Formal Assessment Vs. Informal Assessment: What’s The Difference?

By Di Doherty
Oct. 25, 2022
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Every student and former student is familiar with the idea of assessments. For most of us, it brings up dreaded memories of tests and essays and that feeling of being judged on what we could memorize in time.

While that is a type of assessment, it isn’t the only way that teachers assess whether or not their students are learning. There are two major types of assessment, which are informal assessment and formal assessment.

A formal assessment is what’s described in the first paragraph. It’s a test, quiz, or essay that gets you a grade. An informal assessment is a way to check that students are learning what’s less structured. This can involve classroom activities, such as asking questions of the students, a brief written note on a subject, or a classroom presentation.

Key Takeaways:

Formal Assessment Informal Assessment
Assessments of this type include tests, quizzes, short answer questions, and essays. Assessments of this type can include presentations, classroom activities, and entry and exit questions.
This type of assessment tends to be reliable and valid, as they are data-driven. Standardized tests are an excellent example. This type of assessment isn’t data-driven but observation driven. While observations are important sources of information, they’re prone to being subjective.
Formal assessments are always graded. They may or may not directly impact the student’s grade in the class (in the case of standardized tests) though they usually do. Informal assessments may or may not be graded. Presentations often receive a grade, but a journal entry or class participation may or may not be graded.
Third parties will use this assessment type to determine how well a class, school, or district is performing. This type of assessment is almost exclusively used by the teacher. It may be shared with parents or other members of the teaching staff, but it isn’t an official metric.

What Is a Formal Assessment?

A formal assessment is a primary way that most teachers and school systems determine whether or not their pupils are learning. They should be as valid and relatable as possible, which is part of the reason why they’re so often multiple-choice tests. Such tests are very consistent, making them reliable.

There are other key aspects of formal assessments, which include:

  • Formal assessments are graded. Often, the majority of a student’s grade is based on formal assessments, such as tests, quizzes, short answer questions, and essays. These are favored because, with the possible exception of essays, there isn’t bias in judging the answers. There’s a correct answer and an incorrect answer.

    Some school systems will have standardized tests that are outside their students’ direct grades but instead reflect on the school district itself.

    However, these tests are still graded, just not in a way that reflects the student’s grade in a particular class. This method was prevalent in Illinois schools a decade or so ago, but there has been a backlash against it in the state recently.

  • Some of these assessments are put together by someone other than the teacher. While many teachers will write their own tests, they are sometimes agreed on by the department.

    Often there are certain metrics that the school district, superintendent, principal, or head of the department decide are necessary for the students to know and will therefore end up on the tests.

    Of course, in the case of general standardized tests that were used in the No Child Left Behind policy, none of the tests were written by the teachers. They were all created by a coalition to make sure that the students were hitting the national metrics.

  • As they’re more reliable and valid statistically, this type of assessment is used by third parties to gauge student learning. This is how education groups, the state, and leadership in the school will look into student achievement and understanding. As it’s data-driven, it can be applied evenly to different school districts.

    There is controversy surrounding this method, as the way to measure learning isn’t well understood. However, the mathematical nature of grading and testing makes it easy to understand, measure, and compare, making it unlikely it’ll be changed at any time in the near future.

What Is an Informal Assessment?

Informal assessments are ways, besides tests, quizzes, or other formal metrics, for teachers to gauge how well their students are learning. There are myriad different ways that a teacher can assess their students, but the results can vary depending on the method, student, and subject.

Informal assessments have several uses and important attributes.

  • Informal assessments can gauge student understanding. In many subjects, teachers will try to make sure that their students actually learned something from the lesson. There are several ways to go about this.

    One is asking questions from the class. Another is having members of the class ask questions – the type of questions asked can help the teacher determine what was understood and what needs more emphasis.

    Some teachers will also ask students to write what they understand about a subject before the lesson, then do it again after the lesson’s over – called entry and exit questions.

    This helps determine how much a student’s understanding of the subject has changed after the lesson, which is a way to gauge learning. Also, it can help to see if they learned what the teacher intended them to from the lesson.

  • This method is much more flexible, allowing teachers to be creative. There is no set way to conduct an informal assessment. Some teachers will ask questions, ask students to write journal entries, or do other classroom activities. This can include trivia, games, or class discussions.

  • As they aren’t graded, they aren’t as stressful for learners. Most people have had a moment where they know the answer, but as soon as they’re put on the spot, the information disappears. Informal assessments don’t put as much pressure on students, which can help paint a complete picture of the knowledge that they’ve gained.

  • Due to the informal nature and flexibility, informal assessments can be subject to bias. How a question is worded or presented can change how a person answers it. In the case of informal assessments, sometimes the way the information is presented or requested can alter the response of the students.

    Teachers also have their own biases. As there isn’t a set way to grade or interpret formal assessments, teachers may misread or misinterpret the information they’re given.

    Also, in a situation like a class discussion, some students are going to be quiet. The teacher may interpret that as them being disinterested or not understanding the content when it may merely be shyness.

Formal Assessment vs. Informal Assessment FAQ

  1. Can you overtest or over-assess students?

    Yes, it’s possible to overtest or over-assess students. When the main metric is testing, then both students and teachers tend to cater all of their learning toward what will be on the test. This was a major issue with regular standardized testing, as teachers began to teach solely to the test, both for job security and to meet goals.

    How much becomes too much? That line isn’t well-defined. However, while it’s important to have several formal assessments or tests per year in order to gauge learning over time, such formal assessments are stressful for learners. Both aspects of it have to be weighed.

  2. Is it possible to undertest or under-assess students?

    Yes, it’s possible to undertest or underassess students. For instance, having one formal assessment per semester isn’t going to give you much information. For one thing, students won’t realize that they didn’t understand the material until it’s too late. And the teacher will also be unaware of how their students are doing during the class.

    There has to be a balance with assessments. Too many, and that’s the entire focus; too few, and the information you get from it is inconsistent and unhelpful.

  3. Are informal assessments or formal assessments better for learners?

    Informal assessments are less stressful for learners, but formal assessments are generally a better measure of how much has been learned. Neither one is truly better. A good instructor will make use of both informal assessments and formal assessments to judge their pupils’ learning and progress.

    It should be noted that there is a movement to get rid of tests and other forms of formal assessment entirely. At this point, it’s unknown whether or not it’ll succeed.

    The notion is based on the belief that tests are a poor metric for measuring learning and how well someone understands a subject. At this point, not enough is known about learning to say one way or the other.

  4. Are there other types of assessment strategies?

    There are many types of assessment strategies. Most will fall under informal assessment or formal assessment, though how they overlap with one another varies. The common assessment strategies include:

    1. Diagnostic assessment

    2. Formative assessment

    3. Summative assessment

    4. Ipsative assessment

    5. Norm-referenced assessment

    6. Criterion-referenced assessment

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Di Doherty

Di has been a writer for more than half her life. Most of her writing so far has been fiction, and she’s gotten short stories published in online magazines Kzine and Silver Blade, as well as a flash fiction piece in the Bookends review. Di graduated from Mary Baldwin College (now University) with a degree in Psychology and Sociology.

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