Formative assessment and self-regulated learning

By Nathan Woods

Formative assessment is not something that happens to learners after they have completed a learning activity. Rather, it is an ongoing, collaborative activity that supports students’ attempts to regulate their learning. This review brings together findings from academic literature on formative assessment and self-regulated learning, focusing specifically on how formative assessment strategies can support self-regulated learning during the forethought phase of self-regulation. Theories of self-regulated learning and formative assessment typically place learners ant the center of their learning, viewing them as active participants in setting goals, monitoring their progress, and reflecting on their learning. There is a tradition in the academic literature that emphasizes the synergies between formative assessment and self-regulated learning. Writers in this tradition have demonstrated that teachers can draw on a model of self-regulated learning when they make decisions about how to deploy formative assessment strategies. This review builds on that tradition, showing that the specific purposes and processes underlying the forethought phase of self-regulation can guide teachers’ formative assessment practices during the early stages of learning.

The following keywords and their variations were used to search the ERIC database: “formative assessment” AND “self-regulation”. This returned 16 peer reviewed journal articles. I read the abstracts of these articles and selected six that covered the field of self-regulation and formative assessment broadly, eliminating articles that focused on a very narrow topic, such as a particular type of marking rubric, or a specific computer-based assessment program. These six articles referenced other relevant articles, which were retrieved and included in this review. Reading these initial articles suggested that some specific search strategies were required to locate information on important sub-topics, such as “self-efficacy” AND “self-regulation”, or “self-determination theory” AND “self-regulation”. Finally, a search of the Massey University library catalogue returned several books, which contained important chapters on formative assessment theory, self-regulated learning, and motivation. These books also inform this review.

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is an ongoing, collaborative activity that involves the gathering and use of information to enhance learning and teaching (Rawlins & Leach, 2014; Smith, 2010; William, 2011). The purposes of formative assessment can be separated into two broad categories: assessment for learning, and assessment as learning (Clark, 2012; Rawlins & Leach, 2014). Assessment for learning involves the gathering of information to monitor progress, and to help close the gap between a current and a desired state. Assessment as learning places more emphasis on the sociocultural aspects of the learning and teaching partnership. Thus learners and teachers negotiate and co-construct goals and success criteria, and individually and collectively monitor and reflect on progress. As a result, learners become increasingly competent assessors of their own learning (Clark, 2012). A core principle of formative assessment is that learners are active participants in the process, rather than passive recipients of information that has little meaning or relevance to them. This suggests that learner self-regulation is implicated in formative assessment processes.

What is self-regulated learning?

Self-regulated learning is an active process where learners set goals, plan and implement strategies to achieve their goals, monitor and reflect on their progress, make necessary adaptations, and regulate their cognitive, affective, and behavioural responses to their learning (Pintrich & Zusho, 2002; Schunk & Zimmerman, 2007; Zimmerman, 2002). Effective self-regulated learners also actively utilize their environment to support their learning, by seeking feedback from peers and teachers, and arranging the physical environment (noise, space, temperature) in a way that promotes learning and concentration (Cleary & Zimmerman, 2004; Pintrich & Zusho, 2002; Schunk & Zimmerman, 2007).

Most models of self-regulated learning divide self-regulation into distinct phases, which centre on different underlying purposes and processes (Pintrich & Zusho, 2002; Zimmerman, 2002). For example, Zimmerman (2002) identified three conceptually distinct phases of self-regulated learning: the forethought phase, where students are focused on task interpretation and formulating goals before executing effort; the performance phase, where learners monitor and evaluate their learning in action; and the reflection phase, where learners make judgments and evaluations of their learning after it has occurred.

Formative assessment and self-regulated learning:

There is a body of academic literature that has emphasized the important role of formative assessment in self-regulated learning (Butler & Winne, 1995; Clark, 2012; Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). Winne and Butler (1995) found that during learning students received external feedback from the environment and generated internal feedback, which was mediated by their knowledge, beliefs, and emotions. Accordingly, they encouraged researchers to view feedback as being embedded in self-regulated learning processes (Butler & Winne, 1995). Building on the work of Winne and Butler, Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) proposed seven principles of effective formative feedback to support self-regulated learning; included in their list were items such as: clarifying goals; encouraging collaborative dialogue; and supporting motivation. Taking a similar approach, Hattie and Timperley (2007) suggested that feedback should help learners to answer three key questions: “Where am I going? How am I going? and Where to next?” (2007, p. 88). They found that these questions could be answered at four different levels: task level; process level; self-regulation level; and, self level (2007). Feedback at the task and process levels provided a foundation for feedback at the self-regulation level; however, feedback at the self level, which was often ego-involving, could “dilute” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 91), or undermine the power of other forms of feedback.

Black and Wiliam (2009) continued the tradition of linking research on formative assessment with self-regulated learning. They believed self-regulated learning provided a sound theoretical basis that unified diverse findings arising from research on formative assessment. Although research had helped to clarify types and levels of feedback and their impact on learning, such findings still needed to be linked to a model of learning if they were to be used effectively by teachers. For feedback to be effective learners needed to engage appropriately with it (Butler & Winne, 1995; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). However, this required teachers to possess a model of how students regulated their own learning in order for them to predict what feedback intervention would most likely produce a desired effect (Black & Wiliam, 2009).

Similarly, Clark (2012) argued that formative assessment was crucial in actualising and reinforcing self-regulated learning. He suggested that the internalisation of feedback provided the “take home information for [learner] self-management/control” (2012, p. 215), and he believed there was a bidirectional synergy between the goals and practices of formative assessment and self-regulated learning (2012). This review extends this logic, showing that the purposes and principles underlying the forethought phase of self-regulated learning can inform teachers’ formative assessment practices.

The forethought phase of self-regulated learning:

During the forethought phase of self-regulated learning, learners interpret learning tasks, set goals, plan strategies, and activate a variety of motivational beliefs (Zimmerman, 2002). According to Wiliam (2011) learners draw on three key sources when they attempt to understand and appraise a new learning task: their perceptions of the task and the context in which it is set; their domain knowledge, including knowledge of cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies; and their motivational beliefs, including self-efficacy, interest, and effort beliefs. As a result of this appraisal, learners adopt a “growth pathway” (Wiliam, 2011, p. 13) or a “wellbeing pathway” (Wiliam, 2011, p. 12). Students who adopt a growth pathway focus on learning and gaining competence, whereas learners who adopt a well-being pathway are motivated to prevent harm or loss to their self esteem needs (Wiliam, 2011).

Teachers can support students’ self-regulated learning during the forethought phase by helping them to develop a positive attitude towards feedback information. Research shows that learners’ perceptions of feedback can influence how they engage with feedback, and how they use it to regulate their learning (Brown & Hirschfeld, 2007; Ekholm, Zumbrunn, & Conklin, 2015; Miller, 2009; Timperley & Parr, 2009). For example, when Miller (2009) surveyed 152 graduate students to ascertain their views on a computer-based assessment tool, he found that students who perceived the computerised feedback as being summative were less likely to engage with it and use it to improve their learning than students who perceived it as being formative. Similarly, Ekholm et al. (2015) used descriptive analyses of 115 undergraduate students’ responses to questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, and writing prompts to examine how students’ perceptions of writing feedback mediated the relationship between their writing self-efficacy and writing self-regulation. They defined writing feedback perceptions as “students’ affective responses to and openness toward receiving feedback about their writing” (2015, p. 200). Their analysis showed that participants with more positive perceptions of feedback had higher writing self-regulation aptitude than participants with more negative feedback perceptions (Ekholm et al., 2015). This research suggests that teachers should encourage their students to think of assessment information in a formative rather than summative light (Brown & Hirschfeld, 2007; Ekholm et al., 2015). This could be achieved during the forethought phase by initiating classroom conversations with students about feedback, and finding out form students what their preferred forms of feedback are – written comments, one-to-one conferencing, peer marking, etcetera – and using these forms of feedback wherever feasible (Ekholm et al., 2015).

Teachers can also support students’ self-regulated learning during the forethought phase by making learning goals and success criteria explicit and clear. When students are unsure of what their learning goals are it is difficult for them to assess their progress and regulate their learning (Hattie, 2013; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Timperley & Parr, 2009). Furthermore, if learners’ goals are misaligned with their teacher’s curricular goals then instruction and external feedback will be less effective. However, research suggests that teachers are often unaware of what their students’ learning goals are (Hattie, 2012; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Timperley & Parr, 2009). For example, Timperley and Parr (2009) investigated the relationship between how clearly teachers communicated challenging and explicit learning goals during writing lessons, how well students understood those goals, and the impact this had on students’ writing and self-regulation. They found that even when teachers believed they had made learning goals and success criteria clear to students, many students had, in fact, misinterpreted them. They also found that when mastery learning goals and success criteria were clear and students understood them, the students were more likely to focus on improving the deeper aspects of their writing, but when the learning goals were unclear, or when feedback was not aligned with their goals, students focused on superficial aspects of their writing, such as the neatness and length of their compositions (Timperley & Parr, 2009). Strategies to help learners develop a clear understanding of learning goals and success criteria, and to assist teachers to understand students’ goals, include: classroom conversations about goals and success criteria; collaborative assessment of model work samples; collaborative goal setting; and, the provision of marking rubrics and exemplars (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006).

Finally, teachers can support students’ self-regulation by helping them to develop their motivation to learn. Brophy (2010) defined motivation to learn as learners’ “tendencies to find learning activities meaningful and worthwhile and to try to get the intended benefits from them” (2010, p. 11). Students’ motivation to learn is a function of their expectations of success, and the value they place on learning (Brophy, 2010). Teachers can improve learners’ expectations of success by targeting their self-efficacy beliefs. Self-efficacy is a belief “in one’s capabilities to organise and execute action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura 1997, as cited in Brophy, 2010, p. 51). Teachers can support students self-efficacy by encouraging them to set challenging but attainable goals, adopt an incremental rather than an entity view of intelligence, and develop a mastery, rather than performance orientation to learning (Brophy, 2010; Schunk & Zimmerman, 2007; Zimmerman, 2000). Teachers can support the value aspects of learners’ motivation by ensuring their psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are being met (Ryan & Deci, 2000). When learners feel a sense of agency over their learning, believe they are capable of meeting learning challenges, and that they are valued members of their social group, they are more likely to value their learning and invest effort in it (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Teachers can support students autonomy, competency, and relatedness needs in a variety of ways, for example by listening to students, providing timely feedback, and providing opportunities for peer collaboration and assessment (Brophy, 2010)


Previous literature on formative assessment and self-regulated learning has demonstrated that teachers need to understand students’ self-regulated learning processes in order to make good decisions about when and how to deploy formative assessment strategies. During the forethought phase of self-regulated learning, learners make sense of tasks, set goals, and activate knowledge and beliefs that mediate their interpretation of the task, and the goals they select. At this stage of the self-regulated learning process, teachers play a vital role in encouraging their students to adopt a positive (and healthy) attitude towards learning tasks. They can encourage their learners to view assessment in a formative light; they can help them to be clear about what their learning goals are; and, they can encourage them to adopt motivational beliefs that will propel them forward in their attempts to regulate their learning.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation, & Accountability, 21, 5-31.

Brophy, J. (2010). Motivating students to learn (3 ed.). New York: Routledge.

Brown, G., & Hirschfeld, G. (2007). Students’ conceptions of assessment and mathematics: Self-regulation raises achievement. Australian Journal of Educational Development & Psychology, 7, 63-74.

Butler, D., & Winne, P. (1995). Feedback and self-regulated learning: a theoretical synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65(3), 245-281.

Clark, I. (2012). Formative assessment: Assessment is for self-regulated learning. Education Psychology Review, 24, 205-249.

Cleary, T., & Zimmerman, B. (2004). Self-regulation empowerment program: A school-based program to enhance self-regulated and self-motivated cycles of student learning. Psychology in the Schools, 41(5), 537-550.

Ekholm, E., Zumbrunn, S., & Conklin, S. (2015). The relation of college student self-efficacy toward writing and writing self-regulation aptitude: writing feedback perceptions as a mediating variable. Teaching in Higher Education, 20(2), 197-207.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: maximising impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2013). Calibration and confidence: Where to next? Learning and Instruction, 24, 62-66. Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Miller, T. (2009). Formative computer-based assessment in higher education: the effectiveness of feedback in supporting student learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(2), 181-192.

Nicol, D., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

Pintrich, P., & Zusho, A. (2002). The development of academic self-regulation: The role of cognitive and motivational factors. In A. Wigfield & J. Eccles (Eds.), Development of achievment motivation. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Rawlins, P., & Leach, L. (2014). Questions in assessment for learning and teaching. In A. St George, S. Brown & J. O’Neill (Eds.), Facing the big questions in teaching: Purpose, power and learning (Vol. 2). Auckland: Cengage Learning.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.

Schunk, D., & Zimmerman, B. (2007). Influencing children’s self-efficacy and self-regulation of reading and writing through modeling. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 23, 7-25.

Smith, K. (2010). Assessment: Complex concept and complex practice. Assessment Matters, 2, 6-19. Timperley, H., & Parr, J. (2009). What is this lesson about? Instructional understandings in writing classrooms. The Curriculum Journal, 20(1), 43-60. Wiliam, D. (2011). What is assessment for learning. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37, 3-14. William, D. (2011). What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37, 3-14. Zimmerman, B. (2000). Self-efficacy: An essential motive to learn. Educational Psychology, 25, 82-91. Zimmerman, B. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview. Theory Into Practive, 41(2), 64-70.    


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