In education there are two major types of assessment: summative and formative. The most familiar is summative assessment—tests or assignments that are given at the end of a unit or are standardized to show the “sum” of student achievement at one point in time. Summative assessment is often used for grading purposes and now, feeding a national testing controversy, for teacher and institutional accountability.
Formative assessment is as or more valuable than summative assessment because it affects students while they learn. Formative assessment often comprises a wide range of teacher and student evaluative measures such as observations, quizzes, practice, teacher/student discussions and student self-assessment during the course of instruction. It leads to changes in instruction before students complete summative assessment. Effective formative assessment optimizes learning so that more students achieve mastery by the time they take high-stakes tests.
Feedback on both sides of the desk or podium, so to speak, is a major part of formative assessment. And like feedback (see earlier blog, The Last 20%), formative assessment involves clear learning objectives. We need to know what we are trying to achieve in order to analyze and execute strategies to help us in that achievement.
For formative assessment to work, both teachers and students have to be willing to honestly appraise the teaching/learning situation and also change what they are doing. For the instructor, it means modifying the content or style of their teaching at any given time. They may need to turn a lecture into an activity or add more time for an assignment. For the student, it could mean spending more time learning. They may need to do more practice or attend an extra tutoring session.
Historically, formative assessment has been centered on improvements for the class as a whole or adjusting instruction for groups at different levels within the class. Modifying instruction for individual students was usually too time-consuming.
But, what if instructors could easily see how each individual is progressing and intervene to discuss difficult concepts with struggling students or challenging perspectives with excelling students on a one-to-one basis? And, what if students were engaged in learning programs that automatically adjusted the material to their needs as they worked?
Evidence-based digital programs can do just that. In her thorough article, Making it Happen: Formative Assessment and Educational Technologies, Janet Looney advises that we research and try new technologies because they support formative assessment in these ways:
- Rapid assessment of student understanding
- Timely and targeted feedback, scaffolding of learning
- Interactive learning and assessment of higher-order skills.
- Tracking of student learning and student outcomes in different contexts and over time.
These aspects of digital programs not only allow for individual adaptive learning, but also provide organized data on the class as a whole in real time. This efficient method of delivery helps instructors tailor material in the ongoing course. For those committed to formative assessment, using digital learning programs to enhance the dynamics of teaching and learning is a no- brainer.