What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is forward-looking assessment; it is designed to support learning, not just to measure it once it’s finished. Formative assessment helps academics by giving them timely information they can act on about what their students know, or how they are performing (think of a diagnostic test, for example), or how their learning design is working out. It also helps students as it essentially provides feedback to them that will help them improve (a low-stakes assignment early on in the teaching period, for example). That’s why formative assessment is sometimes characterised as “assessment for learning”.

What’s its opposite number again?

That’s summative assessment. Summative assessment – such as a final exam – is more about evaluating student’s learning; measuring what a student has demonstrated that they can do. It is sometimes categorised as assessment of learning. Assessments that happen after learning has finished (a final exam, for example) or are worth a lot of marks, are generally summative.

Can formative assessment be worth any marks?

Usually, an assessment for purely formative purposes does not have marks associated with it. (In fact, research shows providing feedback on students’ work separately from a grade is more effective at getting them to engage with it.) Be aware, however, that summative assessments during the teaching period can also often play a formative role, in that they also give feedback to students about their work.

Any tips for making the most of formative assessment through effective feedback?

Feedback needs to be targeted and to provide, specific constructive guidance to students as to where they went wrong, what they can do to improve, and what strategies they could adopt to get there.

Timing matters – you are more likely to see a better response from students if it’s provided soon after the assessment. Remember if it’s to be formative, feedback also needs to happen with enough time for the students (and you) to make changes in response to it.

Look for opportunities to provide some formative feedback online (try SparkPlus for example). A well-structured online activity can provide a good return on investment in terms of the effort required to set it up and mark it. Here are some ideas from Educause.

What are your tips for getting the most out of formative assessment and feedback? Let us know in the comments.

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