Formative Assessments for Online Learning

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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.


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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

Formative assessment types

Quizzes

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.

Short comments

You can use short comments in either live or asynchronous online formats. There are a variety of types to choose from:

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.

Longer comments

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 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.