Forms of Assessment: Informal, Formal, Paper-Pencil & Performance Assessments

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  1. 0:10 Introduction
  2. 0:31 Informal vs. Formal Assessment
  3. 3:31 Paper-Pencil vs. Performance…
  4. 4:49 Purpose of Assessments
  5. 6:10 Choosing Appropriate Assessments
  6. 8:23 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Melissa Hurst

Educators often need to assess students' learning and achievement. There are multiple forms of assessments that educators use to not only gain knowledge about a student's level of understanding but also to guide the direction of future lessons and course curriculum. This lesson will differentiate between formal and informal assessments and paper-pencil versus performance-based assessments used in educational settings.


'Another test? Why do we have so many tests? We should just be able to learn without feeling stressed about having to prove what we really know. Don't you agree?' It seems like my friend is a little anxious about having so many assessments. Let's help her understand the value of assessment in educational settings.

Informal vs. Formal Assessment

First, let's define the term assessment. Assessment is the process of observing a sample of a student's behavior and drawing inferences about the student's knowledge and abilities. Yes, many synonyms exist for assessment, such as test, exam, etc. The use of the word 'assessment' promotes more positive connotations with students in the classroom. It should be used in place of terms that indicate possible failure and negative outcome and may cause additional anxiety among students.

Before moving on, let's discuss a few important points from the definition of assessment. First, when using assessments, teachers are looking at students' behavior. We can't see inside a student's head in order to determine what is going on, so we must take a sample of their behavior over time in order to make an inference of their knowledge and development. Secondly, the inferences that are drawn are only that - inferences. Educators must use a variety of assessment types in order to gain the most accurate inference of the students' progress overall. Educators should keep in mind assessments are tools that are only useful depending on how well they are aligned with the circumstances in which they are used. For example, a written assessment to determine how well a student can keep a beat in a music class makes no sense and would therefore be an inappropriate tool.

There are two overarching types of assessment in educational settings: informal and formal assessments. Both types are useful when used in appropriate situations. Informal assessments are those assessments that result from teachers' spontaneous day-to-day observations of how students behave and perform in class. When teachers conduct informal assessments, they don't necessarily have a specific agenda in mind, but are more likely to learn different things about students as they proceed through the school day naturally. These types of assessments offer important insight into a student's misconceptions and abilities (or inabilities) that might not be represented accurately through other formal assessments. For example, a teacher might discover that a student has a misconception about other cultures and languages when she asks, 'What language do people in North Carolina speak?' Or, the teacher may wonder if Alex needs to make an appointment to have his hearing checked if he constantly says 'What?' or 'I didn't hear you.'

Performance assessments include oral presentations and physical assessments
Performance Assessment Examples

Formal assessments, on the other hand, are preplanned, systematic attempts by the teacher to ascertain what students have learned. The majority of assessments in educational settings are formal. Typically, formal assessments are used in combination with goals and objectives set forth at the beginning of a lesson or the school year. Formal assessments are also different from informal assessments in that students can prepare ahead of time for them.

Paper-Pencil vs. Performance-Based Assessment

There are many types of formal assessments used in educational settings. In this lesson, we will discuss the difference between paper-pencil assessments and performance assessments. Additional types of formal assessments will be discussed in other lessons within this course.

In paper-pencil assessments, students provide written responses to written items. You have probably taken numerous paper-pencil assessments in your educational career. Assessments in which you fill out answers on the assessment form itself or electronic forms, like Scantrons, fall under this category. Typically, paper-pencil assessments include questions to answer, topics to address through paragraph responses, problems to solve, etc.

Performance assessments, on the other hand, are assessments in which students demonstrate their knowledge and skills in a non-written fashion. These assessments are focused on demonstration versus written responses. For example, giving oral presentations, completing physical assessments in physical education (PE) classes, performing experiments in a lab, or dissecting activities in anatomy classes fall under this category.

Purpose of Assessments

Observing students engaged in free-time activities is an informal assessment
Informal Assessment Example

Assessments are used for multiple purposes, as we have discussed earlier in this lesson. Specifically, assessments can be used as:

  • Motivators. Research shows that students study and learn more material when they are told they will be tested on it or held accountable for the material. Think about this: Have you ever been in class and had the instructor tell you 'This won't be on your test'? What about our music class example, where a paper-pencil assessment is used when a performance-based assessment would have been more appropriate? In the first example, students may feel like learning the information is not useful. In the second example, students may feel like the assessment is worthless. In both cases, the motivation to learn actually decreases.
  • Mechanisms for review. Assessments can also serve to promote constant review of material, which aids in moving the material from short-term to long-term memory in order to be accessed in the future.
  • Feedback. Assessments also provide opportunities for both the teacher and student to receive feedback. Assessments provide feedback to a teacher about the student's knowledge and also the effectiveness of instruction. For students, assessments provide feedback about areas in which they may need to focus or on areas in which they are proficient.

Choosing Appropriate Assessments

Let's look at a few assessment scenarios. Try to determine what type of assessment is being used, formal or informal.

  • Example 1. A kindergarten teacher sets aside the first 15 minutes of every day to allow students to explore, play or engage in any activity of their choice. During this time, the teacher walks around and listens to the student's conversations and observes which activities they typically choose to engage in.

This is an example of informal assessment. The teacher uses the time to make inferences of student's likes and dislikes. The teacher may also gain understanding about misconceptions, social interactions and more.

  • Example 2. A middle school teacher sets aside the first 15 minutes of English class to allow the students to free write. These writings are collected each class and returned with feedback on grammar and ideas for writing improvements.

This is an example of formal assessment. The students have freedom to write about anything, but they are still expected to turn in samples each class period and they receive feedback.

Teachers giving feedback on free-writing activities is a type of formal assessment
Formal Assessment Example

Now, let's determine which type of assessment is more appropriate for the situation, paper-pencil or performance assessments.

  • Example 3. A PE instructor wants to assess her student's knowledge of the scoring of a tennis match. She wants to ensure students have an understanding of terminology such as 'set', 'match' and 'love'.

Even though PE classes do have more performance-based assessments, this situation would better be assessed through a paper-pencil method. Terminology and concepts for which there are 'correct' or 'incorrect' responses are better assessed through paper-pencil assessments.

  • Example 4. Our final example: a computer teacher wants to assess his student's knowledge of the software Excel.

This situation calls for a performance-based assessment. In order for the teacher to gain an accurate assessment of his students' ability to use Excel, he should offer them the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

Lesson Summary

In summary, assessments are an integral part of education. Informal and formal types of assessment serve as ways to provide feedback for the student and teacher. They provide the student an opportunity for review, and they can serve as motivators. Performance-based and paper-pencil forms of assessment are useful, assuming they are aligned appropriately with the type of material to be assessed.

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