Three Reasons Savvy Leaders Prioritize Formative Instructional Practices

What do we mean by formative practices? Daily, minute-to-minute instructional practices that educators can use to drive growth in between formal assessment checkpoints.

Some call these classroom practices formative assessment; some prefer the more specific formative instructional practices; and others just refer to this as good teaching. These practices encompass a wide range of strategies and techniques—including the myriad ways teachers informally check for understanding and give feedback to help students move forward in their learning.

No matter how we refer to these practices, we know they are more relevant than ever now. Through my work with schools (as well as my own time as an educator and administrator), I’ve found three compelling reasons to prioritize formative instructional practices organizationally, as an ongoing school initiative.

Reason #1: Enable better instructional decisions.
Formative instructional practices help all staff: Collect and apply evidence of learning in the moment.

Teachers who consciously use formative instructional practices to support learning understand that formative assessment is not a thing or an event (such as a test or a quiz), but an ongoing, cyclical process that is a seamless part of the classroom culture of learning. Leaders do this, too. Viewing the use of formative instructional practices as a way of “being” rather than things to be “done” provides leaders the opportunity to actively engage in and support this process. It permeates school culture.

Responsive instruction is the goal for many educators. Being able to pivot during instruction to best meet the needs of all learners—calling an audible in the classroom—allows teachers to adjust instruction in the moment. How might this look for a school leader during a staff meeting or a professional learning session? Consider a planning approach that’s designed to respond to learners’ unique needs before and throughout the session, allowing you to consciously incorporate formative practices. These plans outline both assessment and instructional activities and tasks responsive to learners’ needs and preferences. The plan might also indicate when assessment occurs and how leaders will adjust based on anticipated results. As a leader, how can you help teachers plan responsively like this?

Reason #2: See a measurable difference for students.
Formative instructional practices help all staff: Give students quality feedback.

When have you received feedback that really impacted you? What did that feedback include? How did it make you feel? If feedback focuses on the task rather than on the learner, and teachers provide opportunities for students to use the feedback, it can be a game changer—formative feedback can have three times the impact on student achievement that adjusting class size might have (Hattie 2009). Formative feedback that focuses on the target of the learning and provides next-step information is like a GPS for students in their learning journey. It helps them identify both where they are in relation to the goals and the path they need to take to reach the goals.

Reason #3: Boost student achievement and ownership of learning.
Formative instructional practices help all staff: Encourage student collaboration.

Employers want workers who know how to successfully collaborate and problem solve. Research (Qin, Johnson & Johnson 1995) tells us that students who engage in cooperative learning are more successful with a variety of problem-solving skills. Cooperative learning has been shown to be twice as effective as learning as an individual (Hattie 2009). Guess what? Both help students engage at a higher level and achieve more. The use of formative instructional practices throughout an entire school helps students hone their collaborative learning and problem-solving skills and establish a culture of learning that provides opportunities for students to learn with and from peers. Consistency across a school means that patterns of learning are being established and supported.

Next Steps to Consider

  • Action #1: Consider a responsive lesson planning approach. As a leader, when planning staff meetings and professional learning, plan times before, during, and at the end of instruction to collect evidence of learning. Plan how you’ll respond based on the data you collect. Remember, you might need options A, B, and C . . . and sometimes D.
  • Action #2: Meet with staff to identify characteristics of quality feedback. Review feedback you’ve recently provided. How might you “bump it up” to enhance staff learning and actions? Take a look at upcoming opportunities. Where have you provided time for staff to debrief and use the feedback you’ve taken the time to provide? And is there an opportunity for them to review that feedback with a peer?
  • Action #3: Identify opportunities for staff to collaborate with peers to learn, assess, and provide feedback to each other. What structures, processes, and tools might be needed to support these activities in your school? Start with one. Make one modification to what you are doing so that teachers might learn from or with each other rather than from you.
  • Action #4: Think through these questions and share your thoughts. If you’re in a leadership position and you have prioritized formative instructional practices, find ways to support your staff in meeting this priority.

Learn more about formative instructional practices and assessments on NWEA’s education blog, Teach. Learn. Grow.

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Hattie, John. 2009. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. New York: Routledge.

Qin, Zhining, David W. Johnson, and Roger T. Johnson. 1995. “Cooperative versus Competitive Efforts and Problem Solving.” Review of Educational Research 65 (2): pp. 129–143.


Kathy Dyer is Manager of Innovation and Learning, Professional Learning at NWEA. Kathy has more than 25 years in education, many spent designing and facilitating learning opportunities for educators. Coaching teachers and school leadership on getting better at what they do is her passion. Follow Kathy on Twitter at @kdyer13 or read her blogs on Teach. Learn. Grow.