Using Formative Assessment to Improve Student Learning

12 Aug 2017 4:00 PM | Anonymous

By Stephen L. Chew, Ph.D., Samford University

Every beginning instructor discovers sooner or later that his first lectures were incomprehensible because he was talking to himself, so to say, mindful only of his point of view. He realizes only gradually and with difficulty that it is not easy to place one’s self in the shoes of students who do not yet know about the subject matter of the course.

-Jean Piaget (1962)

I came into the test really confident that I knew the material but it didn't show that on the test.

-Student Email Message to Me

This blog post is about egocentrism, on the part of both you the teacher and your students. Both teachers and students are subject to misunderstanding how well the students are comprehending and learning the course concepts. In teaching, we talk about metacognition, which is a more general term than egocentrism. Metacognition is a person’s awareness of their own thought processes. For the purpose of teaching, we can define metacognition as a people’s awareness of their level of understanding of a concept (Ehrliger & Shane, 2014). Students with good metacognition have an accurate understanding of how well they understand a concept. Student with poor metacognitive awareness lack a true grasp of how well they understand a concept. Typically, students with poor metacognition are grossly overconfident. They believe they have a deep, thorough understanding when their grasp is actually superficial and riddled with gaps. They fail to distinguish between popular beliefs they may have brought to the class with them and the empirically supported concepts presented in class. Egocentrism, then, is a form of poor metacognition.

A form of egocentrism can affect instructors as well. Teachers often overestimate the level of understanding of the class. This is known as the curse of knowledge (Fisher & Kelli, 2016). As far as the teacher is concerned, he or she has explained concepts clearly, carefully, and completely. The teacher, however, no longer remembers how challenging it was to learn the concepts for the first time. Because students lack the expertise of the teacher, the teacher may have gone faster than the students could follow, or left out critical aspects of a concept because it seemed obvious to the teacher. To the teacher, there may have been only one possible interpretation of what he or she said, the correct one. To the students, however, without any prior knowledge of a concept, there may be multiple ways to interpret the class presentation through faulty assumptions or inferences.

Most all veteran teachers have experienced following scenario. The teacher believes he or she has explained the material clearly and the students have understood it well. The students have attended class and studied the material on their own. On the exam, however, the students do poorly. The teacher is disappointed in the students, and may think, “Those lazy students. They must not have studied.” The students are also disappointed. They think, “That sneaky teacher. The test was full of obscure and tricky questions.” Each blames the other, but both teacher and students may be wrong. Neither may have had an accurate awareness of the students’ actual level of understanding.

So how do we detect this egocentrism on the part of the teacher and student? We use formative assessments to gauge and promote student learning. Formative assessments are brief, low or no stakes assessments that are given before a high stakes exam (Angelo & Cross, 1993). They reveal the level of student understanding to both student and teacher. Formative assessments come in many varieties, such as think-pair-share, minute or muddiest point papers, or so called “clicker questions” (e.g. Angelo & Cross, 1993; Ritchart, Church, & Morrison, 2011; Barkley & Major, 2016).

For example, say you are covering Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. After your presentation of all the stages, you can check on the class’s comprehension using a conceptest (Chew, 2004; Mazur, 2001). Present the class with the question below.

Jean calls Papa Johns and orders a small pizza. “Do you want that cut into 6 slices or 8 slices?” asks the clerk. “Oh 6 slices,” says Jean, “I could never eat 8 slices.” Jean is showing

  1. Egocentrism
  2. Lack of object permanence
  3. Lack of conservation
  4. Assimilation

Have everyone determine their answer silently. Then, on a signal, have everyone in the class raise their hand with the number of fingers indicating their answer. Both they and you can look around and gauge the frequency of different answers. Next have them discuss their answer with someone around them, preferably with someone who had a different response. After a few minutes of discussion, poll them using hand signals again. Then call on people with different answers and ask them to explain their reasoning. (I’d say the answer was #3.) Conceptests follow the specific procedure above (poll-discuss-poll-explain). Not only do conceptests give both teacher and students a sense of their level of understanding, they have been shown to be highly effective in promoting student learning, even when students get the answer wrong (Smith et al., 2009). You may recognize the question as a “clicker question” that you can use with a student response system, but the pedagogy ensures that students process and reflect on their answers. You can do conceptests with “clickers”, but often just a show of hands is faster, simpler, and just as effective.

Here is an example of a Think-Pair-Share you could use.

I was walking in a parking lot holding my 3-year old son over my shoulder. He was facing backwards and looking behind me. “Watch out, Dad,” he said, “There is a car behind you.” I was very impressed by this statement. Why?

You can present the item to students and let them think about it, then pair off with another student and think about it, then share as a class. Once again, you can get a sense of the level of understanding of students. In this case the child realized his Dad couldn’t see the car behind him. Preoperational children are supposed to be egocentric.

And that’s not all. Formative assessments are useful for achieving many desirable learning goals. Here is a list:

  • Improving metacognition for students and teachers
  • Addressing and countering tenacious student misconceptions
  • Illustrating the desired level of understanding of knowledge for students (especially in preparation for exams)
  • Promoting student learning and understanding through retrieval practice and peer learning
  • Promoting rapport and trust between teacher and student
  • Modeling critical thinking and problem solving

Teachers who have never tried formative assessments often ask me: If the formative assessments are low stakes, why would students be motivated to do them. I can give several reasons. First, they are engaging and students find them fun to do. Second, they preview the kinds of questions and problems students will see on exams. Finally, the students recognize this is a learning opportunity that will help them master the material. Some teachers tell me that they have too much to cover to use formative assessments. What is the value of covering material if students don’t understand it? Formative assessments make learning visible. If you want to learn more about using formative assessments, check out my video series on the Cognitive Principles of Effective Teaching (


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2016). Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chew, S. L. (2004). Using ConcepTests for formative assessment. Psychology Teacher Network, 14(1), 10-12

Crouch, C. H., & Mazur, E. (2001). American Journal of Physics, 69, 970-977. doi: 10.1119/1.1374249

Ehrlinger, J., & Shane, E. A. (2014). How Accuracy in Students’ Self Perceptions Relates to Success in Learning. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site:

Fisher, M., & Keil, F. C. (2016). The curse of expertise: When more knowledge leads to miscalibrated explanatory insight. Cognitive Science, 40, 1251-1269. doi: 10.1111/cogs.12280

Piaget, J. (1962). Comments on Vygotsky’s critical remarks concerning The Language and Thought of the Child and Judgment and Reasoning in the Child. Addendum in L. S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Downloaded from

Ritchart, R., Church, M., & Morrison K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, M. K., Wood, W. B., Adams, W. K., Wieman, C., Knight, J. K., Guild, N., & Su. T. T. (2009). Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science, 323, 122-124. doi: 10.1126/science.1165919

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