Formative Assessment During Instruction

We have all likely participated in a course or a training session where we felt frustrated trying to learn a new concept or a skill. For me, my most difficult experience was my first foray into technical rescue in 2008. In looking back upon the experience, I think the absence of an effective formative assessment was at the heart of my frustration with the training.

Effective formative assessment should provide feedback to both the student and the instructor from the very beginning of a lesson and is an ongoing process. Formative assessment is distinct from summative assessment, the latter of which is done through some form of testing at the end of a period of instruction, that makes a judgment about a learner’s competency.

Fire service instructors should be familiar with the most common example of formative assessment, which is verbal feedback provided to a firefighter during a skill session or the application of skills during a scenario. Principles of effective formative feedback to students during a practical skill session include:

  • Be Specific. Effective feedback should provide the learner with enough specific information to make an improvement in performance. As an example, telling a firefighter that their CPR “could use some work” is simply not helpful. If we instead said “Your compressions exceeded the recommended rate of 100-120 compressions per minute, so next time let's slow the rate down” provides enough detail to correct their performance.
  • Timeliness. Bringing attention to a mistake hours or days later can be frustrating for a learner. During skills training, muscle memory is developed (good or bad), that may make improper performance more difficult to correct as time goes by.
  • Provide an opportunity to apply the feedback. Allow the learner to act on the feedback. This is especially important during firefighter skills training, as hearing what the deficiency was is moderately helpful to learning, but applying it is much more impactful. This principal ties into providing timely feedback, as a delay in providing feedback also delays applying it.
  • Tied to a learning standard. Instructors should recognize the difference in “standard” versus “practice”. A learning standard is established by the AHJ, and the student is assessed against it. Practice is the route a learner takes to reach the standard. For instance, in donning PPE the skill sheet may specify a heat hood has to be put on prior to the firefighter jacket. I may place the heat hood in my boot to remind me to put it on right away, but that is my “practice”. A fire service instructor must recognize we all may develop different practices, and that is OK.
  • Sensitive to the individual needs of the student. Classrooms are full of diverse learners. Some students are confident and can be nudged to achieve at a higher level and other needs to be handled gently so as not to discourage learning and damage self-esteem. This requires effort on behalf of the fire service instructor to get to know their learners and be willing to tailor how they interact with students.

Whereas firefighters are generally used to receiving feedback during practical training, formative assessment should also occur inside the classroom where knowledge components are delivered. Even the best fire service instructor with a good presentation should not just assume that learning has occurred inside their classroom. Fire service instructors can adopt a wide range of classroom assessment techniques (CATs). Beyond administering an in-class quiz, or asking for questions, what can we do? There is an abundance of activities that provide feedback to an instructor and allow them to adjust in instruction. For instance, The Minute Paper asks students to write down what is the most important thing they learned in class, and what remains unanswered for them. This specific formative feedback tool ensures everyone contributes, and for some students, it is less intimidating than speaking up during the class. Try building different CATs into your lesson plans and see which works best for you.

In short, whether you are in the classroom or on the training grounds, instructing firefighters does require good content. The other key component of learning is formative assessment, and it is crucial to setting students up for success.

1 Comment


July 1, 2023 07:52 PM by Dave Casey

Excellent article, you bring some very good points. It is important for the student to “know what they know” and at the same time what they have missed or don’t fully understand. 

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