We all know the formula from beginning to end. You enroll in a course. You listen attentively in class, you take notes, and you study the materials your teacher gives you. At the end of the unit, you take an exam that measures your knowledge and voila – you get a grade reflecting your performance in the course. This is no doubt a familiar pattern to any student.

But what happens when this formula gets turned upside down? Have you ever walked into a class at the beginning of a new unit only to be greeted by a surprise quiz? Odds are it’s happened once or twice, and it can be a bit of an unnerving experience. After all, no one wants to be tested on material you haven’t learned yet! But there’s good news. These types of tests or quizzes aren’t meant to shape your grade in the class. In fact, they’re probably not even graded at all.

Tests, quizzes, surveys, and learning journals completed at the beginning of a new unit or at the start of any studying endeavor are called formative assessments, and they are actually the cornerstone of common teaching practice. Formative assessments are rooted in the idea that you cannot learn something in a focused, concentrated way without having a realistic idea of where you’re starting from. Teachers will use these types of assessments at the beginning of a class or of a new unit to help guide their instruction. To learn more about what a formative assessment is, and how you could be using one to guide your own studying, read on.

What is a formative assessment?

It’s likely that you’re more familiar with the summative assessment, a close cousin of the formative assessment. Summative assessments serve as a total measurement of your knowledge in a certain subject area. They reflect the “sum” of your learning and most often contribute at least in part to your final grade. These are things like final exams, midterms, and end-of-unit presentations.

Formative assessments, on the other hand, help to “form” your learning. They give your teacher an idea of how much you already know and lend insight into any gaps in your foundational knowledge. For example, if an elementary school teacher wanted to begin a unit on basic multiplication, he or she might administer a formative assessment to students, measuring basic number sense, basic addition skills, and some introductory multiplication. Because students need to master number sense and addition before they move on to multiplication, the teacher will use this assessment to measure their readiness for the new unit. The teacher will also get an idea of which students already have some exposure to multiplication, thereby allowing better differentiation of instruction to specific students.

Of course, these assessments remain relevant well past elementary school. As the content you learn becomes more and more advanced, having a general idea of your background knowledge will be more and more critical. After all, you can’t be expected to undertake a calculus-based physics class if you have gaps in your understanding of basic algebra. Teachers at every level will use formative assessments to determine student starting points, guide instruction, and identify areas in need of review.

Why should I use a formative assessment?

Teachers aren’t the only ones who should take advantage of these best teaching practices. Formative assessments, used both at the beginning of your own studying and throughout it, are the most effective way to assess your own knowledge. Although they are certainly helpful for preparing for finals and midterms, they can also be used to prepare for standardized tests. Studying for the SATs, APs, and ACTs should all begin with your own formative assessment.
These should be a cornerstone of your studying, just as they are a cornerstone of good teaching.

Are formative assessments always a test? What other forms could they take?

Formative assessments take many different forms. Sometimes they are administered like a traditional quiz or test. Other times teachers will use materials such as exit slips, learning logs, or self-assessments. Your teachers might even use general observations or class discussions to shape their formative assessments.

It can be logistically a bit more complicated to administer your own formative assessment, but it’s not impossible. You could use your notes or learning journal if you have one that’s relevant to the material you’re studying. If you are studying for a class at school, you might also use the end-of-chapter textbook questions, old exams that your teacher may provide, or create your own test questions and trade with a friend. If you’re studying for a standardized test, use the practice questions from a commercial study guide or search online for a practice test. Some commercial study guides even include a diagnostic test, which is essentially the same thing as a formative assessment.

Whatever format you choose for your formative assessment, be sure that its content closely mirrors the content areas of the class or test for which you’re studying. You can use a class syllabus or content outline to determine which specific content areas you should focus on assessing.

How do I use a formative assessment to guide my studying?

Formative assessments are a great studying tool if you know how to use them effectively. First, you will need to identify the area of knowledge that you are aiming to assess. If you are approaching an end-of-unit test in your chemistry class, you should be able to find a content summary for each chapter in the textbook. If you’re studying for a standardized test, you can find specific knowledge requirements on the test website or in a commercial study guide.

Once you know what content you will be tested on, source a test that you can use to assess your initial knowledge of it. This could be end-of-unit questions from the textbook, practice tests for a standardized test, or practice questions online.

Whatever the case may be, rather than studying first and then testing your knowledge, you will take the assessment first and then use it to shape your studying. When you take the assessment, try to imitate the testing conditions you’ll experience when you take the actual test. Try to adhere to any time constraints and use any resources that will be available in order to get the most accurate idea of your knowledge.

Next, score your assessment. As you are doing so, generalize the content areas of your incorrect answers to get an idea of which broad content areas need review. Also keep a running list of specific vocabulary or concepts that need review.

The end result of a strong formative assessment should be a list of content and concepts that will benefit most from your review. Think of it as a to-do list of sorts to help guide and shape your studying.

Finally, remember that formative assessments don’t have to end when you dive into studying. You can also use them throughout the studying process to evaluate your progress. If you start with an accurate formative assessment, study as usual, and then take another formative assessment, you should see a clear progression in your knowledge. Repeat the process of assessing and readjusting or focusing your studying as indicated to incrementally increase your score.

Although it may seem counterintuitive to test yourself before you even begin studying for something, the long term benefits are clear. By taking a formative assessment to inventory your strengths and areas in need of improvement, you facilitate a more focused and targeted approach to studying. You spend less time studying concepts you already know, and more time digging into material that you have yet to master. By repeating the process you’re more likely to see a steady progression of knowledge in the areas that need the most improvement.

Don’t let your teachers be the only ones to take advantage of strong, proven instructional practices. Apply the same methods to your own learning to maximize your potential independently.

If you still feel like you need more help with studying or want to learn more about effective study techniques, whether for standardized tests or for your regular high school curriculum, look no further. For personalized tutoring, check out the CollegeVine Academic Tutoring Program, where students who are intimately familiar with the material can help you ace it too, just like they did.     

For more about information about studying and test preparation, check out these CollegeVine posts:

The Ultimate Guide to Self-Studying AP Exams

Two Birds, One Stone: Can You Study for the APs and SAT IIs At the Same Time?

Handling Senior Year: Making a Schedule

How to Effectively Balance Your Time in High School

Should You Retake Your Standardized Tests?


Kate Sundquist

Kate Sundquist

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.
Kate Sundquist

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