Harnessing the Student Voice: Why Student-centered Teaching and Learning Starts with Formative Assessment

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Disheartened by a lack of enthusiasm from her students, an experienced faculty member stopped by our Center for Teaching and Learning last semester seeking support on how to elicit a more engaged response. Detailing the pedagogical practices that guided her teaching—chunking content; coordinating collaborative projects; communicating clearly—her frustration with the lack of class connection was clear: “If only I knew what they needed,” she mused. The response that followed may come as a surprise, even to instructors who have been teaching for years. We encouraged her to ask her students directly about their learning experience by applying a formative assessment tool.

Established as an essential component of successful pedagogy (Hattie, 2012), formative assessment is distinct from its summative counterpart. The former captures the process of learning, while the latter is typically administered at course completion to assess learning results. Both types of assessments are necessary, but formative assessment may have an advantage when it comes to helping our students flourish in today’s classrooms, as well as beyond. Harnessing student voice in real time brings learning into the forefront and allows the instructor to adapt teaching in ways that are relevant to the specific needs of a class. This has never been more important than in today’s push for an inclusive learning environment in which all voices are heard and honored. At the same time, formative assessment encourages students to reflect and take ownership of their own learning journey, a process that will serve them well in a world in which they will need to be lifelong learners.

The simple act of eliciting student feedback at a point in which students are deep in the learning process invites all members of the class into a shared and co-created experience, one in which students and instructors can learn and adapt together. That’s an exciting prospect for those of us committed to a student-centered approach to teaching and learning, and the reason why our Center for Teaching and Learning includes formative assessment as a guiding principle to inform faculty support. Here are just some of the reasons why we believe that student-centered teaching and learning starts with formative assessment:

  1. Formative assessment emphasizes inclusion. Tracking student learning by capturing student voice is a powerful way to invite all members of the class into the process of learning (Drucker and Holmberg, 2018). Students come into our classrooms with a wide range of backgrounds and prior knowledge. Integrating formative assessment allows these distinctions to surface, prompting a more intentional approach to pedagogy. Understanding student needs can also guide the type of formative assessment chosen for feedback. Data capture can be as simple as an anonymous exit ticket or questionnaire that asks students to reflect on learning. Integrating technology can also be effective, and tools such as Padlet or Miro invite student feedback in playful and creative ways. Our Center has been running a formative assessment initiative which employs student feedback in the form of pre-and-post student surveys, coupled with instructional coaching. Recognizing that faculty may be unsure on how to proceed or even resistant to student feedback (Furtak, 2011), this formative assessment initiative emphasizes the trusting partnership between faculty and instructional designers and allows us to jointly consider pedagogical practices tailored to the needs of a specific class, while modeling the type of co-creation that lies at the heart of student-centered teaching and learning.
  2. Formative assessment enhances metacognition. Inviting students into their own learning journey triggers metacognition which is correlated with successful learning outcomes (McGuire, 2015). To enhance metacognition, questions need to be formulated in a way that invites reflection. Parrish (2016) describes the care taken with designing formative assessment questions that foster a metacognitive result and emphasize the process of learning. Supporting metacognition via formative assessment may be especially vital for those entering a college classroom for the first time. Novice students often mistake learning as the act of knowledge exposure and retention, rather than a process of deep engagement and commitment. Formative assessment gently triggers students to transition from a passive receptor of knowledge to an engaged participant by asking them to reflect on their own learning habits which reinforces essential skill sets for advanced course work and careers.
  3. Formative assessment supports faculty satisfaction. An instructor’s ability to consider pedagogy orients the class towards a student-centered approach to learning, regardless of discipline or subject matter (Sozer, Zeybekoglu, & Kaya, 2019). Formative assessment is therefore an opportunity for instructors to tailor the class in a specific and relevant way that is respectful of the student learning experience. The result can be a deeply satisfying experience of teaching that invites instructors to partner with their students in the co-creation of learning. When faculty who participated in our Center’s formal assessment initiative were asked to evaluate the process, 88% of respondents found it helpful or very helpful to have access to student formative assessment data. More than 80% of respondents indicated their intent to implement new teaching techniques based on formative assessment feedback.

Formative assessment can forge trust and community between instructors and students in the learning process, thereby fostering confidence and competency for all members of the class. Those instructors willing to invest in the time and effort of listening to their learners to better support their learning needs are likely to find value in the process. That was certainly the case with the aforementioned professor. Willing to trust student voices could guide her teaching. She participated in our formative assessment program and adjusted her course design to better align with what students shared, in this case that they needed less lecturing and more opportunities to engage with questions and concerns. The simple act of asking for student input and listening to their voice provided powerful insights that guided the professor’s next steps and helped to intentionally recalibrate the class in a way that was helpful for all.

Juli S. Charkes is the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Mercy College where she and her team support faculty development across all schools and divisions. 


Fostering equity and inclusion using Formative Assessment Moves. ASCD. (n.d.). Retrieved July 3, 2022, from https://www.ascd.org/blogs/fostering-equity-and-inclusion-using-formative-assessment-moves

Furtak, E. M. (2017). Supporting teachers’ formative assessment practice with learning progressions. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315562636

Hattie, J., & Clarke, S. (2019). Visible learning: Feedback. Routledge.

McGuire, S. Y., & McGuire, S. (2016). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate in any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Parrish, G. (2016, October 31). Transforming midterm evaluations into a metacognitive pause. Faculty Focus | Higher Ed Teaching & Learning. Retrieved July 3, 2022, from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/transforming-midterm-evaluations-metacognitive-pause/

Sozer, E. M., Zeybekoglu, Z., & Kaya, M. (2019). Using mid-semester course evaluation as a feedback tool for improving learning and teaching in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(7), 1003–1016. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2018.1564810