Formative Evaluation in Higher Education

Among Hattie’s most impactful influences on student achievement descibed in his book Visible Learning (Hattie 2013), is formative evaluation. It has an effect ranking of 0.9, so highly impactful on student achievement. Formative evaluation refers to “any activity used as an assessment of learning progress before or during the learning process itself” (Hattie 2012 and Visible Learning Website). Formative evaluation is arguably more important than summative evaluation, because it gives a chance for the students to get relevant feedback on where they are and where they need to go. Watch this video that best explains the difference between formative and summative evaluation:

This is also a great video on formative evaluation based on William & Black 1998:

I love the analogy in the above video about how formative assessment is really like taking a car for air inspection. They don’t just tell you, “Your car failed the test. Now go away.” Instead they say, “Your car failed. These are the reasons (brakes, radiator, muffler, etc.). Go and fix those and come back for another inspection.” That’s exactly what we need to do with students! A summative assessment may tell a student “you failed this course” but then provides no pathway to success. It leaves the student demoralized and discouraged.


My immediate thought is that formative evaluation is not being done enough in the Higher Education classroom. Summative assessment (large end of term final exams worth %40) are given much more focus. But summative assessment that will not affect student learning in the way that formative assessment can, because formative learning allows the student to change course after given constructive feedback from their instructor.  Summative assessment is easier to deploy because no detailed feedback is necessary because now the course is over. It’s therefore less work for the instructor. They’re less involved in the student learning process because they don’t have to work with the student from then on. However Hattie’s research of over 800 meta-analyses proves that formative evaluation is much more effective in improving the quality of student learning.

Some instructors, especially those teaching large courses on campus of 200 or more student, might cringe at the thought of having to give formative assessment feedback to every single student. This process can be simplified through providing rubrics to students that show them how they measure up in the grading process, and some feedback can be automated or pre-written to cover different ranges of student abilities. All that to say that large classrooms should not be a reason to avoid formative assessment considering it is so effective.

For Teacher Training / Professional Development

In order to help change the culture of instructors avoiding formative evaluation, required reading should be Hattie (2012, 2013), Brookfield (2015) and Black & William (2006). Workshops on how to do effective formative evaluation should be set up, guiding instructors step by step in the process. And advocating what Brookfield (2015) calls “critical reflection” should be communicated by administration to faculty, along with tools for classroom research into how the students are experiencing the learning and perceiving the teaching.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2006). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Granada Learning.

Brookfield, S. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2013). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.


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