Formative assessments

Last Updated: December 11, 2023
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How this will help:

Connect how formative assessments of student progress are used in an online setting.
Identify strategies to assess student progress and understanding using formative assessment techniques.

The basics

Face-to-face teaching frequently involves visual observation of students “understanding” a course. Faculty frequently use informal methods for what we call “formative assessment” but may not be familiar with the terminology or how to transform informal formative assessment to online.

Have you ever experienced teaching a topic in your face-to-face class and getting the blank  stare of students who just did not understand? Perhaps you use “clickers” to knowledge check students partway through a lecture or create practice tests so students can check their understanding. You may ask your students questions in-class to gauge how well a concept is being understood.

The above examples are formative assessment strategies that you may have encountered in your daily teaching. Formative assessment is the process of understanding the progress of your students’ learning rather than strictly their performance on a final assessment (like a paper or exam). Formative assessment benefits your class in several ways:

  • Students get a low-stakes opportunity to check their understanding of a topic.
  • Students potentially get feedback on their own knowledge of content.
  • Instructors can adjust teaching strategies to try to reach every student.

Formative assessment often happens in low-stakes or informal ways. In a face-to-face setting, you may get physical cues that indicate that students may be struggling with content. In response, you may go over content again to reinforce a concept or explain a topic differently. If a student is not engaging, you may physically walk over to see how they are doing, or invite them to attend office hours.

A lot of these physical cues are absent in an online class. Sometimes instructors initially struggle with how to know how students are doing with content when they can’t “see” the student. In addition, online courses are often already text-heavy, and an additional assessment to grade may not be desirable.

However, there are ways to check in with students on their understanding of content for the week. You may find that a concept was not clear in a video based on discussion board or chat messages. You may get questions from students on a topic that suggests further explanation may be necessary. You can also be proactive about formative assessment by asking students to complete a weekly short content reflection or use online video response quizzes to see where they are at. 

Formative assessment works best when the stakes are low. The goal is not to assess student performance, but rather to identify places where misconceptions or where students are struggling with content. It helps when you offer a point or two of credit for completing formative assessments. In a face-to-face class, you might have a set of participation or engagement points.

Practical tips

  • Create a “minute paper” check-in each week. Use a quiz or survey tool (even Google Forms works!), ask students 2 questions: What was the clearest point of content, what was the most confusing/muddiest point of content. You do not need to read this content closely, rather monitor the responses looking for points of confusion or what content really resonated with students. If you aren’t familiar with the “minute paper” concept, CRLT has resources on how to integrate this effective technique. 
  • Use online polls to survey student knowledge on content that students frequently struggle with. Embed polls into a weekly discussion post or an email. [Link to the technology doc on using polls]
  • Crowdsource a FAQ for each week’s content. In your discussion board, create a thread or forum for questions just for that week. Students can post questions (and possibly responses) to these questions. Be sure to monitor and answer questions as necessary. It’s also helpful to curate your responses because students’ questions may tend to stay the same each year. 
  • Make it clear to students that although there may be points involved in these activities, the awarding of points is not tied to performance. Points are awarded for completion. 


University of Michigan

CRLT- Screencast on minute paper


Gikandi, J. W., Morrow, D., & Davis, N. E. (2011). Online formative assessment in higher education: A review of the literature. Computers and Education, 57(4), 2333–2351.