The relevance of formative assessment in research and practice

Seminar Paper, 2018
7 Pages, Grade: 1,0



The role of formative assessment in current research

Formative vs. summative assessment

Formative assessment and teaching


The role of formative assessment in current research

Hattie found in his seminal meta-analysis of the impact of a large variety of factors on the success of learning that feedback was among the most powerful influences on achievement with an effect size of d = 0.78 (Hattie 2009: 173). For any discipline dealing with education feedback and therefore formative assessment must be vital issues, as they are part of the answer to one of the most fundamental questions in these fields: How does learning work? Hattie demonstrates the importance of feedback but also notes that even though feedback is such an essential aspect of successful learning processes, it is commonly misunderstood and its implementation often perceived wrongly:

I have spent many hours in classrooms (noting its [feedback's] absence, despite the claims of the best of teachers that they are constantly engaged in providing feedback), worked with students to increase self-helping (with little success), and have tried different methods of providing feedback. The mistake I was making was seeing feedback as something teachers provided to students – they typically did not, although they made claims that they did it all the time, and most of the feedback they did provide was social and behavioral. lt was only when I discovered that feedback was most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher that I started to understand it better (ibid).

Hattie's view of feedback as a phenomenon that goes both ways and is especially powerful when applied from student to teacher is not new, since Black and Wiliam noted already in 1998 that "the ultimate user of assessment information that is elicited in order to improve learning is the pupil (Black and Wiliam 1998: 142)." This view is not a final consensus though. The more conventional perception of feedback as communication only directed from teacher to student is still pervasive in popular view as well as academic circles; to cite one example from a recent article: "In this paper the centre of attention is the use of feedback, as viewed by those who give feedback (teachers) and those who receive feedback (students)" (Havnes et al. 2012: 22). In this view, roles are rigid and feedback a one-sided affair that can thus not fulfill its immense potential.

Alike the concept, terminology seems to be somehow blurry or at least indefinite. A google-search for "formative assessment" results in 519.000 hits, but "formative feedback" also yields 386.000 hits. The related term "assessment for learning" produces 501.000 hits. In scholarly texts, all three variations can be found. For example Shute (2008) uses "formative feedback" and describes it very much along the lines of Hattie: "[formative feedback is] information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behavior for the purpose of improving learning ((Shute 2008: 154)." The terms formative assessment and feedback are often used interchangeably but, more precisely, feedback is seen as either a central element of formative assessment (Havnes et al. 2012: 21) or even the same thing: "Formative assessment, therefore, is essentially feedback, both to the teacher and to the pupil about present understanding and skill development in order to determine the way forward (Harlen and James 1997: 369)." A crucial point here is that the function of formative assessment is to define the next steps in the learning process by means of communication. Formative Assessment is undoubtedly a major aspect in the sphere of learning and education and, according to Hattie, a powerful tool, but it seems to be a tool whose potential is not fully utilized, partly because of a lack of understanding and clarity of the concept.

Formative vs. summative assessment

Formative assessment is often defined by distinguishing it from summative assessment and this distinction can add to a better understanding of the former one. Most importantly, the two concepts differ concerning their respective objectives. Summative assessment aims at measuring to what extent learners have reached certain pre-specified learning outcomes at a particular point in time. Criterion-referenced summative assessment is based on specific standards such as a curriculum, without taking into account the performance of other learners in a group, whereas norm-referenced summative assessment compares individual achievement with standards developed considering the performance of all persons in a learning group (Ashenafi 2015: 226). The purpose of summative assessment can be to measure the level of learning achieved at a certain time for teachers, parents or students themselves, but often the objective is a more formal one, for instance an exam or on a larger scope an assessment such as VERA in Germany or PISA in the member states of the OECD.

Formative assessment refers to criteria such as specified learning goals as well, but where a wrong answer in a summative assessment is just wrong, a wrong answer in a formative assessment is important diagnostic information about a learning process. In addition, formative assessment focuses on a person's individual learning progression and success and takes into consideration factors that influence these:

This means that a judgement of a pupil's work or progress takes into account such things as the effort put in, the particular context of the pupil's work and the progress that the pupil has made over time. In consequence, the judgement of a piece of work, and what is fed back to the pupil, will depend on the pupil and not just on the relevant criteria. The justification for this is that the individual circumstances must be taken into account if the assessment is to help learning and to encourage the learner (Harlen and James 1997: 370).

The last aspect Harlen and James mention is the central objective of formative assessment: "to help learning and to encourage the learner." In this regard, formative assessment is rather student-centered. Feedback is given from teacher to students as to their learning process and progress—and regarding the next steps in the process, so as to progress further. What is missing in this description though is feedback directed from student to teacher in order for the latter to gain information on how to adjust his or her teaching. This is the aspect that Hattie stresses as one of his major findings:

When teachers seek, or at least are open to, feedback from students as to what students know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged—then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful (Hattie 2009: 173).

To be "synchronized" a certain flexibility and willingness on both sides to is necessary to adjust learning and teaching based on the feedback received from the other side on the progression of learning. Learners will need to adapt as well and by getting better at this, they will acquire important meta-cognitive skills with respect to learning, particularly concerning self-regulation. Learning then becomes a process in which both teacher and student continually modify their behavior based on each other's feedback in their everyday practice. As Black and Wiliam put it:

We use the general term assessment to refer to all those activities undertaken by teachers - and by their students in assessing themselves - that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs (Black and Wiliam 1998: 140).

From a critical viewpoint, one could claim that the concept of formative assessment is nothing new because "all those activities undertaken by teachers" have always been part of the job. There are important differences though. For once, formative assessment deals with learning processes on a more individual basis and in this regard it fits well into a modern understanding of learning as a constructivist process: each individual perceives the world differently and therefore learns differently. Hence, each individual needs individual formative assessment. Secondly, formative assessment aims at organizing this undertaking in a more systematic way, always with the objective in mind to improve learning processes and identify the next steps in these.


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The relevance of formative assessment in research and practice
Free University of Berlin  (Fachbereich Didaktik des Englischen)
Entwicklung Forschung und Evaluation
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M.A., M.A. John Schulze (Author), 2018, The relevance of formative assessment in research and practice, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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