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Assessment for learning

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Formative versus summative assessment

As we have seen, one of the main criticisms of assessment is that it is too concerned with grading. Here it is important to distinguish between formative and summative assessment. Summative assessment is graded and often comes at the end of the module; formative assessment is informal and mainly intended to help the student learn.

There is general agreement that the balance between formative and summative assessment in higher education is also biased towards the latter. Rust (2001) points out the value of giving formative feedback early on in the course, so that both teacher and student can pick up on areas which need improvement:

"It is arguable that assessment in British higher education is too often focused on the summative, and the accumulation of marks, coming at the end of courses, while students would benefit from more opportunities to build on their strengths and learn from their mistakes through the feedback from formative assessment activities staged throughout their course or module" (Rust 2001: p. 6).

Maclellan, who in her research on perceptions of assessment (2002) found that there was an inconsistency between teachers' declared support of formative assessment and their practice, makes a similar point, maintaining failure to do this will preclude the opportunity to modify teaching.

Black and William (1998) carried out a meta-analysis of research over a ten-year period, in which they asked three questions about formative assessment:

  1. does it raise standards,
  2. is there room for improvement, and
  3. if so, how?

They concluded that the answer to the first question was yes, and that this was due to:

  • enhanced feedback,
  • the involvement of learners,
  • the ability to adjust teaching,
  • improved motivation and self-esteem.

Formative assessment can help both the teacher (who can adjust the teaching to accommodate learner needs) and the learner (by indicating where his or her performance falls short).