Incorporating Formative Assessments into Digital Courseware

Written by: Gabe Fink

College and university faculty who want to personalize students’ learning should consider formative assessment as a way to monitor and understand how individual students are progressing.

Formative assessment is the use of frequent, timely, low-stakes activities that check students’ knowledge or skills. Formative assessment can be short quizzes or reflective writing of only a few sentences. It contrasts with summative assessments such as midterm exams and final papers, which have high stakes and are meant to demonstrate progress comprehensively. Whereas the goal of summative assessment is to evaluate, formative assessment monitors and gives actionable feedback.

Formative assessment has several advantages: it encourages metacognition; it enables more personalized learning and therefore can help close equity gaps; because it is timely, both students and instructors can use it to adjust during the term; and because it is low stakes, students are more likely to learn from the assessment.

Instructors also learn from formative assessment, says Dr. Deborah Taylor, a course developer, e-learning consultant, and faculty affiliate at the University of Kansas. “In fact, it should be called informative assessment,” she says. “It informs instructors on how students are doing, it informs the students on what they do and don’t know, and it can be used to drive instruction.”

Even though formative assessments should be short, the approach potentially means more grading and course management for instructors. But one of the advantages of digital courseware is that it can incorporate formative assessment without that additional course management.

Using Formative Assessment with Digital Courseware

Taylor, who recently joined the CourseGateway Product Advisory Board, says the adaptive learning assignments built into some courseware products are a powerful tool for instructors looking to implement formative assessment. Adaptive learning assesses a student’s mastery of a concept or skill and then dynamically adjusts the next lesson or practice activity presented to that student.

“Now that I’ve been able to provide an adaptive learning experience to my students, I wouldn’t teach with courseware that didn’t have it,” Taylor says. “Adaptive courseware assesses the student’s knowledge and creates a personalized learning pathway that addresses gaps in knowledge and lets them skip over content that they already know. The program I use lets them recharge and come back to it, and when they do, it only gives them the questions they had trouble with.”

Another way Taylor incorporates formative assessment into courseware is through the built-in homework assignments. By allowing students to check their answer a limited number of times, she encourages them to take another chance at correctly answering the question without penalty. Her approach is to not let them have unlimited attempts, however. In her experience, Taylor says, that tends to lead to students guessing the answer until they get it right, rather than reflecting.

An important consideration when incorporating formative assessment is how low the stakes should be. Taylor recommends keeping a point value low enough to have a minimal effect on a student’s grade, but high enough to keep the student motivated to complete a quiz and the associated reading. This also allows her to monitor the engagement and progress of individual students throughout the term.

Related reading: A Collection of Resources for First-Time Adjunct Instructors

Formative Assessment Mindset

Formative assessment may require some instructors to shift their mindset in order to be more transparent with students. Taylor recommends clearly describing how it works by utilizing principles of metacognitive learning to support academic progress. For example, a 2013 study from Consciousness and Cognition showed that as a students’ metacognitive ability increases, they’re also more likely to achieve at higher levels.

“Metacognition is thinking about how you think and thinking about what you know,” she says. “Often students don’t do well because they don’t know what they don’t know. One of the things courseware is really good at is showing students what they do and don’t know. When students understand that the high-stakes exams are based on the same content, they readily do the assignments, often more than once.”

One pitfall that instructors may run into when using formative assessment for the first time is incorporating too much content into each assessment. “The brain learns small chunks at a time,” Taylor says. “That’s why a 45-minute lecture is far more effective when you break it up into small lecture segments with formative and active learning experiences in between.” 

For this reason, Taylor recommends faculty outline key learning objectives for the course and limit each assessment to a narrow range of those objectives. 

Related reading: Why Disaggregated DFWI Rates Matter for Equitable Learning

Enabling Equity Efforts

Courseware utilizing frequent low-stakes formative assessments has the additional advantage of creating a more equitable learning experience for students who may have gaps in content coverage from prior schooling. “Courseware, particularly adaptive learning courseware, can bring about equity by leveling the playing field,” Taylor says. “It provides a personalized learning experience for students that fills in the gaps for the underprepared while bringing them to the level of knowledge expected in a particular course.”

This process works by focusing on the material that challenges students the most while allowing them to work at their own pace. Taylor says courseware that personalizes the learning path is able to move on from a challenging topic and circle back to it for individual students so that they don’t feel stuck.

By using formative assessments to enable learning and sustain academic progress in gateway courses, faculty can prepare their students for more challenging courses later on. All courses build on each other, Taylor says, so making sure students have a firm foundation is key to degree completion.

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