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Driving enablement of formative assessment

The intersection of education and technology presents new opportunities to drive formative assessment at scale. We explore how institutions can expand their formative assessment strategy for teaching and learning success.

Amanda De Amicis
Amanda De Amicis
Content Writer, Turnitin

What does it mean to accurately assess student learning at any given point in time, and what role does formative assessment play? In an education landscape contending with flexible learning environments, the future of work, and the growth of AI, greater emphasis is being placed on student-centered learning with expectations that assessment practices will keep pace.

Formative assessment, a cornerstone of assessment methodology, serves an important purpose in providing students ongoing feedback for learning, gathering evidence of learning to inform teaching interventions, and cultivating confident, self-directed learners. At a time of increasing scrutiny on the process of learning to go beyond the product of learning, formative assessment also supports educators in delivering authentic learning while validating students’ true achievement.

Despite its value, there are barriers to conducting formative assessment within the classroom and at scale using traditional methods. In this blog post, we explore the intersection of education and technology that presents new opportunities to drive formative assessment and how institutions can enable this strategy for teaching and learning success.

What is formative assessment and why is it beneficial?

Formative assessment is often referred to as ‘assessment for learning’, distinguished from the ‘assessment of learning’ associated with summative assessment. Although a universal definition eludes us, it is generally agreed that summative assessment aims to determine whether a learning objective has been met, whereas formative assessment is focused on evaluating how students get there, involving milestones towards the learning goal.

One popular definition, provided by the US-based Council of Chiefs State School Officers (CCSSO), is as follows: “Formative assessment is a planned, ongoing process used by all students and teachers during learning and teaching to elicit and use evidence of student learning to improve student understanding of intended disciplinary learning outcomes and support students to become self-directed learners.”

Key benefits of formative assessment:

  • Increases student understanding, retention and mastery of concepts
  • Scaffolds student performance through timely, continuous feedback such as ‘Where to next?’ feedback
  • Generates learning data to inform teaching interventions
  • Empowers students to self-regulate their learning
  • Allows students room to ‘fail safely’ prior to high-stakes summative tasks

The foundation of formative assessment is feedback and it’s a potent predictor of teaching and learning success. Drawing upon its proven impact in their research study on balancing the efficacy and resourcing of formative assessment, Higgins, et al. (2015) highlight that “assessment providing informative feedback while a student is learning has more effect on student achievement than any other factor.”

The cadence of formative assessment, too, benefits students in contrast to the infrequent, high-stakes testing environment. By emphasizing progress and development over time, the formative approach to assessment can nurture a growth mindset among students where perseverance and incremental improvements are understood as pivotal to academic success. In turn, this reduces the likelihood of learners becoming fixated on grades and disengaging from the learning process. Furthermore, the frequency of formative assessment helps students get accustomed to the testing environment and may potentially reduce stress around upcoming summative assessments.

Aside from the obvious boon to student success, there is also evidence that formative assessment supports faculty satisfaction. In an internal research study conducted by Faculty Focus, “88% of respondents found it helpful or very helpful to have access to student formative assessment data. More than 80% of respondents indicated their intent to implement new teaching techniques based on formative assessment feedback.” In this way, formative assessment can also be seen to serve the needs of administrators when it comes to overseeing the performance of programs and supporting teaching staff.

As the education sector moves towards more authentic learning experiences and competency-based assessment in accordance with the evolution of study and work, it stands to reason that closer student evaluation and measurement of learning milestones ought to play a larger role in nurturing capable, job-ready graduates.

However, planning for and conducting formative assessment is not without its challenges.

What are the barriers to formative assessment?

If there’s a scenario in education for which the proverb “nothing good comes easily” best applies, formative assessment would be a strong contender. This form of evaluation requires dedication to monitor student progress in a timely and systematic way and make teaching iterations to scaffold and improve their understanding. It also depends on a level of trust in the educator-student relationship by fostering a robust, inclusive feedback loop whereby student engagement and agency can flourish and strengthen outcomes.

In their contribution to the International Encyclopedia of Education (Fourth Edition) 2023, Cizek and Lim contend: “It is likely that no other educational intervention in the last 20 years has spawned greater research interest, commercial development, and practitioner appeal as has formative assessment.” The irony, they note, is the simultaneous disagreement on a consistent definition and implementation of formative assessment. These differences can encompass criteria for effective feedback loops, whether low- or no-score grading is used, or the time allocated to this form of assessment.

Obstacles to formative assessment:

  • Inconsistencies in how formative assessment is conducted
  • Time-consuming and resource-intensive
  • Curriculums historically rooted in summative assessment
  • Risk of grading bias with more frequent and personalized evaluations
  • Actioning formative data to demonstrate improved learning

Summative assessment and formative assessment should ultimately work together rather than in opposition, however there can be tension in maintaining this balance. Particularly for higher education where accreditation factors and larger class sizes come into play, formative assessment can become overlooked in curriculum development.

And when a formative approach does prevail via ongoing, low-stakes tasks, issues may arise surrounding feedback quality, timeliness, and applicability. Consider John Hattie’s edict that for feedback to be effective it can’t just be ‘given’; it must be received. Now contemplate the effort involved in making students receptive rather than resistant to feedback and what it takes to trigger self-evaluation and meaningful changes in their cognitive behaviors. It’s dependent upon a robust feedback loop that educators must sustain on a consistent basis across varying student needs.

We know formative assessment works for learning, so how can we make it viable from an infrastructure, policy, and resourcing standpoint?

Technology’s role in growing formative assessment practices

A long-standing tradition, ‘formative’ assessment—along with its ‘summative’ counterpart—was originally adopted by Bloom in 1968 and has taken on new life in the digital era. With technology by their side, educators have made great strides in increasing visibility of learning, accommodating flexible learning modalities and boosting productivity in the administrative elements of their daily work. Technology has been pivotal in facilitating detailed, timely feedback precisely when it’s needed in the student learning journey, to elevate learning outcomes.

Use of edtech, including digitisation of teaching workflows and grading and feedback tools, turns formative assessment into a more viable endeavor, increasing the likelihood of buy-in. It elicits educator endorsement, not to mention buy-in from administrators conscious of resourcing in their curriculum planning. Fundamentally, automated learning data and dashboards bring education closer to learning personalisation at scale—a previously unrealistic goal—and serves to identify at-risk students before it’s too late. It’s clear that technology is poised to take formative assessment from a ‘nice to have’ in an institution’s toolkit to an expanded form of assessment.

Efficiency aside, what about the efficacy of technology to shape learning performance? Consider the 2021 study in which John Hattie teamed up with Turnitin researchers to examine feedback that leads to improvement in student essays. Using both high school and university data in the form of 3,204 student essays submitted through Turnitin Feedback Studio, results were gleaned following the initial submission, receipt of feedback, and resubmission of essays to generate final scores. They discovered that ‘Where to Next?’ feedback was most powerful, and that “the use of a computer-aided system of feedback augmented with teacher-provided feedback does lead to enhanced performance over time.”

Tech-enabled formative assessment is also proving its potential to facilitate new strategies in developing countries where formative assessment practices are less common; offering a pedagogical scaffold, if you will, to boost learning and teaching performance. This is evidenced in the recommendations of Spector et al. (2015) on new formative assessment practices to support 21st century learning, borne from an Assessment Working Group in Thailand. They contend that “assessment tools and technologies could be used for meaningful diagnostic and cross-cultural purposes to form the basis for informing and improving educational systems to enhance students' learning.”

Bridging the gap between traditional and digital assessment methods

The evolution of formative assessment through digital enablement is not to discount traditional best practice such as paper-based workflows. ‘Paper and pen’ assignments may form a core part of your courses due to the familiarity, accessibility, and perceived reliability of the format. Disciplines that involve student drawings or annotations to demonstrate understanding is a primary use case for physical paper, as is security against unauthorized use of technology—including AI—for a specified assignment.

When it comes to administering assessment, there is an assumption that by embracing digital to extend formative learning opportunities, educators must sacrifice tried-and-true paper-based methods. However, this is not actually the case. We know that educators yearn to spend less time grading and more time teaching, and digital can work hand-in-hand with pen and paper methods to streamline the grading experience and address shortcomings around efficiency and efficacy.

A key limitation of paper—particularly as it relates to formative assessment frequency—is that manual grading of hand-written assignments takes a significant amount of time, and risks curtailing opportunities by time-poor educators to craft comprehensive feedback beyond the baseline. Similarly, this workflow does not surface past learning data to help inform educators’ feedback efforts in the context of the student’s broader learning journey.

The ability to scan piles of physical documents using technology such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR) in preparation for digital grading, is a game changer for bridging the gap between paper and digital in the formative assessment workflow. Over and above the convenience and time savings, educators and administrators are enabled to make more cohesive, data-driven decisions around student progress across the unit or semester, at the individual and aggregate level. In turn, this illuminates a path forward for more targeted instruction as student needs evolve and helps inform course development.

Paper to Digital—an add-on feature of Turnitin Feedback Studio—combines the instructional flexibility of paper-based assessment types with the speed and precision of digital grading; enhancing rather than disrupting your teaching methods.

Overview: Technology as an enabler of formative assessment

Formative assessment is a powerful strategy in education and its uptake via technology promises greater scaffolds for student performance while empowering educators and administrators to enhance course outcomes.

By emphasizing progress and development over time, the formative approach to assessment can nurture a growth mindset among students towards safeguarding learning outcomes and retention rates, and also proves beneficial for educators in refining teaching techniques based on formative assessment data.

As the education sector transitions to offering more authentic learning experiences and competency-based assessments that meet new expectations in study and work, technology can facilitate formative assessment historically overlooked due to barriers such as inefficiency.

In overcoming the shortcomings of traditional, manual methods, institutions are afforded more flexibility and agility to conduct formative assessment more frequently and at scale. Furthermore, digital can work hand-in-hand with pen and paper methods to streamline the grading experience and ensure pedagogical best practice is augmented rather than disrupted in the digital era.