Educators who regularly engage in student-oriented approaches will inevitably need to adapt to different pupils’ needs, abilities, interests and learning styles. Nowadays there is adequate and sufficient evidence which suggests that educators who supplement or replace lectures with active learning strategies are improving their students’ learning and knowledge retention. At the same time, the students will become motivated as they participate in the discovery and scientific processes. Recent, academic studies have shown that educators are increasingly resorting to student-centred assessment approaches, including: Active Learning, Collaborative Learning, Inquiry-based Learning, Cooperative Learning, Problem-based Learning, Peer Led Team Learning, Team-based Learning and Peer Instruction among other methodologies. Therefore, educators are expected to identify their students’ learning needs and respond to them. Yet, they should also measure the progress of their pupils in their learning journey. This article maintains that (summative) assessments are a classic way of measuring student progress. Assessments are integral to the schools’ quality assurance, syllabi and curriculum programmes. In a similar way, such forms of tracking individuals’ performance and their progress are also applied in workplace environments by many employers. However this is only part of the story. To be truly meaningful and effective, assessments should also be “formative”. Educators may use tools and activities which are embedded in the on-going curriculum to garner students’ feedback at key points in the learning process.
Interestingly, educators are moving away from the conventional teacher-centred methodologies as they are enhancing their interaction with students. Formative assessments respond to the pupils’ individual learning needs as the educators are making frequent, appraisals of their students’ understanding. This enables them to adapt their teaching to meet the students’ requirements, and to better help everyone reach high standards of excellence. Educators ought to involve their students in their learning journey. This helps them to develop key knowledge, skills and competences that enable their intellectual growth. Nevertheless, although the educators seem to be incorporating various aspects of formative assessment into their teaching, it is less common to find it practiced in a systematic manner. Formative assessments are often present within individual teachers’ frameworks. It may appear that some of the emerging educational approaches are setting up learning situations as students’ are guided toward their learning goals. These approaches seem to be re-defining student success. To my mind, formative assessments are highly effective in raising the level of student attainment, as they are likely to increase the equity of student outcomes. Formative assessments entice the students’ curiosity in the subject, as well as improving the students’ ability and aptitude to learn. Such student-centred methodologies emphasise the process of teaching and learning, as they involve students in their own educational process. It also builds students’ skills during peer and self-assessments, and help them develop a range of effective learning strategies. Students who are actively involved in building their understanding of new concepts (rather than merely absorbing information) and who are learning to judge their own quality and of their peers – are developing invaluable skills for lifelong learning. As a proponent of active learning my formative assessment strategies often feature role-playing, debating, student engagement in case studies, active participation in cooperative learning and the like. Such teaching approaches can be utilised to create a context of material, where learners work collaboratively. Needless to say, the degree of my involvement while students are being “active” may vary according to the specific task and its context in a teaching unit. Of course, there are different approaches to gauge students’ comprehension of what has been taught. A non-exhaustive list of formative assessment strategies can include:
- Questioning strategies: During classroom interactions, students may be asked challenging questions. Questions often reveal student misconceptions. Questions can be embedded in lesson plans. Asking questions often gives me an opportunity for deeper thinking and provides me with significant insights into the degree and depth of student understanding. Questions will inevitably engage students in classroom dialogue that both uncovers and expands learning.
- Criteria and goal setting: Students need to understand and know the learning targets / goals and the criteria for reaching them. Establishing and defining quality work together, asking students to participate in establishing norms and behaviours for classroom culture, and determining what should be included in criteria for success are all examples of such a strategy. Using student work, classroom tests, or exemplars of what is expected will help students understand where they are, where they need to be, and an effective process for getting there.
- Observations assist teachers in gathering evidence of student learning to inform instructional planning. This evidence can be recorded and used as constructive feedback for students about their learning curve.
- Self and peer assessments help to create a learning community within a classroom. Students will learn as they are engaged in metacognitive thinking. When students are involved in criteria and goal setting, self-evaluation is a logical step forward in the learning process. With peer evaluation, students see each other as valuable resources for checking each other’s quality work against previously established criteria.
- Student record keeping helps students better understand their own learning as evidenced by their classroom work. This process of students keeping on-going records of their work will help reflect on their learning journey, as they examine the progress they are making toward their learning goals.
- Portfolios, logbooks and rubrics: These instruments are widely used to provide an opportunity for written dialogues with students. Such tools help educators to evaluate the quality of their students’ work. On the other hand, students will use rubrics to judge their own work, and improve upon it.
Without doubt, there may be still some perceived tensions among stakeholders about formative assessments and summative tests. Education institutions have to be accountable for student achievement. They guide students to satisfy the requirements of their curriculum programmes. There may be a lack of consistency and coherence in policies between assessments and evaluations at both the institutional and classroom levels. And there are different attitudes among educators about formative assessments. Perhaps, on-going assessments may be considered too resource-intensive and time-consuming to be practical. Educators are often faced with extensive curriculum and reporting requirements as they are often teaching to larger classes.
The right assessment systems foster constructive cultures of evaluation. Formative assessments are likely to help in promoting reforms for student-centred education. Ideally, information gathered through assessments and evaluation processes can be used to shape strategies for continuous improvement at each level of our education system. In classrooms, educators can possibly gather information on student understanding. Consequentially, this enables them to adjust their instruction to meet students’ identified learning needs. In conclusion, this contribution suggests that the locus of emerging educational strategies is pushing toward a proactive engagement in student-centred learning theories, where the student is placed at the very centre of the educator’s realms.
Dr Mark Anthony Camilleri lectures at the University of Malta.