Formative Assessment (IO6)

1 What it is

In higher education, especially in theoretical subjects, instruction often tends to rely on one-way teaching processes, respectively on one-way examination responses. One teacher lectures a large number of students throughout the term, while at the end of the term, during the exam session, each student presents his/her learning achievements via another one-way written or oral discourse, which is finally graded by the teacher. During both of these one-way teaching-, respectively one-way learning processes, little, if at all, student-and-teacher interaction occurs in a systematic, organised manner. This system might prove efficient in exceptional cases and indeed, student-teacher interaction is always present, yet randomly timed and randomly addressed. In other words, students do get some feedback about their learning, provided they actively seek it, while teachers do get some feedback about their teaching, provided they create occasions for listening/reading what students have say about what is being taught, along with the teaching process.

Formative Assessment [FA] is about purposefully and systematically creating occasions for on-going mutual feedback between students and teachers, during the teaching process, in coordinated manner. FA is a pedagogic instrument based on specific methods and techniques, generating occasions for students and teachers to interact during and in-between the teaching activities. These interaction opportunities have the potential of stimulating in students an active engagement with learning. Purposefully organising an on-going two-way feedback flow allows on the one hand teachers to fine-tune their teaching, in order to better meet student needs and on the other hand students to fine-tune their learning, in order to better reach the expected learning outcomes. While at an intuitive level, good teachers have probably always engaged students in FA activities and many Higher Education Institutions [HEI] officially foster forms of continuous evaluation, research reviewed hereunder shows that coordinated attention to the why’s, how’s and when’s of FA potentially enhances students’ degree of ownership of their own learning.

Link to Highlights and Experiences
IMPROPAL Formative Assessment TUCN

Theoretical highlights: a literature survey

1. Conceptual clarifications: summative assessment, formative assessment and formative feedback

Although the existing recent literature on Formative Assessment is generally rich, Alastair Irons’ Enhancing learning through formative assessment and feedback (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), appears as an exceptionally inspiring reference and is extensively referred to in the following compilation of relevant quotes.

Summative assessment is considered as being ”any assessment activity which results in a mark or grade which is subsequently used as a judgement on student performance. Ultimately judgements using summative assessment marks will be used to determine the classification of award at the end of a course or programme.” (Irons, 2008: 7)

Concerning the effectiveness of summative assessment, Biggs (1996) suggests that ”testing has not always promoted good learning and indeed can have detrimental effects” and Black and Wiliam (1998) argue that „summative assessment is not a particularly good means of finding out what it is that students know.”

For Falchikov (2005) summative assessment triggers the following negative aspects:

1) ”emphasis on examinations;

2) issues in reliability and teacher marking bias;

3) does not contribute positively to student motivation;

4) students play the game;

5) doesn’t promote deep learning but encourages surface learning;

6) contributes to student stress”.

Formative assessment can be defined as ”any task or activity which creates feedback (or feed forward) for students about their learning and for teachers about their teaching. Formative assessment does not carry a grade which is subsequently used in a summative judgement.” (Irons, 2008)

Formative assessment can also be defined as “the process used by teachers and students to recognize and respond to student learning in order to enhance that learning, during the learning.” (Cowie & Bell, 1996/1999) Formative assessment takes place during the course of teaching and is used essentially to feed back into the teaching/learning process. Summative assessment takes place at the end of a term or a course and is used to provide information about how much students have learned and how well a course has worked. (Gipps, 1994: 4) As opposed to summative assessment, which evaluates student performance at the end of the teaching period, formative assessment is aimed at improving teaching and learning during the process, by using intermediary student response as feed-back for recognizing teaching-learning gaps in order to adapt the teaching to better meet students needs.

Formative feedback is ”any information, process or activity which affords or accelerates student learning based on comments relating to either formative assessment or summative assessment activities.” (Irons, 2008: 7)

”Formative assessment and formative feedback are very powerful and potentially constructive learning tools. Very simply, any task that creates feedback (information which helps a student learn from formative activities) or feed forward (information which will help a student amend or enhance activities in the future) to students about their learning achievements can be called formative assessment. All learning and teaching interactions between teacher and student in higher education (and between students and other students) are to some extent formative in nature. Lecturers and tutors need to be aware of the impact of these interactions on student learning and student motivation, irrespective of whether the interaction is intended to be formative or not.” (Irons, 2008: 7)

Formative assessment fosters active learning by giving students the ability to regulate constantly their effort, through systematic checking and constructive feedback provision. (Crișan, 2017)

2. Formative assessment for enhanced learning

Formative assessment is one of the key methods for stimulating students towards becoming more responsible for their own learning: “…students have to be active in their own learning (teachers cannot learn for them) and unless they come to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and how they might deal with them, they will not make progress.” (Harlen & James, 1996)

Terry Crooks warns that “[m]arks or grades alone produce no learning gains. Indeed, there is some evidence that students gain the most learning value from assessment when feedback is provided without marks or grades.” At the same time, since “[s]tudent motivation is crucial to learning” and “[a]ssessment is one of the major influences on student motivation” Crooks argues that it is crucial to “try to optimize the motivational effects of feedback on assessment”. (Crooks, 2001) To this aim, Crooks provides five key-factors influencing formative assessment as “assessment that promotes learning”:

  1. learning goals are understood and shared by both teachers and students
  2. students are helped to understand and recognize the required standards
  3. students are invited to self-assessment
  4. feedback helps students recognize next steps and how to take them
  5. students gain confidence that their work can improve.” (Crooks, 2001)

Similarly, D. Wiliam points out that formative assessment results from the acknowledgement of the importance of feedback and he identifies five strategies for improving teaching quality via formative assessment (Wiliam, 2010):

  1. ensuring that the teaching aims as well as the success criteria are clearly communicated to and understood by students;
  2. developing pedagogical activities that involve the production of data about what has been acquired;
  3. provide feedback that actually helps students improve;
  4. stimulate students to learn from each-other;
  5. encourage students to assume their learning.” (Wiliam, 2010)

In a comprehensive article, G. Gibbs and C. Simpson summarize much of the available research on the topic, starting from the premise that “assessment has an overwhelming influence on what, how and how much students study.” The article proposes 10 conditions, or influences of assessment on the volume, focus and quality of studying” that can help teachers reconsider the ways in which they assess students, in order to perform assessment that supports and enhances student learning:

  1. Sufficient assessed tasks are provided for students to capture sufficient study time
  2. These tasks are engaged with by students, orienting them to allocate appropriate amounts of time and effort to the most important aspects of the course
  3. Tackling the assessed task engages students in productive learning activity of an appropriate kind
  4. Sufficient feedback is provided, both often enough and in enough detail
  5. The feedback focuses on students’ performance, on their learning and on actions under the students’ control, rather than on the students themselves and on their characteristics
  6. The feedback is timely in that it is received by students while it still matters to them and in time for them to pay attention to further learning or receive further assistance
  7. Feedback is appropriate to the purpose of the assignment and to its criteria for success
  8. Feedback is appropriate, in relation to students’ understanding of what they are supposed to be doing
  9. Feedback is received and attended to
  10. Feedback is acted upon by the student ” (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004-5)

D.J. Nicol & D. Macfarlane-Dick’s 2006 article provides “a model and seven principles of good feedback practice.” Accordingly, good feedback should fulfil the following principles:

  1. helps clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards);
  2. facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning;
  3. delivers high quality information to students about their learning;
  4. encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning;
  5. encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem;
  6. provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance;
  7. provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape teaching.”

(Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006)

  1. Boud and N. Falchikov address the long-term perspective in relation to assessment, pointing out the importance of self and peer assessment in developing self-responsibility towards learning in working life, after graduation. (Boud & Falchikov, 2006)

3. Further insights into formative assessment

Yorke (2003) suggests that the basic principle behind formative assessment is to ”contribute to student learning through the provision of information about performance.” He indicates the difficulties in addressing formative assessment by asserting that it is a ”concept that is more complex than it might at first appear”. At the same time, teacher performance too can be improved through the implementation of formative assessment techniques. (Cowie & Bell, 1996/1999)

”Formative assessment can be taken as any task that creates feedback (or feed forward) to students about their learning” (Irons, 2008). Assessment refers to „all those activities undertaken by teachers – and by their students in assessing themselves – that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs.” (Black & Wiliam, 1998: 140)

”Formative assessment is concerned with how judgements about the quality of student responses (performance, pieces, or works) can be used to shape and improve students’ competences by short-circuiting the randomness and inefficiency of trial and error learning.” (Sadler, 1989)

After having reviewed nearly 700 research publications on formative assessment, and having focused on the most representative 250, Black and Wiliam concluded that ”formative assessment does improve student learning”. (Black and Wiliam,1998: 61 apud. Irons, 2008: 17)

”The primary focus of formative assessment (and formative feedback) is to help students understand the level of learning they have achieved and clarify expectations and standards. It is important that formative assessment activities and formative feedback should be aligned to module learning outcomes and where possible indicate where and how they contribute to programme learning outcomes.” (Irons, 2008: 17)

  1. Irons sums up major findings from research on formative assessment in the following nine points, quoted at length hereunder (Irons, 2008: 17-18):

“Formative assessment is potentially a powerful contributor to student learning in that:

  1. “Students are more likely to be open about their concerns and weaknesses and enter into dialogue with teachers and/or peers (Black and Wiliam, 1998). According to Knight (2001: 8) ‘good formative assessment means design learning sequences that afford plenty of opportunities for good learning conversations arising from feedback on good tasks that are matched to course learning outcomes’ […]
  2. “The stakes are not as high as in summative assessment (students are more likely to experiment and take risks, also means that there is not the same requirement to be so concerned about reliability and validity of assessment tasks) (Knight, 2001).
  3. “There is the opportunity to enter into dialogue with students about their formative activities and discuss their learning needs (Black, 1999; Black and Wiliam, 1999; Juwah et al., 2004; Hyatt, 2005; Gibbs, 2005).
  4. “Students can be motivated to learn to enhance their knowledge and understanding rather than to focus on passing summative assessment (Knight, 2001).
  5. “There is the opportunity to enhance the process of independent learning (Marshall and Rowland, 1998).
  6. “The formative development of students can contribute to the evidence base in students’ Personal Development Plans (PDPs) (Ward, 1999) […]
  7. “Students’ self-assessment practices and skills can be developed (Black and Wiliam, 1998).
  8. “Formative assessment can contribute to reflective learning […]
  9. “There is the environment to provide an increased opportunity for peer- and self-assessment.“

(Irons, 2008: 17-18)

“Good formative assessment means designing learning sequences that afford plenty of opportunities for good learning conversations arising from feedback on good tasks that are matched to learning outcomes. Good formative assessment therefore implies thinking about learning, teaching and assessment, not just about assessment.” (Knight, 2001, apud. Scales, 2013)

Designing an appropriate formative activity supposes taking into consideration the following principles:

  • to align the activity with the desired learning outcome;
  • to encourage dialogue between tutors and students and
  • to provide opportunities for timely and constructive feedback. (Irons, 2008)

Several examples of Formative assessment tasks, as listed in Nottingham Trent University’s Guide: Formative assessment and feedback are listed hereunder:

  • “diagnostic or progress tests
  • drafts of projects
  • concept maps
  • learning journals
  • role-plays
  • debates
  • presentations (individual/group)
  • crits
  • online discussions
  • online peer-support forums
  • two/multi-stage submission of assessments
  • cumulative coursework
  • one-minute paper
  • in-class worksheets
  • peer teaching”

(NTU, Centre for Academic Development and Quality)


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