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Following Up on Formative Assessment 

I’m part of the Curriculum Enhancement Team working to support teaching and learning improvement across the University. We do this through events such as Curriculum Festivals and workshops run through TESTA (Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment). We also conduct deep-dives into all forms of assessment through one-to-one interviews.

In this post, I share insights from a recent report and explore why formative assessment matters. 

Interviews 

In a series of reflective interviews, staff from seven different programmes that participated in TESTA told us about their experiences with formative assessment. Emerging from the interviews was a varied discussion about the usefulness of formative assessment, with many commenting that while they like the idea of formative assessment, in practice they often struggled to encourage students to engage with it. Questions were raised about whether students value formative assessment, with some staff reporting that their students consider it a low priority when they have competing, credit-bearing deadlines. As a result, academics were concerned about the risk of investing time and resources to plan formative assessments that students might not take seriously.  

After working with the TESTA team, and despite the issues raised, five of the seven programmes increased their formative assessment. Three of these subjects also chose to reduce summative assessments to free up space for formatives. Students responded positively to these changes with improved performance noted in their summative assessments as a result. In their interviews, Programme Leads discussed what changes they made as a result of TESTA that led to successful formative assessment. Here, I reflect on three of the main reasons they gave.  

Timing is Critical 

Spacing assignments out helped students to have sufficient time to complete formatives without the stress of competing deadlines. Staff found that having multiple deadlines due around the same time created a sense of urgency for students. One commented, “having a 2% due tomorrow creates stress, even though a 20% is due in three days, let’s say. It was always an urgency based on timeline”. It’s not surprising that many students tend not to engage with formative assessment when they have more pressing summative assessments to contend with. Generally, programmes found that whether or not students participate in formative assessment often depends on what else they have going on at the time. For this reason, they found that allowing students time and space to complete formative assessments helped with engagement levels, with one Programme Director stating that formative assessment on their unit “only works because they haven’t got competing deadlines, the timing of it is absolutely critical.”  

Expanding Expectations of Formative Assessment 

A common issue appeared to be a lack of understanding of what may be classed as ‘formative’, from both students and staff, which not only led to low participation from students but made it less likely that academics would choose to embed formative work into their units.  

Programmes reported that TESTA helped their team to challenge their assumptions of formative assessment. One Programme Director remarked that TESTA prompted a “discussion around the definition of what makes something formative and summative” causing them to “reappraise what we thought of as formative assessment.” More specifically, that there can be more to formative work than just formal assessments. For example, one programme began to embed the idea that in-class work and discussions could be considered formative for their assignments. Taking the time to explain what formative assessment is to students, how it is beneficial and when they are participating in formative work encouraged students to value formative assessment more. As one Programme Director reflected, “as long as you have a clear narrative from the beginning and you explain to students how their participation and engagement with formative assessments will inform their success, they’re with you.” 

Formative Assessment at Programme Level  

Formative assessment cannot become fully incorporated into the curriculum if students only experience it once or twice during their degree. One programme trialled embedding formative assessment across their programme, which proved successful. The Programme Director stated that this structural approach removed competition between units with different assessment approaches, and implementing change all at once across the programme ensured success. Embedding formative assessment at programme level means that it becomes a standardised part of degree courses, rather than a one off, optional experience for students, making it more likely they will choose to engage.  

The result of these combined changes led not only to higher engagement with formative assessment but an overall enhanced learning experience. Upon integrating more formative assessment, one Programme Director commented, “they did so much better because of it. They’re trying to take the learning out of it rather than concentrating on what I’m going to mark.” In a less intense, low-stakes environment, students can focus on what they find valuable and interesting as opposed to what they think will gain the most amount of marks.   

Another programme lead reflected on how differently students interacted with their formative assessments than with summative ones, saying, “with formative assessments, they just do the best that they can in the time that they’ve got without worrying too much and they know if it’s not too good they’ll get the feedback and use it.” Formative assessment not only relieves pressure for students but for academics too. According to the Programme Director, staff found communication with students to be generally more productive. Having  practiced their assessment, students found the build-up to deadlines to be less intense, asking “different types of questions” that were more about making the most of their learning and less about how to do the assessment. 

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Although seemingly difficult to initiate, these TESTA programmes demonstrate that there are multiple ways to increase engagement with formative assessment (these suggestions are by no means an exhaustive list). However formative assessment is approached, it’s clear from these examples that when it becomes a focus for a programme team there can be numerous benefits for students that mean they ultimately get more out of their degrees.  

To find out more about TESTA at Bristol, please visit the BILT website or contact the team:   academic-development-team@bristol.ac.uk 

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