Formative assessment in science

Author: Sue Howarth
Published: 25/08/2020

What is formative assessment?

You may already know about formative assessment and how it is different from summative assessment, but it never hurts to be clear and to be certain that you understand how it applies in science learning and teaching.

Here’s a table that compares the differences and shows the similarities between the two types of assessment:

Formative assessment

Summative assessment

Assessment for learning

Assessment of learning

Provides immediate feedback and ideas for improvement (feedback and ‘feed forward’)

Provides feedback on achievement to date

Helps students target specific areas of skills, knowledge and/or understanding to work on in the near future

Helps students set new, longer-term goals

Can be really brief, even just one question

May be longer than formative assessment

Constantly monitors student learning; can help teachers to improve their teaching, to recognise where students are struggling and address problems quickly

Often involves longer-term monitoring, often as a guide to whether a student is on target, or to assign a target (such as an exam grade)

Likely to happen in most lessons, with the potential to happen many times during each lesson

Mostly happens at ends of topic, ends of term, ends of year or via external examination

Can happen before, during and/or after practical work


May happen after practical work or at the end of one stage of practical work, e.g. planning, recording or concluding

Ideally forms a dialogue between assessor and student

Uses one-direction assessment, from assessor to student

Often, feedback is in the form of a comment which can be written or oral

Often, feedback is via a mark or a grade, usually written down

Phrases such as:

WWW – what went well …

EBI – even better if …

are used

Has no specific phrases associated with it

Is often ‘low stakes’ and parents/guardians are not involved

Is often ‘high stakes’ and parents/guardians may be involved

Work is assessed

The assessor can be the teacher, a teaching assistant, another student (peer assessment) or the student themselves (self-assessment)

The two types of assessment can be clarified by looking at examples of how students might be assessed: 

Examples of formative assessment
Ask students to:

Examples of summative assessment
Ask students to:

Draw a table to record the results from an investigation; this is checked before any results are taken


Record results from a piece of practical work in a table that they have constructed; the results and the way that they have been recorded are assessed

Sketch a concept map about a topic that is about to be revisited; this is then passed to another student for feedback

Sketch a concept map about a topic that has just been taught; collect this in for marking

Make a list of the key points to include in an account of the problems that humans would face if they lived on Mars; after watching a video clip on the topic, the student adds to their list, using a different colour

Write an account of the problems that humans would face if they lived on Mars; this is then marked by the student using a checklist of key points


Does using formative assessment work?

Based on the evidence, yes. John Hattie (Hattie and Timperley, 2007, and Killian, 2019) has shown the importance of feedback, a key part of formative assessment, on student achievement quantitatively. His data have been calculated to show ‘effect size’ of different aspects that influence teaching and learning. The bigger the effect size, the greater the impact on student learning. 

Hattie’s effect scale (Killian, 2019) runs from –0.9 to +1.62 and you can see that aspects involving feedback (highlighted) all score highly (anything above 0.4 makes a significant difference to students’ achievement). An aspect not involving feedback has been included for comparison.



Effect size

Response to intervention


Strategies emphasising feedback


Strategies emphasising feedback


Classroom discussion


Strategies emphasising success criteria




Strategies emphasising feedback


Formative evaluation


Learning strategies

Teaching test taking and coaching



For written formative feedback to be effective, it has been shown that comments alone work better than comments plus a mark or grade (Wiliam, 2014). This is because students focus on their given mark or grade and so do not bother to read or process comments. It can take hours of your time to write meaningful comments for a class, including advice and praise, so make sure that your students read what you have written by not providing a distracting mark. If you have to give a mark, keep it in your mark book!

When considering whether formative feedback works, be aware that Ofsted (2014) are of the opinion that ‘constructive feedback from teachers ensure that pupils make significant and sustained gains in their learning’.

Download Sue Howarth's full guide to Formative assessment in science.

Sue Howarth

Sue Howarth is an ASE Chartered Science teacher, a former teacher-trainer at the University of Worcester, and author of a number of publications, including 'Success with STEM'.