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What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Formative Assessment?

Updated April 17, 2017

Formative assessment covers the range of informal diagnostic tests a teacher can use to assist the process of learning by his students. Prescriptive but ungraded feedback enables students to reflect on what they are learning and why. The goal is to improve performance and achieve successful outcomes. Robert Stake, Director of the Center for Instructional Research and Curriculum Evaluation, likens formative assessment to a cook tasting a soup before serving it to a guest. But despite its advantages, formative assessment can be time-consuming, and incentives in the school system tend to favour more objective assessments.

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Continuous Improvement

One great advantage of formative assessment for learning is that it is ongoing. This allows for incremental feedback to identify problems at their earliest stages. For example, a student can correct conceptual errors before undertaking work on a term paper. As that student works on the term paper, input from the teacher can inform, guide and validate each step of the writing process.


Cheating and plagiarism remain significant problems in academic settings. A study on academic dishonesty published in the Electronic Journal of Sociology in 2003 found that 83 per cent of the students surveyed admitted to cheating more than once. Compared to graded summative assessments like final exams, ungraded formative assessments reduce the temptation to cheat. This allows students to focus on learning instead of grades.

Labor Intensive

Although offering many benefits, effective formative assessment can be difficult to achieve at scale. It may be logistically impossible to provide detailed descriptive feedback for each student in a large class. Even with a smaller number of students to deal with, formative assessment is time-consuming as it requires significant, ongoing dedication and effort from the teacher to sustain. This is especially true when combined with the summative assessments teachers are required to complete.


The layered accountability chain in education -- student to teacher, teacher to school, school to district, etc. -- creates systemic pressure for student performance to be objectively and comparatively measurable at each level. Formative assessment, by definition, doesn't easily provide that kind of accountability. This explains why, although the advantages of formative assessment have been repeatedly articulated since the distinction between it and summative assessment was first made in 1967, empirical studies continue to show that very few teachers consistently make use of it in actual practice.

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About the Author

Matthew Spira has over nine years of experience as an ESL teacher/tutor specializing in bilingual early childhood literacy development. Before teaching, he spent seven years in the call-center industry as a line supervisor, operations manager and workforce planning, forecasting and analysis manager. Spira holds a Bachelor of Arts in literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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