Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Value of Formative Assessment

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The Value of Formative Assessment

Joan Godbout
FET 8604 Assignment Two
May, 2008

Abstract: Traditional summative assessment is often referred to as “assessment of learning” and is contrasted by authentic assessment which features formative feedback as part of the teaching-learning process; this is “assessment for learning”. Educational research indicates that formative feedback enhances learning and is perceived as beneficial by students. Ten characteristics of effective formative assessment are presented with a number of suggestions for facilitating its implementation in English learning and instruction. Although only briefly discussed, peer feedback, self-assessment, and reflective practices are also prominent in “assessment for learning”.

Key words:
Authentic assessment, formative assessment, feedback

Why do students remain unaffected by the repetitive and endless corrections their English instructors painstakingly make on essays and compositions? Why do exactly the same errors appear in subsequent assignments? Students appear to be apathetic and uninterested in their own academic progress (Scott, 2006, p. 37) and do not attend to this feedback. Similarly, assigning numeric values (grades) does not necessarily bring about academic amelioration. This all too common scenario has initiated a learning quest through authentic assessment, particularly formative assessment and feedback. Could this be the “holy grail” to transform English learning and achievement?

“Assessment of Learning” and “Assessment for Learning”

Traditionally, summative assessment has focused on “making a judgement about the learning that has occurred” (Boston, 2002); it summarizes achievement at the end of an instructional cycle (Hernandez, 2005). Feedback is limited to grades and comments that all too often focus on the students’ errors (Boston, 2002). Learners are eager to compare their numeric standing to one another or to the class average. The numeric value – assessment of learning -- seems paramount, and the instructor’s feedback goes virtually unnoticed.

However, using assessment diagnostically – assessment for learning -- shifts the emphasis “from summative to formative assessment, from making judgments to creating descriptions” (Crooks, 2001; Earl, 2003), thus providing “information for improvement” (Wiggins, 2006). Instructors identify performance standards as well as strategies to help their students demonstrate/achieve these standards. And marking “for learning” takes on a different purpose. Its emphasis is NOT on providing numeric judgment (measurement), but rather on scaffolding learning by outlining the task’s strengths and weaknesses (University of Surrey, n.d.). Ideally, teachers and students are interactive, cooperative partners working to improve both teaching and learning performances (Earl, 2003). Additionally, students “take [active] responsibility for their learning” (Hernandez, 2005) as they revisit and modify projects prior to assessment of learning (summative assessment). In short, formative assessment, within the constructivist framework, allows teachers to focus on the journey (the process) of learning which ultimately reaches its destination (the product). It must be noted, however, that while many educators and researchers advocate assessment for learning, they acknowledge that assessment of learning will not be replaced, but rather a combination of both will emerge.

Research Review

The merits of formative assessment have been confirmed through research. Klecker (2007, p. 162) and Wiggins (2006), for example, report that formative assessment, and specifically formative feedback, “can raise standards of achievement” on all types of tests. Boston (2002) corroborates by summarizing the findings of Black and William (1998) --

formative assessment produced significant learning gains as measured by comparing the average improvements in the test scores of the students involved in the innovation … [while] helping low-achieving students, including students with learning disabilities, even more … because it emphasizes that students can improve as a result of effort.

Shute (2008, p. 166) adds that immediate and “elaborated feedback produced the highest scores for low-ability students” while delayed and “verification feedback” resulted in higher scores for high-ability students. Students recognize these benefit (Guilikers, et al., 2004) and agree that they learn more if they are permitted to hand in an “early version of their work, get detailed feedback … and then hand in a final revised version” (Wiggins, 2006). Students have greater control over their learning (and achievement) because they can demonstrate improvement. The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (2005) of Portland, Oregon, provides a suggestion so that instructional feedback remains manageable. Providing feedback “but no grade, on draft versions, and grading only the final work, often with little or no additional feedback … enables students to incorporate the feedback into the final work”.. Wiggins (1990) summarizes that students become “effective performers with acquired knowledge”. Clearly this can be a powerful strategy for English teachers and their students.

Greater “transferability” is another reported benefit of feedback. Learners are found to be more adaptable in novel or more intellectually-challenging situations (Shute, 2008; Wiggins, 2006). Students who can “practice what they’ve learned” are rewarded with academic success and the ability to apply their learning in multiple contexts.

While many educational researchers encourage formative assessment, transforming English courses from “summative and teacher directed to formative and student centered” (Scott, 2006, p. 39) will require dramatic redesign of entire programs. However, educational literature provides many suggestions and strategies to aid in this shift.

Facilitating Formative Feedback

“Feedforward” is possibly a more appropriate term to identify formative feedback since its primary purpose is to provide guidance for improvement (University of Surrey, n.d.). On research essays, for example, formative “feedforward” would provide writers with specific commendations and recommendations (either orally or in print). In this case, assessment is part of completing the research essay.

Ohio University (2008) outlines numerous characteristics of effective “feedforward”. Of these, the most significant are:

1. specific and performance based
2. descriptive
3. focused on the task, not the learner
4. balanced negative and positive comments
5. well-timed
6. interactive (two-way communication)
7. considerate of the receiver’s input and emotional response
8. brief
9. private, and
10. part of the regular teaching process

Facilitating formative assessment will require commitment to these key elements. To begin, feedback must be based on previously-outlined criteria with detailed performance descriptors; perhaps rubrics may be used (Scott, 2006, p. 41). But as previously stated, formative feedback does not involve measurement or assigning a numeric value (that comes later). It may, however, involve rubrics with “checklists” and/or questions that compare the student’s work to the performance goals involved in writing a research essay (Crooks, 2001, p. 8; Earl, 2003). Instructors are encouraged to create “analytical rubrics” that describe “specific aspects of performance … [to] detect strengths and … areas for refinement” (Scott, 2006, p. 43). By providing exemplars of the projects, in this case research essays, students are able to see application of the criteria (Harlen, 1998, as cited in Notable Quotes, n.d.)

Secondly, even though analytical instruments may be developed, effective feedback uses descriptive language (University of Lethbridge, 2007) to answer three general questions:

1. What has been done well?
2. What still needs to be learned or developed?
3. What needs to be done to improve?

Answers to these questions need to be specific and include several “for example” statements (University of Lethbridge, 2007). Practitioners advise avoiding comments such as “good” or “elaborate”; these do not explain the reasons for praise or criticism (McGarrell and Verbeem, 2007, p. 233; Shute, 2008, p 168, 169). McGarrell and Verbeem’s (2007) study provides insight. For developing writers, “content-focused feedback” has proven to be more effective than mechanics-focused feedback, and “process-oriented writing” that focuses on writers’ ideas results in greater transformation (p. 229). They also verify that “teachers’ probing questions about key areas of the text show writers where, and what kind of additional information readers might need” (p. 231). In addition, Fathman and Walley (1990, as cited in Williams, 2003) found when feedback indicated only “the place but not the type of errors”, students’ marks on rewrites were significantly higher. These feedback activities, Williams (2003) reports, are even more valuable when combined with conferencing.

The third characteristic encourages facilitators to focus on “the work, not the learner”. This too involves measured and deliberate use of language. For example, “Could this be a separate paragraph?” brings attention to the writing, whereas “You need to make this a separate paragraph” focuses on the learner. The difference is subtle; however, practitioners point out the former asks for a thoughtful response while the latter focuses on the student’s error (Shute, 2008, pp. 168, 169). McGarrell and Verbeem (2007) concur that “facilitative” feedback that questions creates possibilities and does not focus on one right answer; it allows for multiple approaches (p. 229).

Balancing negative and positive comments can be a challenge -- the fourth characteristic of effective feedback. The University of Surrey (n.d.) suggests prioritizing the feedback message by “selecting two or three areas where the student could usefully improve performance”. Ohio University (2008) adds that if comments are too detailed or elaborate, students become overwhelmed and cannot “tolerate the feeling of discomfort” that often accompanies such feedback. The “good news – bad news” technique which has often been used in traditional grading is also valuable in formative assessment. Positive comments, it is said, give the students confidence and focus them on the feedback process. Recommendations can be “sandwiched” between positive comments. If anxiety is reduced, students are more likely to accept the feedback message (Ohio University, 2008).

Instructors who understand the importance of timing routinely return corrected assignments/tests as quickly as possible. Timing, the fifth characteristic, is equally important in formative assessment. Shute (2008) reports that immediate feedback is more beneficial “if the task is difficult” (p. 165) and “delayed feedback may be superior for promoting transfer of learning, especially in relation to concept-formation tasks”. Development of progressively difficult skills needed to prepare a research essay, therefore, may be improved by more frequent and shorter feedback messages. The essential element, researchers contend, is that the message be understandable; learners must be clear on how to proceed (Kwong, 2001; University of Surrey, n.d.).

Two-way communication is the sixth characteristic of effective feedback. There appears to be little difference between oral and written feedback, but more critical is how the message is perceived. Encouraging bidirectional communication has been recognized to enhance the acceptance of the message. Students may want to provide the rationale for their choice and be acknowledged for their efforts. In support of this interaction, teachers are again encouraged to use questioning. A cooperative learning partnership is vital if students are to “self-assess and self-correct” (Scott, 2006, p. 36). The University of Surrey (n.d.) also advises that students need to verify what they will be doing next; they should be able to verbalize “the learning” and thus accept responsibility for improvement.

The seventh characteristic seeks to further “actively involve and engage the learner” (Scott, 2006, p. 36). Their contributions and questions must not only be acknowledged, they must also be valued. This interaction needs to be student centered and the learning partnership must be nurtured.

Brevity is the eighth characteristic. Perhaps some students’ performances are substantially lacking; however, researchers caution facilitators to measure their feedback so it does not overwhelm the learner. Succinctness can be especially important for process-oriented writing tasks where teachers are tempted to focus on mechanical errors. The University of Surrey (n.d.) provides a suggestion to streamline the feedback process and not overwhelm students -- “… mark off the first two hundred words on a script and mark all the English errors in that portion … provide an error frequency percentage [if desired] … indicate the errors the student should focus on and direct them towards help …” Because errors are often repetitive, this provides support (instruction) and an opportunity to transfer the learning (Shute, 2008; Wiggins, 2006).

The ninth characteristic emphasizes students’ right to privacy. The constructivist approach encourages team work so students have the opportunity to learn from one another. Those who are shy or lack confidence may find this process especially difficult; encouragement and experience will hopefully allow them to overcome these limitations. Group mates and instructors alike must be sensitive to provide user-friendly, supportive and respectful feedback. Crooks (2001) states that formative feedback affects students differently, so instructors and group members need to be cognizant of varying emotional responses. So while privacy may be an issue for some learners and be required in particular situations, students need to acknowledge that learning is not a private activity. In addition, learners should be encouraged to share their completed projects, perhaps in a class journal. By showcasing their “mastery” (Earl, 2003), students feel their projects are “relevant and meaningful” (Guilikers et al., 2004, p. 9).

The final characteristic emphasizes the benefits of continued and routine formative assessment. Shute (2008) reiterates that “back-ended” assessment is less effective because it does not give students and teachers the opportunity to make changes in order to improve. Assessment must be integrated into the writing process (Scott, 2006, p. 38).

Educators who view assessment as measurement of learning may be uncomfortable with formative assessment. Perhaps it is by experimenting that its benefits will be confirmed. Including formative assessment in only one area of a course may be sufficient. Once assessment for learning has “proven itself”, it will be easier to make it a routine part of the teaching-learning process.

Limitations of Formative Assessment

While formative feedback is touted to enhance “learning during [the] learning” process (Crooks, 2001), researchers caution that feedback which is perceived as being overly critical, controlling, too lengthy, or too complex will be disregarded by students, of little value, and inefficient use of learning time (Shute, 2008, p. 159-161).

More importantly, there are those who consider formative assessment to be too labor-intensive and too time-consuming, but perhaps a shift in thinking is required. Instructors still spend time “marking”, but in this case, it is “front-end” marking so students can create high-quality projects (Wiggins, 1990). Darling-Hammond (n.d. as cited in Furger, 2002) is quoted –

The time is not lost to teaching and learning. The time IS teaching and learning, because the actual conduct of the assessment is a learning experience … [with] immediate feedback about what they [teachers] need to do to meet a student’s needs.

It’s Not Just Teacher Feedback

Formative feedback is not only provided by instructors; students’ roles are extended to include peer feedback, self-assessment, and reflective activities (Boston, 2002; Scott, 2006, p. 37).
Peer feedback, much like instructor feedback, may ask students to compare one another’s essays to the “established standard of performance” (Shute 2008, p. 175) and provide suggestions for improvement. Similarly self-assessment may use checklists or rubrics so learners are able to evaluate their own progress. Conferencing, learning logs, or small group discussions may also be helpful for learners to identify their own strengths and/or limitations (Crooks, 2001). And more importantly, self-assessment allows learners to set new goals for themselves.

Reflection, on the other hand, allows students to examine their own learning/thinking strategies (Burke, 1994, as cited in Scott, 2006, p. 35). Consideration of meta-cognitive practices allows students to make “adjustments … [or] adaptations” (Earl, 2003) that can be transferred to future contexts. The University of Lethbridge (2007) suggests that open-ended questions can guide this process. Some questions might be: has this activity gone as planned, or what will you do differently on future projects?

Reflective activities may also consider the learning task, and ask students to consider questions such as: what did you like about this project; how was this project a favorable (or unfavorable) experience; or what was interesting about this experience? (Scott, 2006, p. 35; University of Lethbridge, 2007).

While not the primary focus of this paper, peer feedback, self-assessment and thoughtful refection are significant (and valuable) components of formative assessment that require further investigation.


Redesigning curriculum to “integrate teaching, learning and assessing” (Meuller, 2006) can be a challenge. With authentic assessment, instructors and course developers first create authentic, intellectually-challenging tasks and then re-develop the content to enable students to create a “more complex … more meaningful” project (Meuller, 2006). This has been referred to as “backwards” planning. Student-centered design addresses the challenge of “engaging” learners not only in the learning process but also in the assessment process, and specifically, students have the opportunity to strengthen their skills/learning.

These revised assessment procedures, however, will not completely replace summative assessment. Rather educators will find themselves blending both approaches, and neither will be used exclusively. Formative assessment has tremendous potential, but unfortunately, it is not the “holy grail” that English instructors seek. Rather it is only one strategy (or “tool”) to promote learning and improve academic standings. And undoubtedly formative assessment that integrates the ten characteristics that were previously outlined will yield the benefits educational researchers purport.


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