Four Formative Instructional Practices that Drive Student Growth

Four Formative Instructional Practices that Drive Student Growth

When I first started working with teachers on integrating formative instructional practices into their daily classroom practice, I noticed that many wanted to start with students self assessing and monitoring their learning progress. While that felt like a natural starting point, what they quickly discovered was that working first to develop high-quality learning targets and success criteria made it much easier for their students to self assess. So the teachers stepped back and worked on clarifying the learning for and with their learners, before moving forward with the other practices.

What I’ve come to understand over time is that there are really three foundational formative instructional practices, with a fourth one woven inextricably throughout the three. Take a look at the graphic below. Notice the center calls out the classroom learning team, comprised of three members—the teacher, individual learners, and their peers. Each team member has a vital role to play in each of the identified practices. In their feedback model, Hattie and Timperley (2007) identified three questions:

  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going?
  • Where to next?

If you look at the questions framing the graphic, you’ll find similarity. These questions not only guide a feedback model, but also support the model for formative instruction.

Learning Graphic

From the research and from my experience supporting teachers in being more formative with their instruction, here are those three foundational practices, along with the fourth that is integral to each of the other three.

  1. Clarifying Learning: The starting point is clarifying the learning. The members of the classroom learning team need to know what they are learning and how they will know when they have learned it. This practice is supported by the fourth practice, activating learners, because not only do teachers need to be clear on what is being taught and how they will know when students have learned it, but students (learners) need this clarity, as well. Teachers need to clarify the learning for themselves and with the learners. Allowing students opportunities to discuss and make sense of both learning targets or goals and the associated success criteria is key.
  2. Eliciting Evidence: The How am I going? question comes up every day. Both teachers and learners need to elicit evidence of learning on an ongoing basis through a variety of methods to know where they are in relation to the target and what needs to happen next. Those next steps might involve modifications to planned instruction making teaching and the classroom more responsive. Next steps might also include students setting new goals or making different choices about what learning strategies to use. Here again students play an integral role in supporting themselves and each other as activated and engaged learners.
  3. Providing Feedback: Feedback that moves learning forward, coupled with the opportunity to use the feedback, can raise student achievement by 37 percentile points, according to Debra Pickering. This means that if we use feedback focused on what students are learning (a.k.a. learning-focused feedback), we help them achieve more. One nice aspect of this idea of feedback that contains next-step information is that it can come from each member of the classroom learning team. Teachers provide learners feedback. Peers provide each other feedback. Learners learn to self assess and generate their own feedback. Learners also provide teachers feedback about their instruction every time evidence of learning is collected.
  4. Activating Learners: By now you can see what an active role learners play in each of the foundational formative practices. When activated by teachers and the classroom culture of learning to serve as support for themselves and their peers, learners have new ways of looking at and processing the learning. Being a resource to their peers for instruction and feedback deepens student engagement with learning.

Next Steps to Consider

  • Get more formative assessment tips and tricks in our e-book “Making it work: How formative assessment can supercharge your practice.”
  • Consider which of these four practices is well represented in your classrooms or schools. What is most effective and helpful to both teachers and learners? Which practice might be one to work on this month? What support might be needed to adapt what you (or your staff) are currently doing or to try something new?
  • Share what is happening in your schools regarding each of these formative instructional practices with us on Twitter at #NWEAformative.


Hattie, John, and Helen Timperley. March 2007. “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research 77 (1): pp. 81–112.

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