Formative assessment

I’m stuck at home at the moment with a horrible cold (yuk) and a cat with a burst abscess (double yuk). 

In between blowing my nose and mopping up bits of goo emanating from poor kittykat’s wound, I’ve been reading a book I bought last week very cheaply from our university bookshop. It’s having a monster sale – which I’m told has nothing to do with the fact that it’s in administration and everything to do with it relocating soon to our new very flash library building.

‘Assessment for Learning’ by Paul Black and others describes a study done in UK secondary schools on Maths and Science teaching in which teachers were encouraged to use formative assessment tools as part of their teaching. Although a secondary-school study, I’m sure a lot of it will carry over to university level. I’m not halfway through it yet, but I’m already fascinated by results (Butler, 1988) that suggest that ‘marking’ a student’s work that through giving them comments and a summative mark (e.g. 7/10) is no better than giving them just the mark, or even no response at all, whereas not giving them a mark at all but just the comments leads to more learning.  They talk a bit about experiences where teachers thought that this was just not possible in the mark-based regime they worked in, but tried it anyway and found the howls of protest they expected from students, parents, colleagues and headteachers didn’t materialize. Worth a shot in one of my papers, I’m thinking.

Another major point concerns students being able to respond to feedback. If you provide them with an assessment of where they are and where you want them to be, that is good, but there needs to be some mechanism available by which they can close that gap.  That might involve giving students opportunities to resubmit work or having a comprehensive discussion on an assessment within class. Peer learning can be really strong.

The authors summarize the steps of formative assessment as:

1. Data on the actual level of some measureable attribute

2. Data on the desirable level of that attribute

3. A mechanism for comparing the two levels and assessing the gap between them

4. A mechanism by which the information can be used to alter the gap.

My hunch is that not too many of us are very good on that last point. Certainly I’m not.  Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book – well worth the bargain basement price paid for it.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B. & Wiliam, D. (2003) Assessment for Learning. Maidenhead, U.K.: Open University Press.

Butler, R. (1988)  Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: the effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58:1-14.

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