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Effective formative assessment

21 Jan 2019 at 10:53
What constitutes effective formative assessment? In this article I look into what I understand effective formative assessment to look like.

Assessment is considered to be a major part of education and evaluating pupils’ performance at several key points throughout an academic year. It can be used to “empower students as self-regulated learners” (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2007) whilst helping class teachers understand how well pupils are learning.

The main form of assessment in mainstream education that formative assessment is often compared to is summative assessment. Summative assessment aims to evaluate students’ competency, often with weighted assessment towards the end of a unit or course such as a unit test or final examination where students’ grades allow them to progress to the next level. With this form of assessment, students being assessed often display “anxiety and mistrust when faced with achievement testing” which often do not contribute positively to student motivation or student progression (Boud & Falchikov, 2005).

Formative assessment on the other hand, which has seen a “renewal of interest” in recent years, allows feedback to be used to improve both the students’ own understanding of the assessment and allow them to “make their own judgements” whilst allowing teachers to assess their own methods of teaching the course content  (Boud & Falchikov, 2005). Whilst summative assessment tends to be weighted with grades that determine the level of competency that a student has, formative assessment focuses on improvement and as a result grades and feedback do not affect students’ progression to the next stage but are simply used to improve the learner’s performance, often in preparation for a summative assessment at the end (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2004). Black et al. also argue that feedback is only formative if the information fed back to the learner is used for improving their performance.

How effective formative assessment on pupils’ progression is carried out

Effective formative assessment is an on-going process that aims to monitor students’ understanding of a topic at several key points with the aim of being able to improve the learning and teaching process. It does this by reinforcing the understanding of what has been taught and focuses on what has been done correctly and, through feedforward, what can be improved upon in the future. It encourages “reflection-on-action” (Gibbs, 1998) for both the pupil and the teacher whilst also encouraging development and improvement.

Formative assessment comes in many different varieties. One method of formative assessment is using an assessment criterion. This is a “fast and effective” (Clarke, 2005) way of providing formative feedback to learners as they can see precisely where they are with their own learning. This is mentioned in the Assessment is for Learning (AifL) document, which suggests learners learn better when they “understand clearly what they are trying to learn, and what is expected of them”.  One of the most common methods of creating an assessment criterion as argued by Clarke (2005), is to develop a success criterion through the use of learning objectives. Sadler (1989) further argues that effective learning works when “a person knows what is to be achieved, works towards ways of doing it, and can tell when progress is being made.” Clarke also states that learning objectives (or learning intentions) should be made clear to the learner at the start so that they can gauge their progress themselves.

Another method of formative assessment is through the use of multiple-choice questions. This type of assessment needs to be well-structured and formative feedback is needed to explain why the choice that the learner has picked is correct or incorrect and why other options were not correct. These assessments also need to use “supportive language” and “indicate the type of error or mistake the student could have made” and why this is the case (Irons, 2008). From this, both pupils and assessors should be able to see where a pupil has done well and where there is still room for improvement.

Irons (2008) also argues that “good feedback should attempt to acknowledge the progress students have made” and “through the provision of constructive comments and indications of how they can improve their learning for the future”. He argues that feedback should focus on “complex learning issues” rather than on simple matters such as “exceeding word count or spelling and grammar”. Finally, he concludes that it should be used to “encourage students to take actions to address any learning issues” themselves to help them progress.

According to Knight (2001), summative assessment is for “measurement” whereas formative assessment is for “judgement” and can be used for improvement through the use of feedback. Feedback can be informal or formal, ranging from “instantaneous feedback” to “comments on drafts of material for inclusion in portfolios” (Yorke, 2003). Irons (2008) suggests that “there is a fine line between constructive, formative feedback” and “providing ‘too much’” and suggests that the latter should be avoided to ensure that the material remains the work of the pupil and not the teacher.

In order for pupils to act upon feedback and therefore for it to be effective, the feedback given should be qualitative according to Black et al. (2002) who argues that “students given marks are likely to see it as a way to compare themselves with others; those given only comments see it as helping them to improve. The latter group outperforms the former” in their progression through school. Butler (1988) argues further that students pay less attention to feedback if a numeric mark is given alongside it whilst Craven et al. (1991) found that numeric feedback can have a negative effect on the self-esteem of low ability students. Qualitative feedback is by nature more subjective than objective (Bavelas, 1995) which allows for individually tailored progression plans on a per pupil basis – an important part of good formative feedback.

Conclusion

Whilst formative assessment is carried out using a range of different techniques, giving feedback to make the assessment worthwhile and effective must follow certain criteria. Since formative assessment is used for judgement and not measurement, the assessor should seek to provide helpful, qualitative feedback to the pupil upon completion. This feedback could be formal or informal and it could be spoken or written, it must however, seek to act as feedforward and explain what the future steps should be for the pupil. There are many ways to perform formative assessment, some of which feedforward is a staple element of the process, whilst others such as multiple-choice questions do not necessarily carry this kind of feedback within their design and need to be adapted to do so. It is up to the assessor to develop effective feedforward in these cases.

  1. Bavelas, J. B. (1995). Quantitative versus qualitative. Social approaches to communication.
  2. Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan.
  3. Boud, D., & Falchikov, N. (2005). Redesigning assessment for learning beyond higher education. Research and development in higher education, 28(special issue).
  4. Clarke, S. (2005). Formative Assessment in the Secondary Classroom. Hodder Murray.
  5. Gibbs, G. (1998). Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Oxford: Oxford Polytechnic.
  6. Irons, A. (2008). Enhancing Learning Through Formative Assessment and Feedback. Routledge.
  7. Knight, P. (2000). A Briefing on Key Concepts Formative and summative, criterion & norm-referenced assessment. Heslington, York: Learning and Teaching Support Network.
  8. Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2007). Formative assessment and self ‐ regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Routledge.
  9. Sadler, D. R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. St Lucia, Queensland: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  10. Scottish Government. (2018). AifL Assessment is for Learning. Retrieved from Scottish Government: https://www.gov.scot/Resource/Doc/69582/0017827.pdf
  11. Yorke, M. (2003). Formative assessment in higher education: Moves towards theory and the enhancement of pedagogic practice. Liverpool: Kluwer Academic Publishers.