There are three types of assessments. A diagnostic assessment comes before learning, is ungraded, and measures prior knowledge of the upcoming learning material. It can be used to determine what needs to be taught. A summative assessment comes at the end of learning, is generally graded, and measures how much students learned. It can also measure how well the instructor taught and aid in revising the lesson for future courses. Between the two lies the formative assessment, which is taken during learning, is ungraded, and measures students’ progress in their learning. It’s a valuable tool for improving student understanding, and the instructor can use it to determine when to go back over prior topics.
Below, I will go over some important questions to consider as you craft your formative assessment, as well as methods for implementing formative assessments in an online course.
Formative assessment checklist
- Is the lesson live or asynchronous? Because there are time constraints on live sessions, assessments need to be short. By contrast, assessments of asynchronous learning can be more involved and require more student time.
- Are you trying to measure knowledge retention or application? Many commentators assume that quizzing can only be used to measure knowledge retention, but this is not true. Multiple choice questions can be crafted to require an application of knowledge and even a sequence of applications that build on one another. Medical students take lengthy Step exams that require them to read a scenario involving a patient’s history and then determine the patient’s problem, pick the correct medication, and identify common side effects of the medication. Faculty can do the same with their formative quizzes.
- Will student responses be public or private? While instructors tend to assume that any student assessment needs to be private, there is no requirement that an ungraded assessment needs to be private. If you ask students to summarize a reading, they may benefit from seeing the range of interpretations from their classmates after submitting their own. This can help them see alternative ways to look at readings.
- Who will use the results? It is generally assumed that the results of a formative assessment are for faculty use, but they should also be for student use. An instructor can respond to student confusion about a lesson by creating a video going over the points of misunderstanding. But students should also revise what they have submitted in light of the additional material. You might ask them to retake a quiz or rewrite a short summary of a reading. The retake both demonstrates to you that student understanding has (hopefully) improved and helps harden the new information in the minds of the students.
Formative assessment types
A multiple-choice quiz is a simple and fast way to measure student progress in their learning. For an asynchronous online lesson, you can create an ungraded quiz in the learning management system (LMS). But for a live session, an outside quizzing or polling app such as Quizlet, Kahoot, or Poll Everywhere tends to offer a more engaging format than the LMS quiz; you can also embed it in the slides of a presentation. All these tools offer analytics of results that you can display to students if you so choose.
You can use short comments in either live or asynchronous online formats. There are a variety of types to choose from:
- One-minute summary: Students have one minute to write down a summary of the material that was just covered.
- Muddiest point: Students write down the point in the lesson that most confuses them.
- What’s the principle? Students state the most appropriate principle for solving a case without actually solving it. Identifying the proper underlying principle for a case is a critical but often neglected first step for solving problems. Focusing on selection of the proper principle—whether it’s an energy principle in a physics course or an inventory counting method in accounting—can go a long way toward improving student performance.
- How well do you understand it? Students report how well they understood what was just covered on a scale from 0 (not at all) to 5 (completely).
While you can use quizzing systems to collect short answers to questions, there are other options as well. The microblogging app Padlet is excellent for collecting and publicly displaying short responses from students in real time. By setting the board to require administrator approval before posting, you can ensure that each response is independent of all others. Another option is Google Forms, which you can use as a quizzing tool. The program can compile the responses in a spreadsheet that you can show to students or display them within the form either individually or via a graph.
For a deeper assessment of student learning, consider requiring a half- to one-page written response. Here, you might ask for one of the following:
- A summary of a lesson
- An analysis of a case study that requires students to apply what they learned in the lesson
- A list of topics or areas of a lesson that students do not understand
- A list of questions that the lesson raises for students
A simple way to gather these longer comments is as text documents submitted through the LMS assignment function. But even if you do not grade the comments, the assignment function may cause some tension in students about whether their responses are correct. Third-party apps might relax students a bit so they focus more on elaborating their thinking. In particular, user-based apps, such as blogs and e-portfolios, can be good for this kind of “write out loud” purpose. These also allow students to easily revise what they wrote if the instructor goes over the lesson again. The most popular LMSs have these functions built into them, though your institution’s administrator might need to activate them; you can also use outside apps, such as Google’s Blogger for blogging and Adobe Creative Cloud Express (formerly Adobe Spark) for e-portfolios.
Formative assessments can involve quizzes as well as short or long answers, and there are a number of tools for facilitating each type of assessment. They can both measure and reinforce understanding, making them a valuable tool for tailoring education to student needs.