Reap the Benefits of Formative Assessments in Your Training Program

Jill W.

Effective learner assessments shouldn't just identify successful learners, they should contribute to that success. Formative assessments tell learners where they stand and where they need to go next. Let's take a look at their role in corporate training, and how they can be used to give learners the information they need to succeed.

What is a formative assessment?

Learner assessments can be divided into two categories: summative and formative. In corporate training, summative assessments usually take the form of a final exam or practical skill evaluation at the end of the course: confirmation that each learner has learned what is necessary or demonstrated competence in a skill.

Formative assessments occur during a learning program. They are used "to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course." Their goal is to aid learning. Targeted supports can be provided once it is determined what learners know or don't know.

Summative and formative assessments generally vary in function, not form. Multiple-choice questions and practical skill evaluations are some of the most common forms of formative assessment in training, although a wide variety of other assessments can also be used, including:

  • Self-assessments
  • Group or individual presentations
  • Peer review
  • Learning journals
  • Discussions with instructors

Benefits of formative assessments

Formative assessments benefit learner engagement, learner results and course structure and design.

Enhance learner engagement

Formative assessments are interactive, requiring active learner participation in the training program. They provide direction for those learners invested in taking control of their own progress. They can also boost learner confidence and diminish final exam fears by preparing learners for the summative assessment and providing feedback on exam readiness.

Improve learner performance

Effective formative assessment guides learner development, highlighting areas and topics that need more attention and providing strategies for improvement.

Improve program design and delivery

Learners aren't the only ones who benefit from formative assessment. Look for patterns in assessment results. Areas where multiple learners are struggling should be targeted for improvement in program design and delivery.

5 tips for developing effective formative assessments

1. Make formative assessments low stakes

Formative assessments evaluate learning to provide information for future direction, not to rank or judge learners' progress. Grading is never the focus.

Opinions differ on whether formative assessments should be graded at all. Some suggest that grading can encourage learners to take the task more seriously, lowering the proportion who just 'click through' in-program questions.

On the other hand, grading can reduce learner motivation. Learners achieving higher grades may believe they have mastered the material and don't need to put any more effort into learning, while those receiving lower grades may become discouraged and feel that further participation is pointless.

Even if you do choose to grade formative assessments, the results should have little or no effect on learners' final grades or assessment results. It is the summative assessment that will determine learners' success in the program.

2. Select the assessment tools that best meet your needs

The most appropriate assessment items for your learning program depend on your learning objectives, scope, budget and methods of instruction.

Learning objectives

Cognitive objectives can be assessed by most methods, although multiple-choice questions are less effective for higher-order thinking.

Self-assessment, discussions and on-job observation are particularly useful for affective objectives.

Psychomotor objectives require observation and coaching. Practice of physical skills is a necessary part of the learning process, and it provides an opportunity for formative feedback.

Other factors

Ideally, formative assessment results in individualized recommendations from a competent instructor with the ability to adjust the course in response to learners' needs. However, cost and instructor availability are also legitimate concerns. In online corporate training, formative assessment frequently exists only as multiple-choice questions with automated responses. While this style of assessment does not have the same the potential as individualized analyses by a human instructor, meaningful questions and thoughtful feedback can still add considerable value to a course.

3. Provide high-quality, constructive feedback

I don't need to tell you that good feedback is better than bad feedback. But what makes feedback effective? It should:

  • Be immediate, or as close to it as reasonably possible
  • Be specific, referring to each learner's performance
  • Relate to learning objectives and goals
  • Describe real-world consequences of the learning

Unfortunately, specific, personalized feedback requires either an instructor or well-designed and trained artificial intelligence, neither of which may be available in corporate training. Perhaps that's why so many trainers give up on constructive feedback. I'm sure you've encountered formative assessments in eLearning that offer only "Good job!", "That's right!" or "Sorry, that's not correct." as feedback. It's true that the format is limiting, but the following tips will help you provide effective feedback even when your only tool is an automated response to a multiple-choice question:

  • Explain why the right answer is right and the wrong answers are wrong. Take the learning a step further.
  • Include real-world consequences. Make sure learners know why it's important to be able to answer the question correctly.
  • Include detailed feedback even when the learner got the question correct. A correct answer doesn't necessarily mean the learner knows the material. They may have guessed or arrived at the right answer via the wrong path or for the wrong reasons.
  • Provide direction for filling the gaps in the learner's understanding. Tell learners which screens or sections to review or provide links to related content or other learning material.

4. Use the results of formative assessments to improve the learning program

Instructors and instructional designers should review assessment results regularly for trends that reveal the need for improvement.

Adjustments can be made during course delivery in instructor-led training (ILT). If a significant proportion of learners are struggling with a concept, time should be set aside for review and discussion of the problematic area. The initial instruction in the topic should also be reconsidered for future courses.

On-the-fly adjustment may not be possible in eLearning, but long-term program development can be enhanced by attention to formative assessment results.

As well as identifying problems, take note of areas that are working well to help identify effective strategies.

5. Blur the line by using summative assessments formatively

Final exams and practical evaluations provide valuable data for program development. Let your learners' performance pinpoint areas that need attention.

When learners are allowed multiple attempts at a summative assessment, use feedback to shift the focus from failure to learning. Item-by-item feedback is most effective. Even when you want to keep evaluation items confidential, a review of learner performance on each learning objective can help guide your learners to future success.


Effective assessments don't just distinguish passes from fails; they provide data that can make your learners successful. Be sure to use that data to your advantage. Effective formative assessments are low stakes, carefully selected tasks that offer the feedback needed to improve both individual performance and program design. What can they do for you?

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Jill W.

Jill is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems with more than 10 years of experience researching, writing and designing effective learning materials. She is fascinated by the English language and enjoys the challenge of adapting her work for different audiences. After work, Jill continues to leverage her professional experience as she works toward the development of a training program for her cats. So far, success has not been apparent.