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Formative Assessment and Technology

One of the earliest (and most cited) researchers to explore the efficacy of formative assessments is David Royce Sadler, whose work specifically involved instructional systems. Given that he was writing a quarter of a century ago, it is unsurprising that he thought technology might only contribute to the simplest of formative feedback: “it would be difficult if not impossible... to automate or develop a computer-based system for feedback or formative assessment, or for generating remedial moves and appropriate corrective procedures” (Royce Sadler, 1989, p. 139).

Nonetheless, more recently, the usual technological suspects have been researched for their potential to enhance formative assessment practices. These have included: e-learning and learning management systems (Wang, 2007); the Internet (Buchanan, 2001, 1998; Chen and Chen, 2009; Wang et al., 2006); mobile technologies (Hwang and Chang, 2011; Isabwe, 2012; Susono and Shimomura, 2006); blogs (Olofsson et al., 2011); classroom response systems (Beatty and Gerace, 2009; Feldman and Capobianco, 2008); and computer games (Broussard, 2014; Delacruz, 2011; Tsai et al., 2015). More general computer-based approaches (Bull et al., 2006; Jenkins, 2004; Lewis and Sewell, 2007; Peat and Franklin, 2002; Whitelock, 2007) and other less specific ‘technology-enhanced’ approaches to formative assessment (Landauer et al., 2009; Vendlinski et al., 2005) have also been proposed.

Inevitably, as is typical of research into learning and technology (Selwyn, 2013), these research outputs are almost entirely positive but their coverage is patchy and there is little useful consensus. The nearest to a review of the field is provided by Russell, in ‘The Handbook of Formative Assessment’ (Andrade and Cizek, 2010). Russell (2010) identifies four ‘promising’ ways in which computer-based technologies might be used to support formative assessment: (1) systematically monitoring student progress to inform instructional decisions; (2) identifying misconceptions that may interfere with student learning; (3) providing rapid feedback on student writing; and (4) collecting information about student learning needs during instruction.

The first of these involves students using handhold devices (such as tablets or mobile phones) to self-monitor their understanding and progress in class topics, thus providing the teacher with large amounts of individual data, perhaps by means of easy-to-digest graphics, that they can use to inform discussions about the student’s weaknesses and strengths and decisions about how best to support their learning needs. The second possible use requires somewhat more sophisticated technology: online diagnostic tests that in addition to providing a score automatically identifies what, if any, misconceptions the student holds about the topic in question. Students can then be directed to remedial learning activities. Russell’s third possible technology is more complex still: automatic essay marking (based on techniques such as Latent Semantic Analysis or Bayesian Essay Test Scoring), repurposed to provide students with almost instantaneous feedback on their writing. Such systems might provide information about the student’s use of English, the content of their writing, and the way in which they have structured their ideas, allowing them to rethink and revise their approach. The fourth technology identified by Russell, classroom response systems, are less technically sophisticated but are contingent upon how they are configured by the teacher. While they might enable teachers easily to identify patterns in individual responses, assess understanding and inform individualised teaching, they depend entirely on the quality of the questions and possible responses provided to the students.

Interestingly, of these four possible uses of technology to support formative assessment, in only one, automatic essay marking, is the student directly supported by the technology. The others are described as providing what might be called ‘in-direct’ formative assessment, by focussing on giving information to the teacher, to enable them to provide any necessary remedial support. However, this appears to be a limit of Russell’s approach, rather than anything specific to the technologies, each of which might be reconfigured to provide the students with direct opportunities to self-assess how they are progressing and how they might improve their own learning trajectory.

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