Universities and colleges struggle with two competing pedagogical views – deliver a source of knowledge for those driven by curiosity, or train the next generation of workers. The initial view is more historical, and is reliant on self-motivated, proactive students who concern themselves with enhancing a deeper understanding of their subject matter. They are less focused on specific final grades, believing that those will take care of themselves. Although many educators regard this attitude as a key to academic success, the majority of present day students are, in contrast, reactive. They do concentrate on final grades.

On most campuses today, the former, more traditional group, is becoming ever smaller. The latter ever-increasing group targets reactive performance (i.e. grades) over proactive mastery (knowledge and deeper understanding), and is less willing to recognize the importance of self-reflection that is the hallmark of the proactive approach necessary for real academic success. Members of this “I need the grades to get a better job” group lack the insight or awareness needed to address challenges and misconceptions. They need “retraining”–and the best way for university and college instructors to achieve this goal is through formative assessment.

What vs. why in formative assessment

The biggest difference between formative and summative assessment is not specifically the design of the assessment task itself. In effect, both tasks might be essentially identical. No, the biggest difference is how feedback is delivered and how the grades are determined.

For example, let’s say that a given course instructor is preparing a unit for an introductory freshman course. Usually, student performance is measured through assignments and examinations. These assessments are delivered throughout the term and carry a value. Students prepare for these assessment tasks by attending lectures and completing readings. Each assessment task stands alone and carries a final grade. Students tend to prepare for these tasks by memorizing the key ideas or concepts that have been part of their instruction. Preparation focuses almost exclusively on content specific acquisition, where the focus is on “what” they need to know, but seldom on “why” they need to know it. This is a very passive, reactive form of learning. In their world, their performance is black and white. They either get the answer or they don’t.

This approach fails to provide students with the necessary mindset required for self-reflection and deeper or proactive learning. This is not because students are unable to practice self-reflection, but simply that they do not see its merit. Making students aware of this reflective ability is where formative assessment comes in.

Instead of the summative assessment task, which provides little if any direction to the student, the formative task aims primarily at “why” their given responses are appropriate or not. This can be accomplished in a number of ways. One method is the scaffolded assignment —an assignment with multiple submission points (i.e., multiple dates throughout the term). Each part of the assignment carries a fraction of the final grade and receive real-time feedback through a rubric, written feedback, or through direct contact with the course instructor or teaching assistant.

To help students ask “why,” you must minimize risk for students worried about their grades. As most students today are focused on performance, making them averse to exploration or risk taking, they prefer to focus on finding the “correct” answer. They do not want to know “why” an answer might be appropriate, but simply want to know “what” that answer might be. If, however, you provide a guaranteed grade for the first part of the assignment—say, five percent, then students feel less pressure to find the “correct” answer and are more willing to try something different or take a risk. With no grade during the assignment’s earliest stage, the pressure is off and exploration is encouraged.

The performance-focused student may not realize it but they are now practicing skills necessary for mastery as opposed to performance. There’s no risk of losing out on a grade—encouraging the student to focus on the process.

Encouraging self-reflection

Critics may argue that this approach is tantamount to giving away marks, and that students will not put in any effort in the original submission, as they receive a set grade regardless of the quality of their response. But unlike a summative assessment, where the response if final, the formative approach allows for revision and hence exposes the student to self-reflection.

Formative feedback can also be assigned to examinations by providing graded feedback—even in a multiple-choice test. For example, students can be provided with multiple attempts to respond to a question and in so doing explore their rationale for a given response. They can then receive grades on the basis of the number of attempts they need to identify the correct response.

We are currently at a crossroads in higher education. We need to recognize that modes of assessment cannot remain static and must evolve in step with students’ needs.