Formative assessments are pointless

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I work in a school (in a university) which uses formative assessment, a lot. Almost every course we run has an assessment part of the way through the year where students receive feedback but no grade, but I am fully aware that to others this seems crazy and I’ve even heard, a waste of time. Even from a student’s perspective I’ve heard of complaints that an assignment with no grade is pointless (see what I did there) and they are too busy to waste time on such thing.

I disagree and here is why.

A good formative assessment is not a stand alone thing which has no purpose. It is part of the learning experience of your students and should offer them an opportunity to assess their learning, see where they have knowledge gaps and gain feedback and insight.  Where formative assessment is pointless, is when it isn’t part of the whole and doesn’t feed into the students learning in a meaningful way. Let me explain.

Part way through the semester students submit an assessment. It is formative, they will receive no grade. However what this does is give them a chance to write an essay (or other form of assessment) on the course material they have learned so far which doesn’t have the pressure and the high stakes of feeding directly into a grade, which for a student who doesn’t feel like “they quite get it yet” is much less stressful.

It gives an opportunity to to get feedback which will guide them in the areas where they may be weaker and therefore a chance for them to get stronger, crucially, before it’s time to submit a graded assignment. Also in some cases, they gain an opportunity to practice submitting an assignment. It could be practice at formatting a document, submitting to an electronic system or using a new tool to create materials. Either way they get a practice run again without the high stakes pressure of things affecting their final grade.

Now feedback doesn’t only come from the course teacher, feedback can also come from peers and experience (maybe of submitting to said system etc). But when this really comes into it’s own is when the feedback is feedforward (I know lots of you hate this word but it really is the best way for me to describe what I mean), when the feedback directly relates to how to improve so that your summative grade is better than it could have been. This I think is a crucial element of feedback. Feedback must come at a time when it can be acted upon so that it can make a difference. Feedback in week 12 after the assignments are submitted and the course is complete is a bit like the old bullseye catchphrase, “look at what you could have won”.

Lastly, I know all too well that there is a feeling that students don’t bother reading feedback, so why then should we bother. Well, maybe we need to address why student are not reading feedback and see if we can rectify this? Are we actually closing the loop on feedback? Are we saying here is feedback now go action it, then checking and saying, show me how you have auctioned this feedback?

Do students understand the benefits of taking part in a formative assignment, even though it will not directly feed a grade into their course?

Sometimes believe it or not, student don’t actually understand what we think is obvious. They just feel time poor, especially since they are usually studying multiple courses each semester, and they may not be able to make the connection between opportunities to improve their work and that final grades that seems so far off from now.

Have a think about this when you are in the course design phase of your next course and see if you can actively design in opportunities for formative assessment.

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