You’re Probably Already Using This Evidence Based Practice

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Chances are you’re probably already using formative assessment in class. When you assign homework, quizzes, or projects you’re hitting one part of a process proven to impact student learning. Learn about this flexible 5-part process. It helps ensure instruction response to student needs.

Join our Teachers for Research & Feedback community to receive (paid!) opportunities to contribute your instructional expertise to educational research studies, and to help pilot new ASSISTments features. This blog post is part of our series on Evidence-Based Instructional Practices that sheds light on teaching practices grounded in learning science. You can find all posts in the series here.

If you don’t know what formative assessment is, chances are you’re probably already using this evidence-based practice. Do you assign your math students quizzes? Homework? Do nows? Do you use these assignments to give your students feedback, support their learning growth, or adjust your own lesson planning? If any of these are part of your instruction, you’re already implementing formative assessment in your classroom.

Formative assessment is one of many instructional practices that is actually evidence based, meaning that research has been done to understand why and in what ways they are effective for student learning. Read on for more on the evidence behind formative assessment, what this practice looks like in classrooms, and how tools like ASSISTments can support your use of formative assessment.

The evidence behind formative assessment

Formative assessment is an instructional practice that relies on frequent informal student evaluation as they learn new skills. In contrast to summative assessment which formally assesses student performance at the end of the learning process, formative assessment allows teachers to evaluate students frequently in flexible formats, get a sense of concept attainment, give feedback and adjust course as necessary. 

In his book Transformative Assessment, James Popham 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). 

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Popham’s definition emphasizes the dynamic and individual interaction taking place between teachers and students through formative assessment. Many teachers rely on formative assessment because it allows them to make adjustments to their instruction based on student need (Popham 2006). By checking in on a regular basis and tying those check ins to a plan, teachers use formative assessment as an opportunity to understand where their students are in the learning process and focus on growth. Students use the opportunity to reflect and adjust. 

Research has shown that formative assessment such as homework works best if students receive feedback (Paschal et al., 1984). When given feedback, it serves as additional instructional input that keeps students on track, helping to identify areas of strength and where they need to adjust their practice as needed. 

When teachers assign formative assessment for students to complete in class or at home, it’s an opportunity for them to work through problems independently. In fact, studies support the value that students gain from feedback on the work they do independently (Hattie 2009). Without any feedback or instructional guidance, they may complete the same type of problem incorrectly each time, reinforcing a misconception, and making homework a frustrating missed opportunity for learning. 

With tools like ASSISTments, which provides immediate feedback to students completing assignments using the platform, students get the added benefit of being able to check their progress, work through problems, and adjust course based on feedback that comes in real time, so that formative assessment becomes an activity that reinforces correct math practice. 

Classroom applications for formative assessment

When most people hear formative assessment, they usually think of a quiz or homework, but the assignment itself is actually just one part of the formative assessment process. In her book, Formative Assessment: Making It Happen in the Classroom (2010) Margaret Heritage breaks down formative assessment into a 5-step cyclical process that any teacher can apply in class to take assignments to the next level through formative assessment. The processes requires teachers and students to:

  1. Select Learning Targets. These are the goals (could be for the year, unit, week or otherwise) that help to define what teachers are teaching and what students are learning.
  2. Develop Criteria for Success. It’s hard to know if you’ve met your learning targets if you don’t know what success looks like. This is a very subjective area that depends on the situation (i.e., success may look different at the beginning or end of a unit).
  3. Elicit Evidence of Learning. This is the actual formative assessment assignment that students complete.
  4. Interpret the Evidence. Both the teacher and the student must consider student performance to help understand how it aligns with learning targets. Have students met the criteria for success?
  5. Adapt Responses to Learning Needs. Now that teachers and students know if they are on track toward learning targets, they can adapt instructional and learning practice to help stay on track.

Using formative assessment shifts the focus from grades to regular touchpoints indicating where students are at in their learning and how teachers can adjust course to best support them. Formative assessment assignments are low-stakes, with scores being omitted or counting very little toward a student's final grade, which is often the case with homework, quizzes or do-nows. 

Teachers might find that the class was struggling to learn integers last week, but the concept really clicked with students this week. Formative assessment allows for classroom follow up that may prompt teachers to change the pace of the class or update lesson plans and assignments to accommodate or differentiate for the learning needs of students. They might see that certain students are still struggling with measuring circles or that the class is ready to move on to angles and triangles.

How ASSISTments supports this evidence-based practice

Formative assessment is all about the adjustments that students and teachers can make to help stay on track toward targets and achieve learning. ASSISTments uses technology to make formative assessment more meaningful and actionable by enhancing the instructional methods that teachers are already using in class.

We’re all about streamlining the pieces of the process that just make formative assessment work: 

  • aligning with teachers’ curricula and common core standards to make it easy to set learning targets
  • creating assignments that students complete online and can access through their LMS
  • providing immediate feedback that help students track their own progress, adapt their approach immediately and be more autonomous in their learning.
  • equipping teachers with the data that allows them to interpret student progress, and respond to learning needs by adapting instruction and class time

Judy Cain is a teacher in Virginia who uses ASSISTments to assign math homework. She particularly appreciates its ability to both help students practice skills and help her identify sticky points. The Assignment Report “helps me decide which problems need more instruction or practice before class starts,” says Ms. Cain. By allowing her target review sessions to the exact needs of her students, formative assessment through ASSISTments “reduces the amount of class time spent going over homework.” 

The Assignment Report is powerful because it takes care of all the prep that teachers typically do to understand class performance, saving all that time for targeted instruction.

But how do teachers get to that crucial point of formative assessment where they’re adapting instruction and targeting time to student needs? And how can a teacher use the Assignment Report to assess student progress and adapt instruction to most effectively meet learning targets?

  • Consider timing in the unit: let’s assume the class has an 82% average for the assignment, as in example above. The teacher may have a very different interpretation of that number depending on where they are in the unit. This may meet or exceed the teacher’s criterion for success when just starting a unit. In contrast, if the class is wrapping up the unit, the teacher may expect to see a significantly higher average, and not consider this success.
  • Focus on how students explain their work: when students have the opportunity to explain their work, teachers can weigh an explanation against performance. In the example above 77% of students got the correct answer to Part A of the problem. At first glance, this may not be an acceptable average. But, when the teacher scores Part B, which asks students to explain their work, she may see that the class successfully identified the skill they needed to use, but failed to put it into practice. This can indicate to the teacher how deep to dig into the problem in class.
  • Leverage common wrong answers: teachers can anticipate skill areas that often trip up students. By looking at common wrong answers, the teacher can identify the misconceptions to correct in class. Again considering timing in the unit, common misconceptions may meet a teacher’s Criteria for Success early on in a unit, but she wouldn’t expect students to be making such errors if similar problems were assigned at the end of a unit. Instead, she may be very concerned that students still had the same misconception.
  • Look at progression through the whole assignment: when teachers interpret the evidence on the Assignment Report, they may see that students incorrectly answered questions related to a certain skill area early on in the assignment, but were able to put the right skill into practice later on in the assignment. Because students get immediate feedback, they can use the Show Answer button to work backwards from the right answer, and achieve learning independently.

Using these approaches, teachers can make adjustments to instruction using what they know from the data about their class’s unique needs. They may simply drop in a quick reminder about a common misconception, or sort and differentiate groups of students who had similar difficulties and assign them targeted problem sets. They may identify a need to really dig deeper on a skill area where many students struggled. Or, if the teachers see a smaller group of struggling students, they may choose to pull these students aside to determine what is confusing them

Would you like to support evidence-based practice by contributing to learning science research? We invite all ASSISTments teachers to join our Teachers for Research & Feedback community to receive the monthly newsletter with all future opportunities.

For more on formative assessment, check out the recent talk for Teachers College by Cristina Heffernan, ASSISTments co-Founder, on Mathematics Formative Assessment in COVID-19 Times and Beyond here.


  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York, NY: Routledge. 
  • Heritage, M. (2010). Formative Assessment: Making It Happen in the Classroom. CA Corwin.
  • Paschal, R., Weinstein, T., & Walberg, H. (1984). The Effects of Homework on Learning: A Quantitative Synthesis. The Journal of Educational Research, 78(2), 97-104.
  • Retrieved September 21, 2020, from
  • Popham, J. (2008). Transformative Assessment. VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 
  • Popham, J. (2006). Defining and Enhancing Formative Assessment: Assessment for Learning.

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