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Many students are engaged in distance learning this fall due to COVID-19. This is especially concerning for students with disabilities, who are likely one of the student populations to have regressed the most during COVID-related interruptions this past spring and require high-quality instruction to make meaningful progress. However, experts say that many of the most effective features of instruction, like assessment, can still be used in a distance learning setting.

Formative assessment is considered an effective method to support learning and self-regulation, but it may be especially important for distance learning, when students receive less direct instruction and feedback from teachers. During distance learning, a lesson’s learning objective can be lost if a teacher is not carefully presenting instruction in which the purpose is explicitly stated. In addition, the student may not receive ongoing feedback on their learning, which makes it more difficult for students to monitor their own learning. As a result, students view their list of assignments as a “to do” list—completing them as best they can and checking off the list as they go.

Recently, the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) released an educator brief focused on this very topic. In it, they offer five formative assessment strategies that educators can readily use during in-person or distance learning to help students self-regulate, or monitor, their learning. Self-regulation may be particularly beneficial in distance learning contexts because students may not receive timely feedback from teachers. Formative assessment may help address this need.

What is Formative Assessment? 

According to the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Formative Assessment for Students and Teachers (FAST) collaborative:

“Formative assessment is a planned, ongoing process used by all students and teachers during learning and teaching to elicit and use evidence of student learning to improve student understanding of intended disciplinary learning outcomes and support students to become self-directed learners.”

In short, formative assessment “is the process of gathering, interpreting, and using information about student learning while the learning is happening.” Formative assessments are very different from summative assessments, which are used regularly by all teachers to evaluate student learning after instruction. Here are a few examples.


Examples of Formative Assessment Examples of Summative Assessment
Exit ticket, in which the student answers a question related to the lesson goal before leaving class and the teacher checks it Test given at the end of a unit on the Constitution to evaluate a student’s knowledge of the unit
A daily quiz (nongraded, but examined by the teacher and student) that will be used to inform instruction An end of semester final project
A writing rubric used by students to evaluate their writing and inform their next draft


High stakes testing mandated by a state



The Formative Learning Cycle

Since formative assessment is a process, it is helpful to conceptualize it as a cycle surrounding student learning. The authors of the NCEO brief break this cycle down into three important questions:

  • Where am I going? (What am I learning and what will it look like when I do?) 
  • Where am I now? (My teacher provides feedback so I know how close I am to mastering this lesson or learning objective.)
  • Where to next? (My teacher’s feedback also helps me know what to focus on in subsequent lessons and how these lessons connect together.)


Formative assessment allows instruction and learning to be intentional. It allows teachers to provide feedback that guides learning, moving communication beyond a list of instructions that students follow to complete assignments.

Formative Assessment Strategies

NCEO recommends five strategies that facilitate the formative learning cycle and help students with disabilities self-regulate their learning. The authors note that these strategies represent a starting point and are not an exhaustive list of appropriate formative learning strategies.

Strategy 1: Establish and communicate clear learning targets.  It is important that teachers clearly state, in student-friendly language, what students should be learning in each lesson. Learning targets help students know “Where am I going?” and should be mentioned more than once per lesson so that it remains “top-of-mind.” A few ways to communicate clear learning targets include writing it on the students’ assignment page, including it in parent communication so parents can assist students, including the learning target in the actual title of the assignment (e.g., learning the short u sound), and explicitly stating the target in video lessons and on presentation slides.

Strategy 2: Establish and communicate clear criteria for success. The learning target has two essential components: a student performance (what the student does, creates, says, etc.) and “success criteria.”  Success criteria provide students with a set of qualities or characteristics they can look for in their own work to determine how well they are learning; they are not grades. For example, success criteria should not be written as “I will use four adjectives in every paragraph.” Instead, success criteria help students know what an adjective is and if they are using them correctly in a sentence (e.g., “My adjective describes how something looks, feels, smells, tastes, or sounds like”). These types of criteria help students evaluate their work and monitor their own learning. (Need more examples? Watch this video.)

Strategy 3: Build in opportunities for students to self-assess or ask questions, based on criteria. Providing students opportunities to ask questions about their learning in an online environment may seem challenging, but the authors of the NCEO brief offer some feasible suggestions. For instance, educators can format their success criteria into a tool (e.g., rubric, checklist) students use as they complete assignments. Success criteria could also be written as a self-checking quiz (not a graded, summative test) so students can determine “Where am I now?”.  It is important to build in directions for using these types of tools into the assignment so that students don’t skip this important step. Overall, anytime students can be prompted to pause, reflect on their learning, and communicate with their teacher it will help guide instruction and make learning intentional. (Additional examples of success criteria checklists can be found here and here.)

Strategy 4: Give brief, clear, actionable feedback based on the criteria. One of the most important and effective things educators can do is provide feedback. In distance learning contexts in which feedback may be less frequent and immediate, teachers should pay special attention to their feedback. The feedback does not have to be complicated or long, but it should be precise. (Consider “great job” vs. “I really like how you used adjectives to make your sentences so descriptive and vivid.”) The second feedback example is tied to success criteria and helpful for students in knowing “where they are” and “where they go next” in the formative learning cycle.

Strategy 5: Give students opportunities to revise assignments or re-do similar assignments. Students must use feedback in order for it to be effective, and teachers should consider embedding opportunities for students to use and respond to feedback in their lessons and units. One suggestion is using a feedback-and-revision loop on a regular basis. This sets up the expectation that students should use teachers’ feedback to revise an assignment (e.g., a written response) or correct an assignment (e.g., math problems). In addition, educators should consider adding a reflection component that allows students to tell the teacher what they did differently in their revisions or corrections.  

Learn More about Formative Assessment

As the authors point out, “the most important reason to use formative assessment is that it helps students learn.”  This is especially important for students with disabilities, whose learning may suffer the most as a result of little to no in-person instruction. Below are a few useful resources that may help educators implement formative assessment practices in a remote learning environment and with students with disabilities.

Formative Assessment for Students with Disabilities (Council of Chief School State Officers):

Formative Assessment Made Easy: Templates for Collecting Daily Data in Inclusive Classrooms (Teaching Exceptional Children):

Make Formative Assessment More Student-Centered (Common Sense Education):

Formative Assessment in Distance Learning (Edutopia):