Formative assessment

By Marcus Wilson 18/04/2011 7


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.


7 Responses to “Formative assessment”

  • In my first-year paper we offer the possibility of a ‘resubmit’ in the sense that the tutor & I will review drafts of essays for our students. (Every year we make the offer with some trepidation – what if they all take us up on it????? So far what we fear has not eventuated – there are around 200 in the class & we might see 50-60 essays between us.)

    I worry that at uni level we aren’t actually terribly good at the assessment side of things, & that because of this we may be sending the wrong messages to students in regard to what they should be learning. Room for plenty of tearoom conversations there :-)

    You might also be interested in “Classroom assessment techniques” by Angelo & Cross (1993), written for the tertiary sector.

  • Are you familiar with the works of NZ’s own John Hattie? He’s one of the world leaders, and got a bit of press with his most recent work: a synthesis of hundreds of metastudies of education. He found feedback the most important influencer of success, particularly: providing information how and why the child understands and misunderstands, and what directions the student must take to improve.. Sounds a lot like Butler’s findings. Hattie’s best-known in NZ for the asTTle system of formative assessment, which aims to give just that kind of feedback. It’s widely used in primary and secondary schools.

  • Alison, I was wondering if you had a view on the use of peer assessment (as part of formative assessment) in primary school age children. It is used at our school and I’ll have to say that I have concerns about children assessing each other’s work at that age – there are a number of potential pitfalls such as friendships and popularity influencing the marking and the fact that children have a fairly limited capacity for good judgment at that age (how are children supposed to assess qualities such as originality?).
    Just thinking aloud here, wondering if you or Marcus have any thoughts on this.

    • Stewart – in the ‘Assessment for learning’ book they mention using the traffic-light system (green = ‘I understand this’, yellow = ‘I’m not sure’, red = ‘we need to spend more time on this’) as a very simple way of students assessing their own (and others’) work. It gives rapid feedback to the teacher and the students on whether something has been understood or not. That might work with primary school students, but I’m not sure – never been in that position. But one thing that I have learnt is that it certainly won’t work if you don’t try it.

  • I don’t think I’d be keen to use it with really young kids; I’m not sure that they have the emotional (& maybe intellectual) maturity to do a proper job It’s more likely, as you say, that outcomes would be influenced by friendships, desire to be popular, & that sort of thing. I have used peer assessment in my uni classes & we spend a bit of time beforehand talking about why we’re doing & why & how, & at that level I’m satisfied that it can work well. But with primary students….. not sure, not sure at all…

  • Thank you for those thoughts, Alison. Our personal experiences have tended to reinforce the kinds of concerns you are raising.

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