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Formative Assessments: To Test or Not To Test?

How can educators use Formative Assessments to ensure an effective learning environment in online classes?

As a country where parents spend US$50 billion on private coaching institutions per year, we are creating an education environment where only marks matter, opposed to one that encourages learning for the sake of knowledge. With most final exams cancelled, students have begun to think that what they learn in their online classes does not matter anymore. Quite the bitter irony, as online education relies on students taking greater responsibility for their own learning.

Short of reforming the entire academic culture of the country, what can teachers do to restore student efforts, prioritize learning, and combat the numbing effect final assessment has on the student mindset as a whole? Well, they can fight fire with fire by turning assessments on their heads, and use them to not just quantify learning but to also ensure it. This article will illustrate how, through a versatile range of activities and innovative TechTools, teachers can implement formative assessment to meet key learning objectives in their online classrooms.

What are Formative Assessments?

A formative assessment is any “low-stakes” task, assignment, or activity where the primary goal is not to grade the student, but rather; ensure their understanding of subject material, engage them in and out of the classroom, and offer instantaneous and reliable feedback to educators that in turn help them improve the learning process.

These learning objectives make formative assessments essential now more than ever, during the new normal of online education. This is because teachers need a reliable strategy to evaluate how students are retaining information in this unfamiliar digital environment, while also ensuring they remain involved despite the absence of final exam pressure. 

Understanding of Subject Material

 Formatives both measure and increase student levels of understanding. How many times do you ask “are there any questions,” and how many times are you met with complete silence. Probably even more so now than before. We might then feel justified in continuing with our seemingly endless syllabus only to later learn that the absence of voiced confusion does not mean the presence of quiet understanding. Formative assessments do a better job of bringing this confusion into the light, quizzes being the classic go-to. 

However, it is important to note that the Pop-Quiz is probably not your most effective tool, the shock factor you could instill with low-score surprises is somewhat diminished when there is no looming final exam to fear. So, instead of blindsiding students, quizzes can now engage and stimulate them. For example, Kahoot is one popular TechTool that creates an intense, fun-orientated interaction where students compete with their classmates by answering questions correctly in real time. This also helps take away the pressure and stress associated with testing and allows them to focus on just understanding the questions and subject matter. 

Other TechTools, like Google Classroom, offer quizzing platforms for students to complete outside of class time, but a quiz is not the only form of formative assessment designed to promote understanding. Asking students to plot a timeline, draw a mindmap, or create a forum post to present or summarise a perspective, are all very effective, and refreshingly new ways of getting a student to review and understand what was taught. Padlet is a one-stop shop type of TechTool that can accomplish all these methods and many more through the various services it offers. For a quick review of Padlet and how to use it to your advantage, you can watch this #techtool review we did earlier this month.

Engagement In and Out of Class

With no finals and quarantine dragging on, is it any surprise that students have become lackluster with their study efforts? Formative assessments draw on other learning strategies and can be implemented to restore student engagement, as well as understanding, both in online classes and after the lockdown lifts. 

Formative assessment is versatile by nature and is thus not limited to the written word. For example, a student can be assessed on the validity of their points presented verbally during a class discussion or debate, and on the understanding displayed through interpretation in an art project. This allows students to exercise multiple intelligences often disregarded by summative assessment, like linguistic intelligence and creativity, as well as develop new skills.  

This is engaging in itself, but can be made more so, since formatives provide the opportunity for collaborative learning. This is a highly-beneficial learning strategy that can be implemented through formatives like team-based art projects generated online, or Zoom-hosted Fishbowl Debates, and can go a long way into not only engaging your students, but meeting their social and emotional learning requirements. To find out more about the need for collaborative learning and how you can implement it online, you can visit our last article linked here.

Direct, Reliable Teacher Feedback:

It has always been suggested that teachers create a dialogue with their students to improve the teaching and learning culture in their classrooms. However, asking students how their learning is going usually yields the same results as asking for any questions. Which is to say, no substantial responses come forth. Formative assessments, however, provide a more genuine form of upwards feedback from students to teachers on various aspects.

For example, when the majority of students get a particular question wrong in a formative quiz, it is evidence that the topic in question has not been sufficiently understood and needs reviewing. Similarly, if the class tends to score well on quizzes but not so much during discussions or forum posts, it suggests a broader trend where students do not struggle with knowledge and understanding but with conceptual application. Therefore, any sort of formative you conduct, conveys some sort of information on the knowledge and skills being acquired or missed by your students. By incorporating this feedback into your lesson planning and teaching, your students will automatically end up learning more even with the absence of exam pressure.

The Glass is Half Full!

Finally, teachers should look at this cancelling of finals and boards as an opportunity. There is no dearth of study material that claims that the overwhelming pressure on students created by a culture that puts all its emphasis on exams is actually counterintuitive to academic performance. There are studies that suggest it actually limits potential, let alone the effects on student mental health and holistic development. As such, online education absent any sort of final exam is our chance to see how effectively learning for the sake of learning can be implemented, and how we can bring about that shift towards a growth mindset in our classrooms.

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