Higher Education

Embedding Formative Assessments in Curriculum Programmes


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.

Also featured on the Times of Malta on the 27th October 2013.

Dr Mark Anthony Camilleri lectures at the University of Malta.


Contemporary Pedagogical Philosophies

“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself” (Dewey, 1897).




Education equips individuals with the right skills, substantive knowledge and competences to pursue their own goals. It enables them to become an integral part of the community as fully-fledged, autonomous citizens. In its broadest sense, education is a means of “social continuity of life” (Dewey, 1916:3). Even Plato in ‘the republic’ inquires about morality and the good life. He posits that human beings should be active within their community. The Greek philosopher maintained that every aspect of our life creates ‘harmonious people’. He went on to say that morals and ethics are part of an even balance of wisdom, courage, and restraint.

The main philosophical thoughts and the theoretical underpinnings of education are important social domains which have attracted the interest of many philosophers for thousands of years. For instance, Socrates floated his idea that knowledge is a matter of recollection, not of learning, observation or study (Dillon, 2004). Pertinent literature review suggests that education is a transmission of knowledge. Education fosters enquiry and reasoning skills that are conducive to the development of autonomy (Phillips, 2009). The question of learning and how the educative systems work relate to individual capacities and potentialities. Of course, the processes (and stages) of human development are shaped by many factors. Individuals experience different environmental contexts and settings. Their home country also possesses its own features, which often transcend from norms, traditions and cultures. The institutions of education should adapt their curricula to align themselves to the particular social fabric. Consequentially, the background of students as well as their educational environments (in which they are placed) ought to be carefully considered. For instance, Dewey advocated that human beings should be categorised into classes. He compared individuals to organisms situated in a biological and social environment, where problems are constantly emerging, forcing the individual to reflect and act, and then learn (Reed, and Widger, 2008).

Individuals can improve upon their existing knowledge as they reflect upon their actions, whether they are at school or in their work phase. Students are individuals with their own trails of growth. Teachers and employers are there to guide and facilitate this growth. The educators’ duties and responsibilities are to help in the academic (and non-curriculum) development of students in their learning journey. Dewey’s educational theories suggest that education and learning are social and interactive processes, and thus the school itself is a social institution through which social reform can and should take place (Dewey, 1916). In addition, the author believed that students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with their curriculum.Essentially, Dewey suggested that all students should be given the opportunity to take part in their own learning experience. Apparently, this approach focuses on the needs of students, rather than of all those involved in the educational process. The discourse revolving around student-centred pedagogy was also replicated in subsequent years by Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. This perspective has many implications for the design of courses. In the student-oriented approach, the educator adapts to the pupils’ needs, abilities, interests, and learning styles.

Educators use more than one theory of teaching as they may be capable of wearing different hats with their students. They act as students’ philosophers, advisers, counsellors, motivators, demonstrators, curriculum planners, evaluators and the list goes on. Bloom (1956) has classified three types of objectives: Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor. Similarly, Tolman (1951) put forth the notion that there are three parts to learning which work together as a gestalt. These are the “significant” goals of behaviour, the “sign” or the signal for action, and “means-end relations” which were internal processes and relationships. The author believed that  learning is an accumulation of these sign gestalts, and that they can be configured into cognitive maps. The input from the environment is on-going, and it influences behaviour, in that it causes certain gestalts to be selected or not. In this sense, learning is unique to each and every individual.

Beyond the notions of behaviourism, constructivism and the relevant theories and styles, the literature review in this field of study suggests that learning is a process of active engagement as an individual and in social contexts. Recently, the latest shift in educational discourse had been the distancing away from the conception of “learner as a sponge” (Maillet and Maisonneuve, 2011) toward an image of learner as an active construct. Although Dewey reminded us that learners were not empty vessels, education in many jurisdictions was usually based on teacher-centred approaches (Cuban, 1993). Evidently, there was an erroneous assumption that if teachers speak clearly and students are motivated, learning will be successful. When the students do not learn, the logic is that they are not paying attention, or they do not care. These conceptions may have been grounded in a theory of learning that focused on behaviour. Behavioural-learning theorists maintained that if teachers acted in a certain manner, students will react in particular ways. Central to this notion of behaviourism was the idea of conditioning, where the individuals are trained to respond to stimuli. Eventually, the “cognitive revolution” in psychology put the mind back into the learning process (Miller, 1956).

Behavioural psychology (based on factual and procedural rules) has given way to cognitive psychology (based on models for making sense of real life experiences (Lesh and Lamon 1992:18). Kandel and Hawkins (1992) maintained that the brain actively seeks new stimuli in the environment from which to learn and that the mind changes through use. Learning changes the structure of the brain (Bransford et al., 2000). Research suggests that young learners from a tender age – make sense of the world by actively creating meaning while they are reading texts. They construct their perceptions of social reality by interacting with their surrounding environment, or simply by talking to their peers. Even if students are quietly observing their teacher, they can be actively engaged in a process of active learning and understanding. This cognitive turn in psychology is often referred to as the constructivist approach to learning.


Teaching Philosophies

Overall, a statement of teaching philosophy should provide a personal portrait of the writer’s view of teaching. The narrative description of one’s conception of teaching as well’s as one’s rationale and justification for how one teaches and why, may be expressed in a variety of ways (Lyons, 1998). The overarching question in a statement of teaching philosophy is: Why am I teaching? Other relevant questions which follow are: What are my teaching goals and objectives? What is the student-teacher relationship which I strive to achieve? What behavioural methods will I use? What motivates me to enhance my knowledge about the subject I am teaching? What values do I impart to my students? How do I make sure that I have taught my students successfully? What code of ethics guide me?

One of the hallmarks of a teaching philosophy is its individuality. Ideally, this personal statement should be of a reflective nature in its content. A teaching philosophy is all about a vivid portrait of an educator who is motivated about teaching practices and committed to career advancement. The act of taking time to re-consider one’s goals, actions and vision provides an opportunity for self-development. The main components of teaching philosophies are descriptions of how educators think learning occurs, or how they think they can possibly intervene in their students’ learning process. Of course, educators set goals for their students. They may also decide to plan how to implement them. For some purposes, including a section on one’s personal growth as a teacher is also important for self-development. This reflective component explains how one educator has grown in the teaching profession over the years. It illustrates what challenges exist at present as it identifies what long term goals are projected for the future. Whilst writing this section, the educator revisits one’s concepts and methodologies. This exercise can turn out to be stimulating as the educator revises the old syllabi and the instructional resources. It goes without saying that the educator will need to remain abreast with the latest academic and research findings in his / her field of studies. It is in the educators’ self-interest to communicate and collaborate with their peers. There is scope for lecturers to work together with other colleagues. They are often encouraged to participate in workshops to share knowledge about best practices as well as resources. 

In a similar vein, the teaching philosophy should be communicated to the students as it is in their interest to know what is required from them and why (see Cerbin, 1996). Given this information, students are triggered to engage in a more productive manner in their learning journey. It is also likely that students learn much better and succeed in their course. Some empirical studies have shown that appropriate communication with students helps to increase their retention (Thomas, 2009; Braskamp and Ory, 1994). Nowadays, many educators are implicitly exhibiting their teaching philosophies as these are often evidenced to students through syllabi, assignments, approaches to teaching and learning, classroom environment and student –teacher relationships (Thiessen, 2012) The goal of sharing a statement of teaching philosophy is to value and respect students. One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil (Nietzsche, 1891).



Literature review has revealed that many teachers are following the theories and principles which were discussed here. The theories I have described here have provided me with a good insight to develop and articulate my teaching philosophy. This contribution offers a good opportunity to rethink about your teaching practice. I believe that the best educators are the ones who use and create, adopt (or reject) theories of learning and teaching. These theories and principles are derived from many years of experience and careful inquiry as they are tested in class-room settings, critiqued by colleagues and continuously emerge from empirical findings and theoretical underpinnings.


“Education, therefore, must begin with a psychological insight into the child’s capacities, interests, and habits. It must be controlled at every point by reference to these same considerations. These powers, interests, and habits must be continually interpreted – we must know what they mean. They must be translated into terms of their social equivalents – into terms of what they are capable of in the way of social” (Dewey, 1897). 



Bloom, B.S. (1956) “Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals” Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York, Longmans, Green.

Bransford, J., A. Brown, and R. Cocking, eds. (2000) “How people learn: Brain, mind,experience, and school”. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Braskamp, L.A., and Ory, J.C. (1994) “Assessing Faculty Work: Enhancing Individual and Institutional Performance”. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco.

Cerbin, W. (1996) “Inventing a new genre” The course portfolio at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse. In Making Teaching Community Property: A Menu for Peer Collaboration and Peer Review, ed. P. Hutchings. Washington, DC: American Association of Higher Education.

Cuban, L. (1993) “How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms 1890–1990”. New York: Teachers College Press.

Dewey, J. (1897) “My Pedagogic Creed”. Url: http://dewey.pragmatism.org/creed.htm accessed on the 25th April 2013.

Dewey, J. (1916) “Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education”. Url: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm accessed on the 25th April 2013.

Dewey, J. (1938) “Experience and Education”. Url: http://www.schoolofeducators.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/EXPERIENCE-EDUCATION-JOHN-DEWEY.pdf accessed on the 25th April 2013.

Dillon, A (2004) Education in Plato’s Republic Url: http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/submitted/dillon/education_plato_republic.html accessed on the 5th May 2013.

Kandel, E.R. and Hawkins, R.D. (1992) “The biological basis of learning and individuality.” Scientific American 267.3, pp.78-86.

Lyons, N. (1998) “With Portfolio in Hand: Validating the New Teacher Professionalism”. Teachers College Press, New York.

Maillet, B. and Maisonneuve, H. (2011) “Long-life learning for medical specialists doctors in Europe”. CME, DPC and qualification. Presse médicale (Paris, France: 1983), 40(4 Pt 1), 357.

Nietzsche (1891) “Decadence, and Regeneration in France (1891-95)” In Forth, C.E. (1993). Journal of the History of Ideas, 54:1 pp97-117.

Phillips, D.C., (2009) “Philosophy of Education”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Url: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2009/entries/education-philosophy/ accessed on the 2nd May 2013.

Plato. The Republic. 2nd ed. Trans. Desmond Lee (1987) Penguin Books, New York.

Reed, D.  and Widger, D. (2008) “Democracy and Education” by John Dewey. Url: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/852/852-h/852-h.htm accessed on the 4th May 2013.

Thiessen, D. (2012)”Classroom-based teacher.” Early Professional Development for Teachers 317.

Thomas, L. (2009) “Improving student retention in higher education”. AUR, 9.

Tolman, E. C. (1951) “Behaviour and psychological man: essays in motivation and learning”. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press.


Student-Centred Approaches in Higher Educational Setting


“One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.” Nietzsche (1891).

Traditionally, the teacher-centred learning involved the instructor’s active role, whereas the students exhibited a passive, receptive role. Of course, the student-centred learning has many implications for the design of the courses. In this perspective; within the student-oriented approach, the educator adapts to the pupils’ needs, abilities, interests, and learning styles. Handelsman et al. (2004) held that there is sufficient evidence that supplementing or replacing lectures with active learning strategies and engaging students in discovery and scientific process improves their learning and knowledge retention. Many educators are adopting a broad spectrum of the student-centred approaches, which include: Active Learning (Bonwell and Eison, 1991), Collaborative Learning (Bruffee, 1984), Inquiry-based Learning, Cooperative Learning (Johnson, Johnson and Smith, 1991), Problem-based Learning, Peer Led Team Learning (Tien, Roth, and Kampmeier, 2001), Team-based Learning (Michaelson, Knight and Fink, 2004), Peer Instruction (Mazur, 1997) among other methodologies.

As a proponent of active learning I suggest that exercises such as role-playing, debating, student engagement in case studies, active participation in cooperative learning and the like, may be used to create a context of material, where learners work collaboratively. Needless to say, the degree of the teacher’s involvement while the students are being “active” may vary according to the specific task and its context in a teaching unit (Bonwell and Eison, 1991). Examples of “active learning” activities include:

A collaborative learning group: Students are assigned in groups of 3-6 people and they are expected to work together, in tandem in a particular assignment. They are usually requested to answer a question to present to the class or to produce a project. A student debate: Students are urged to participate in activities by giving them the opportunity to express their views and opinions in verbal presentations. Debates will allow the students to take a position and collect information to substantiate their views and explain them to others. Class discussion are usually much more effective in smaller class settings. This educational setting allows the instructor to act as a moderator as s/he can guide the students’ learning experience, and foster the right environment. The students are requested  to critically reflect on the subject matter and use rationality to evaluate their peers’ positions. They are expected to discuss about any topic, in a constructive and objective manner. A discussion may be used as a follow-up activity when the lecture has already been delivered. Similarly, a think-pair-share activity is used when students are encouraged to reflect about the previous lesson. They are expected to discuss with one or more of their peers. Finally they are invited to share their concerns with the class as part of a formal discussion. The instructor is responsible to clarify any misunderstandings. In this case, the learners need a background of the subject to identify and relate what they know to others. Students need to prepared with sound instruction before expecting them to discuss any subject matter on their own.

A class game is a very innovative way to learn, as it provides an opportunity for students’ to review the course material. It also helps the them to enjoy the subject in creative ways. Different games may possibly include; jeopardy and crossword puzzles which keep the students’ minds going. Videos: It transpires that relevant video clips support students in their understanding. It is important that the video relates to the specific topic that students are covering at the particular point in time. The lecturer may possibly include a few questions before you start the video so to engage the students to pay attention to the video. After the video is complete, the students may be divided into groups in order to discuss what they learned. They may also be requested to write a review or points about the video clip or movie.

Evidently, it is up to the instructors to determine the educational goals and objectives. They have to analyse the environment in which they operate, identify the factors which may constrain their approaches, and choose any curricular model and methods that suit to their students. A diversity of approaches and varying methods are to be encouraged. This contribution suggests that a strategy that promotes a student-centred learning is likely to be very effective. Yet, I believe that there is a need for a fair evaluation of the students’ background before any approach can be considered to produce better results than others. The teacher’s duty and responsibility has inevitably changed to a  facilitator of learning. The learner-centred approach suggests that the students are the responsible participants in their own learning  journey.  Such a strategy puts the student at the very centre of the educator’s realms.



Bonwell, C.C. and Eison, J.A. (1991) “Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ERIC Digest”, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports, The George Washington University.

Bruffee, K.A. (1984) “Collaborative Learning and the” Conversation of Mankind”, College English 46.7: pp635-652.

Handelsman, J. et al. (2004) “Scientific teaching”, Science 304.5670: pp521-522.

Johnson, D.W., Johnson, R.T. and Smith, K.A. (1991) “Active learning”, Interaction Book Company.

Mazur, E. and Hilborn, R.C. (1997) “Peer instruction: A user’s manual”, Physics Today 50: 68.

Michaelson, L., Knight A., and Fink, L., (2004) “Team- based learning: A transformative use of small groups in  college teaching”, Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Nietzsche (1891) “Decadence, and Regeneration in France (1891-95)” In Forth, C.E. ( 1993) Journal of the History of Ideas, 54:1 pp97-117.

Tien, L.T., Roth, V. and Kampmeier, J.A (2002) “Implementation of a peerled team learning instructional approach in an undergraduate organic chemistry course”, Journal of research in science teaching 39.7: pp606-632.