An Argument for the Formative Assessment Process: Motivation and Persistence

Two elementary school girls building a radio

The other week I ran across a TED Talk called “The Power of Yet” presented by Carol Dweck, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University. Dr. Dweck is perhaps best known for her work in motivation, specifically the concept of a “growth mindset”. People with a growth mindset believe that abilities can be developed, enjoy challenging tasks, and see mistakes as an opportunity to receive feedback that will help them learn and improve. The flip side is a “fixed mindset” in which a person believes abilities are innate. People with a fixed mindset may shy away from difficult tasks, seeing these tasks as a challenge to their intelligence and often report feeling stupid when they make a mistake. Dr. Dweck’s research has shown that people with a growth mindset are more likely to display long-term motivation and persist in the face of adversity than people with a fixed mindset.

At the beginning of her talk, Dr. Dweck recalls being impressed by a high school that, instead of giving students a failing grade when not meeting a particular benchmark, would give students a grade of “not yet”. She saw this as an endorsement of the growth mindset, telling the students that even though they may not have currently mastered a particular concept or skill, that mastery was still possible through continued effort. It also implies that learning doesn’t happen all at once—that there are intermediate steps along the road to mastery. Listening to Dr. Dweck speak reinforced my belief that the formative assessment process helps students develop motivation and persistence, perhaps by setting the framework for developing a growth mindset.

A key component of the formative assessment process is setting and sharing clearly defined learning goals. Just as critical as the overarching learning goal, is the breakdown of that goal into a progression of component concepts and skills. Frequent assessments are given as students work toward mastering the overarching learning goal. These assessments are not intended to provide grades. Rather, they allow teachers and students to track progress by determining which of the component concepts and skills the student has a handle on. They also provide the opportunity for students to receive constructive feedback from their teachers and peers. This allows teachers and students to adjust teaching and learning strategies in order to move towards achieving the overarching learning goal.

The framework provided by the formative assessment process also provides a framework for encouraging a growth mindset. It implicitly sets the expectation that students are not expected to know a particular overarching concept or skill from the get go. By clearly outlining component concepts and skills and measuring progress as students master these intermediate components, formative assessment demonstrates that abilities can be developed and improved upon, a hallmark of having a growth mindset.

The formative assessment process and development of a growth mindset both stress the importance of constructive feedback. From the formative assessment perspective, constructive feedback consists of specific feedback that leads to actions the students can take to improve their work or to strategies that can be applied in future situations. In developing a growth mindset, feedback may focus on process, strategies, and/or effort. In both cases, non-specific feedback such as “Nice job!” and feedback that emphasizes ability such as “You’re so smart!” are discouraged because they don’t lead to actions students can take to improve their work and/or encourage a fixed mindset.

Research suggests that the students who show the greatest gains in academic achievement after interventions using either formative assessment or development of a growth mindset are those that traditionally struggle the most in school. This may be because both types of interventions show students that ability is not fixed, rather it can be improved upon through a conscious effort to learn. Knowing that learning is possible may go a long way toward motivating students used to thinking that achieving learning goals is out of their reach.

Finally, Dr. Dweck’s work shows that interventions in which students are explicitly taught that learning is possible, as supported by research evidence, lead to the greatest gains in achievement when developing a growth mindset. Knowing this, it may be beneficial to also incorporate such lessons into the formative assessment process, further strengthening formative assessment as a learning tool.


This blog post was originally published on Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network website, and was reposted here with permission. It is the third installment of a three-part series; here are links to part 1 and part 2.


About the Author
Michaela Viering

Michaela Viering

Michaela Viering is currently a Senior Assessment Specialist (science) within Assessment Development Services. Her assessment experience includes development of formative performance-based assessments and assessing 21st-century skills. She has previously worked as a research assistant in the field of molecular biology and as a high school biology teacher in North Carolina. Michaela holds a BS in Biochemistry from the University of Iowa and an MA in Biochemistry, Cellular, and Molecular Biology from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.