It’s a Process, Not a Technique

By Sarah P. Hylton, M.Ed., SURN

Imagine that you’re observing a class in which the students are working to find text evidence to support opinions they have. After each student locates a piece of evidence, the teacher, Ms. Smith, asks the students to show thumbs up, sideways, or down to indicate how confident they feel that their chosen piece of text evidence effectively proves their opinion. One of the items on your observation checklist is that the teacher effectively uses formative assessment. Would you check that box? Has Ms. Smith used formative assessment? What tells you that she has or hasn’t?


Formative assessment is a process that involves multiple steps (see the image above). The first step in the process involves eliciting and capturing information about what the students know, believe, or can do and how well. The second step in the process requires the teacher (or student) to analyze the information that has been collected and to make appropriate inferences about the nature and degree of student learning. Finally, the teacher must communicate and use the information that was collected. In other words, the teacher should use the results of the analysis to inform instructional decision making and should share the results by providing feedback to students.

Often, our understanding of formative assessment is limited to the first stage of this process. There are seemingly endless lists of techniques that teachers can use to elicit information from students. You’re probably familiar with a litany of these types of techniques: thumbs up/thumbs down, exit slips, individual dry erase boards, think-pair-share, popsicle sticks, four corners. Often these formative assessment techniques are referred to as formative assessment, but this “name game” results in misconceptions about formative assessment. Using a technique is not formative assessment. In order to truly undertake formative assessment, teachers must engage in the subsequent stages of the process.

Teachers at SURN’s Designing Formative Assessment Workshop engage in conversation about the formative assessment process.

Teachers at SURN’s Designing Formative Assessment Workshop engage in conversation about the formative assessment process.

Returning to our original scenario, Ms. Smith does indeed create an opportunity to elicit and capture information from her students about their thinking, in this case, their degree of confidence in their chosen piece of text evidence. What we aren’t told is what happens next. Imagine that Ms. Smith follows the thumbs up/thumbs down responses with a comment such as “It seems like only two people are feeling really confident that they have found a solid piece of evidence. Let’s all look for another piece of evidence that supports our opinion even better.” Such a comment should reasonably convince us that Ms. Smith is actually engaging in formative assessment. Not only did she take time to elicit and capture information about student thinking, she also took time to analyze that information. We only know this because she then communicates that information with the students and uses it to make an instructional decision.

On the other hand, if Ms. Smith had simply said “Okay, great! Let’s move on to the next chapter,” we could be confident that she has not engaged in formative assessment. Yes, she used a formative assessment technique, but her decision to move forward despite only two students feeling that they had found a good piece of text evidence would indicate that she hasn’t engaged in the process.

Remember: formative assessment is not a technique; it’s a process. To truly engage in formative assessment, teachers must not only elicit and capture information; they must also analyze that information and then communicate and use that information.