and Responses

Teachers cite a lack of time in being able to provide all students with the consistent, high-quality feedback that is required in order to properly implement formative assessment within the classroom (Al-Bashir, et al., 2016).

  • In their Synergistic Assessment model, Cope and Kalantzis provide us with a sustainable model that redistributes the responsibility for recursive feedback to learners in the form of self- and peer-assessment. It is important to note that this redistribution not only benefits teachers by reducing their burden, but it is also a better model for students wherein collaborative knowledge making and distributed cognition is activated (Kalantzis & Cope, 2008).

Teachers cite a lack of student implementation of their feedback as a primary deterrent for spending the necessary time to provide such consistent, high quality feedback (Al-Bashir, et al., 2016).

  • The Synergistic Assessment model makes students responsible for analyzing and implementing the feedback they receive. The recurring formative assessments are based on revisions made in response to feedback received. In this way, the implementation of feedback is embedded as part of the expectation for completing the assignments (Kalantzis & Cope, 2008).

In a self- or peer-feedback model, inaccurate feedback may be given without proper oversight.

  • Learner autonomy and the ability to analyze all resources for validity is a key aspect of learning under a formative assessment model. When implemented properly, a formative assessment classroom will provide students with the tools necessary to analyze all resources, including peer feedback, and their own ideas (metacognition) (Black & Wiliam, 2009). In the clip below (Wiliam, 2020, 5:53-7:00), Wiliam underscores the importance of the students’ ownership over their own learning, as well as their active contribution as learning resources for one another. He explains how this formative assessment strategy activates these roles in the student leading to their ability to regulate their own learning. This self-regulated learning allows students to analyze the feedback that they receive and make decisions about what feedback to implement and how.


As Black and Wiliam conclude, there is a wealth of strong evidence to suggest that formative assessment yields only positive results in raising learning standards, and that it is one of the most effective ways of doing so. The lack of implementation, or even the lack of appropriate implementation, of formative assessment is still evident in the available research. New innovative practices in formative assessment, such as the Synergistic Assessment model provided by Cope and Kalantzis, have outlined exactly how formative assessment can be appropriately implemented to the benefit of both teachers and learners.

As the literature demonstrates, there is no lack of evidence, but rather a poverty of practice when it comes to formative assessment. Given the abundance of evidence demonstrating the efficacy of formative assessment in improving student outcomes, it is the work of all educational leaders to ensure that such innovative approaches to this evidence-based practice make it outside of the scholarly journals and into classrooms.


Al-Bashir, et al. (2016). The Value and Effectiveness of Feedback in Improving Students’ Learning and Professionalizing Teaching in Higher Education. Journal of Education and Practice, 7(16).

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

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

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998b). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, DOI: 10.1177/003172171009200119

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Kalantzis, M. & Cope, B. (2012). New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education. Cambridge University Press.

Moss, C. & Brookham, S. (2019). Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom: A Guide for Instructional Leaders. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Murphy, C. & Cornell, J. (2010). Student perceptions of feedback: Seeking a coherent flow. Practitioner Research in Higher Education, 4(1), 41-51.

Wiliam, D. (2020, April 18). An introduction to formative assessment. Youtube.

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