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Design principles for formative assessment

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From: Supporting Teachers in Improving Formative Decision-Making: Design Principles for Formative Assessment Plans. Janneke van der Steen, Tamara van Schilt-Mol,   Cees van der Vleuten and  Desirée Joosten-ten Brinke. Front. Educ., 28 June 2022. Volume 7 – 2022,


Formative assessment is considered one of the most effective interventions to support teacher decision-making and improve education and student learning. However, formative assessment does not always meet these expectations. This study focused on creating a set of design principles to support teachers in designing formative assessment plans informing formative decision-making. These design principles for formative assessment plans were formulated based on expert interviews and subsequently evaluated by future users. The result is a set of eight design principles that can be used and validated in educational practice.

The design principles that are the outcome of the current design study can be seen as advice for teachers who want to design formative assessment plans. The main goal is that these design principles can support teachers now and in the future to design decision-driven formative assessment that informs their teaching and improves learning.

Prototype design principles formative assessment plans

      1. Use a set of learning objectives and learning plans as a starting point. Another possibility is to use the tool Route Map.

      1. Choose formative assessment activities that match the learning objectives that you are aiming for and the decisions you want to make.

      1. Plan formative assessment activities equally divided over time so they can build on each other.

      1. Choose formative assessment activities that provide rich information about student learning and the necessary next steps in education and learning.

      1. Plan time, space and opportunity for students to improve their learning based on the outcome of formative assessment activities.

      1. Leave room for moments of contingency in formative assessment and lesson plans.

      1. Align a formative assessment plan with other formative assessment activities before, parallel to, or after this plan.

      1. The plan must be transparent and visible to all stakeholders.


    How can you use these principles?

    The design principles from the current study provide information about characteristics that formative assessment plans should have and procedures for designing these formative assessment plans. These characteristics and procedures can often be recognized in the literature regarding formative assessment activities that often apply to formative assessment plans. In the next paragraph, the eight design principles will be used to preview how these principles could be used in a design process.

    The first four principles for formative assessment plans echo the importance of formative assessment activities being aligned, coherent, and part of decision-driven data collection to be effective (Biggs, 1996; Wiliam, 2013; Furtak et al., 2016). As a result, principle 1 advises teachers to use the learning objectives and existing lesson plans as starting points for designing a formative assessment plan. Starting from learning objectives ensures student learning is perceived in the light of learning processes toward general learning objectives instead of focusing on excellent or wrong answers (Coffey et al., 2011). Starting from existing lesson plans makes it easier for teachers to embed formative assessment activities in existing teaching processes and use existing learning activities as proof of learning to inform teaching (Earle, 2021). Principle 2 recommends decision-driven data collection (Wiliam, 2013, 2014; Moss, 2020). Teachers determine in advance when there is a need to decide on the next steps in teaching or learning regarding the learning objectives. For example, decisions about adjusting lessons, how to differentiate, if students are ready for a new subject, or the best way to support student learning at a given time. For these specific moments, teachers deliberately plan formative assessment activities that provide rich information about student learning on the defined learning objectives and help inform the specified decisions (Principles 3 and 4). Deliberately planning these moments and formative activities linked to decisions and objectives ensures coherency and the possibility of formative activities to build on each other.

    Principles 5, 6, and 7 focus on ensuring that the formative assessment plans leave room for improvements in teaching and learning. Formative assessment can only be practical if it results in a well-informed follow-up, and feedback can only become valuable for learners when they get opportunities to use it (Winstone and Boud, 2020).
    Concretely, this means that after each activity that provides information about student learning, teachers should plan time and possibilities for themselves and students to act upon this information (principles 5 and 6). Teachers must be able to adjust their lesson plans, and students must be allowed to use feedback. Students should be given opportunities to improve their learning within the formative assessment plan. A recent study by Veugen et al. (2021) shows that teachers who use formative assessment especially experience difficulties making adjustments based on student learning outcomes. They do not always feel capable of making these adjustments. Therefore, a formative assessment plan should leave room for adjustments in teachers’ instruction and the adjustments students want to make in their learning based on feedback they have received.

    Principles 1 through 6 can be worked out in a timeline or added to a plan for a series of lessons. The final design principles, principles 7 and 8, focus on a final check of the formative assessment plan when everything is planned. Principle 7 challenges teachers to perceive their designed formative assessment plan in a larger context, while Principle 8 focuses on the check for transparency and feasibility of formative assessment plans to be beneficial for all stakeholders.

    Looking back at what defines the quality of design principles.

     We can see that these eight design principles give information about procedures and characteristics that can help design formative assessment plans. Nevertheless, thorough empirical support for these design principles is lacking as the current study only consisted of theoretical evaluation with future users. Teachers have not been able to use these design principles in practice yet. Further investigation of these principles’ value and prescriptive validity in classroom practice is needed. A second limitation of this study is that, although this is an educational design study, future users were not part of all steps in the research process. Future users prepare the thematic analysis in step two by clustering their answers during the expert interviews. However, the actual analysis in step two was conducted solely by researchers.

    The full text of this article can be found here.

    Some more information can be found in the article: Janneke van der Steen, Tamara van Schilt-Mol, Cees van der Vleuten & Desirée Joosten-ten Brinke. Designing Formative Assessment That Improves Teaching and Learning: What Can Be Learned from the Design Stories of Experienced Teachers?
    J Form Des Learn (2023). 17 October 2023. DOI

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