Technology can help teachers and students succeed in the Formative Assessment Process

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Many people think only about quizzes and homework assignments when they hear “formative assessment,” but the 5-Step Formative Assessment Process is multifaceted. There’s so much more potential where both teacher and students play a crucial role for learning.

If you would like to watch the full conference talk from Teachers’ College, click here.

The Formative Assessment Process is one of many instructional practices based on evidence, meaning research has shown that this practice increases student learning. Our responsibility as an edtech non-profit is to make it easy for teachers to implement research-based practices through the use of our platform. Our responsibility as educators is to implement these evidence based practices but, without support, that can be a daunting task. 

To kick off the school year, I (Cristina Heffernan, co-founder of ASSISTments) had the opportunity to present as part of a webinar series hosted by Columbia Universities’ Teachers College. The talk was titled Mathematics Formative Assessment in COVID-19 Times and Beyond (watch it here). I spoke specifically about how edtech platforms like ASSISTments can help teachers and students succeed in the Formative Assessment Process. I emphasized that teachers need to stay in the driver’s seat of their instruction, while getting support from technology.

Read on for more on how you can apply the Formative Assessment Process in your class and how ASSISTments can help.

Definitions & 5 Pieces of the Process

There are many ways to state the definition of the Formative Assessment Process. I have always liked the simplicity and completeness of the one offered by James Popham in his book Transformative Assessment. He states: 

“Formative Assessment is a planned process in which teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they are currently doing” (Popham 2008). 

Popham’s definition emphasizes planning and the active roles of both the teacher and the student. What I have seen from my years of experience in designing a tool for formative assessment is that, when empowered with data, both can be key players in using evidence to make adjustments to their instructional or learning practices. The trick is determining what evidence to collect and how to collect it so that it can be most useful.

This is where evidence-based formative assessment tools like ASSISTments take the stage. In her book, Formative Assessment: Making It Happen in the Classroom (2010), Margaret Heritage breaks down formative assessment into a 5-step process. ASSISTments aligns with and enhances each of these steps. I will refer back to these colored sections from the visual below to highlight how we support teachers and students in this process and take formative assessment to the next level. But first, let’s take a closer look at each individual piece.

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Select Learning Targets: In other words, what are you teaching? What are the final goals for the year, unit, week? No matter how coarse or fine the grain, there needs to be a target for what is being taught and in turn learned. 

Develop Criteria for Success: This is a very subjective area. The teacher and the student need to understand what is meant by success. If a third grader reads a sentence and stumbles over a long word, is that success? If a high school student is being assessed and stumbles over the same word, is that success? The criteria is dependent upon the situation.    

Elicit Evidence of Learning: This is the part of the formative assessment process that people normally think of giving a homework assignment, having students do a problem at the start of class, or giving a quiz. This is where students do some work that they can reflect on and teachers can review. Sometimes this is the only part of formative assessment people think of since this is when the student engages in the assessment.

Interpret the Evidence: Once the evidence is collected, both the teacher and the student must process and understand what the results mean. It is at this point where an understanding of the criteria for success is important, because teachers and students will interpret the evidence against the criteria for success. 

Adapt Responses to Learning Needs: Both the teacher and the student need to adapt. As Popham said in his definition of the formative assessment process, “teachers or students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they are currently doing.” Teachers use data to adjust instruction to student needs; students use data to reflect on their work, ask questions, and try again. It is the use of data to adjust instructional and learning practice that makes this process so powerful.  

How ASSISTments enables the Formative Assessment Process

As I mentioned above, many people focus in on the ‘Interpret the Evidence’ piece of the Process and think only about quizzes and homework assignments when they hear “formative assessment.” This actually limits the potential of formative assessment, which is a multifaceted process where both teacher and student play a role.

While there is a plethora of research showing that the implementation of Formative Assessment increases student learning, I am acutely aware that it is extremely difficult for one teacher with multitudes of students to be able to successfully navigate the process without help. That’s where technology comes in. Our philosophy at ASSISTments is to use educational technology to enhance the effective instructional practices that are already working for teachers. Technology is not the driving force; students and teachers are what makes the process work. 

Let's now look at the 4 steps of using ASSISTments and see how they fit into the different parts of the Formative Assessment Process (FAP). 

ASSISTments Step 1: Create Assignments
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When teachers Create Assignments using ASSISTments, they’re initiating the “Eliciting Evidence of Learning” moment in the Formative Assessment Process. It starts with creating an assignment. This assignment will give them the evidence of the learning they are looking for when students interact with the assignment. 

However, there is actually a piece that informs the selection of the problem set. The teacher already needs to have “Selected Their Learning Targets” to inform how they build their assignments and how they assess if the target has been met.These targets usually come from the state standards..Teachers can use their learning targets to find content in ASSISTments that is aligned with the priorities that they are already working towards in class.

ASSISTments Step 2: Assist students through immediate feedback
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When students submit their answers into ASSISTments, they receive feedback as they go. This link will let you experience a math problem the way a student does in ASSISTments. In the language of the Formative Assessment Process, we can call that feedback, “evidence”. The first thing students need to do once they get their feedback is to “Interpret The Evidence”. The following are examples of evidence students might receive:

Correct on the first try: It is not hard to interpret the data when a student is told they are correct on the first try, this means they know how to solve the problem. 

Incorrect: If students do not get the problem right, they must move to the next part in the process “Adapting and Responding to Learning Needs”. The evidence signals to students that they need to adjust their behavior (think back to that crucial point in Popham’s definition above). Some students start to look things up, revisit their work, ask questions of their notes, themselves, or others. It is by doing this adaptation that students learn. 

ASSISTments allows students to make multiple attempts towards the correct response, focusing on growth through independent practice, as opposed to simply right or wrong.

ASSISTments Step 3: Assess Class Performance

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Teachers get their turn to interpret the evidence when they assess the Assignment Report detailing class performance. When a teacher analyzes the ASSISTments Assignment 

Report they are able to “Interpret The Evidence”. ASSISTments breathes new life into this part of the process. Without technology, the teacher has to do an exorbitant amount of exhausting prep; identifying trends or common misconceptions, zooming in on individual students and responses in order to get to the point of being able to look at the results of an assignment as a whole,. 

By letting the computer do what it is good at, the teachers can now spend more time doing what they are good at. Before they begin to “Interpret the Evidence” they should “Develop a Criterion for Success”. In order to support their interpretation, teachers need to anticipate and understand what type of results they are looking for. 

Let’s use the following math problem as an example to support our thinking about the next part of the process with respect to ASSISTments. Take a moment to solve this problem and then continue to read. If you would like to see me walk through the problem this link will take you directly to that spot in the presentation where I walk through the math step by step.

Example Assignment Question - Assistments - Formative Assessment Solutions - Image

Example Assignment Results - Assistments - Formative Assessment Solutions - Image

At any time, teachers are able to access the Assignment Report (the top portion is shown above). Notice there are two answers for each of “part a, b and c” for a total of 6 separate answers. Once students have completed the assignment teachers need to determine their personal Criterion for Success.  

If the data showed that 77% of the students got “part a” correct but over 90% of students got “part b” correct the teachers may decide that 77% correct for “part a” meets their Criterion for Success. They see this as a success since student performance on the two questions in “part b” (92% and 91%) shows they were able to successfully use the scale factor to determine the missing lengths. 

What if they get a 48% for the first answer in part c, with over half the students who got the problem wrong saying the answer was half the angle being asked about? Well, if you’ve taught 7th-grade math then you know that students try to use the scale factor on the angles even though angles stay the same measure when the image is shrunk or enlarged. Teachers expect this common misconception. At this point, the teacher needs to look at the data for the second angle on part c. If that data shows a 98% success rate the teacher can conclude that learning was achieved. 

That said, teachers may consider the timing on the learning progression. They may accept an error based on a common misconception on angles for similar figures at the beginning of a unit, but what if this problem was assigned at the end of the unit? At that point in the learning trajectory, the teacher may be very concerned that so many students still had the misconception! 

The decision about “Developing a Criterion for Success” is subjective and a very important part of the Formative Assessment Process. Technology plays an important role in aggregating the data, however, the teacher really makes this process work. It is a lot easier to reflect and make in-the-moment decisions about the Criterion for Success if you are not worn out from manually scoring every single piece of paper. At ASSISTments, we’re here to enhance daily practice with technology that keeps teachers in the driver's seat of their instruction.

ASSISTments Step 4: Analyze Answers Together

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After reviewing the Assignment Report, the teacher can now make adjustments to instruction with respect to the data in the same way students made adjustments to their independent practice in response to immediate feedback. 

Here, teachers can really use the power of the Assignment Report to inform their lesson plans. They may choose to drop in a helpful reminder about a common misconception, or in cases where students struggled, they can sort and differentiate groups of students who had similar difficulties. They may also choose to really dig deeper on a skill area where many students struggled. Or, if the teacher sees a smaller group of struggling students, they may choose to pull them aside in order to determine what is confusing them. 

ASSISTments allows students and teachers to truly succeed in the formative assessment process. By letting the computer do what it can do, the teacher and students are freed up to work through all the steps in the process. If you have not started using ASSISTments, get started now. If you’re already a user, there are many ways to take advantage of ASSISTments with respect to the Formative Assessment Process. We would love to hear your ideas on Facebook, Twitter, or E-mail and share them in our Teachers Corner.  


Heritage, M. (2010). Formative Assessment: Making It Happen in the Classroom. CA Corwin.

Popham, J. (2008). Transformative Assessment. VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

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