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Formative assessment in online learning: Pros and cons

Baleni discusses the pros and cons of formative online assessment (Assessment for learning).
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© Baleni, Z. G. (2015). Online formative assessment in higher education: Its pros and cons. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 13, 228–236.

Read the summary of the research by Baleni (2015) on the pros and cons of formative assessment in online learning.

In the comments, summarise the pros and cons of formative assessment and reflect on your own teaching or learning experiences with formative assessment online activities. Which formative assessments were more successful for your learning?

Formative assessment

Bloom (1969, 48), states that the purpose of formative evaluation is “…to provide feedback and correctives at each stage in the teaching-learning process”. The distinguishing characteristic is “when the (results are) actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs” (Black & Wiliam 1998a, 140). Formative assessment plays a critical role in learning environments, specifically embedded formative assessment. It is very important to recognise the value of embedded formative assessment and its role in increasing student learning is essential in not only meeting the intended outcomes of the course, but also in closing the feedback loop in quality online courses. Instruction and assessment are an integral part of each other; thus, assessment should be viewed as a process which lecturers must use throughout the course, not just as an afterthought or for summative purposes at the end. With accountability in mind and the explosion of online learning environments the need for best assessment practices in online learning environments surges.

Formative assessment is usually used in the classroom as a basis of continuing feedback aiming to advance teaching and learning (Hargreaves 2008). It can also be named assessment for learning that takes place during the development of teaching with the purpose to support learning (Vonderwell et al. 2007). Formative assessment activities are entrenched within guidelines to monitor learning and assess learners’ comprehension so that teaching can be modified and further learning is informed through continuing and timely feedback until the anticipated level of understanding has been accomplished. Formative assessments are practical i.e. they improve expertise and concentrate in scheduling, minimise student nervousness, afford students an additional sense of possession as they develop, and, eventually, endorse the conception of the module contents (Smith 1997; Stiggins & Chappuis, 2005; Stiggins & DuFour 2009; Wlodkowski 2008). Unlike summative assessment, formative assessment (a) has a drive more closely tied to lecturers’ teaching outcomes; and (b) presents a potential for refining student learning that is more instantaneously obvious, as well as instructionally appropriate (Knowles 1984). The benefits of formative assessment have been well recognised and research has shown that formative assessment practices are supplementary with enhanced academic achievement (Hargreaves 2005; Hodgen & Marshall 2005; Wiliam et al. 2004).

Kigandi (2010) identified ten design principles grounded on a critical analysis of literature in online formative assessment and reliable learning viewpoints.

  • The assessment activities need to be authentic by being relevant and meaningful to the learner real life situations and experiences, and seamlessly embedded in the teaching and learning processes. The tasks must be relevant to real life examples and be part of teaching and learning
  • Assessment activities need to engage and support learners in individual construction of knowledge and meaning making them feel free and confident to use their previous knowledge and experience
  • Assessment activities need to provide learners with opportunities to construct knowledge. Students should be allowed to share information with their peers online like in discussion forums
  • The assessment activities need to be accompanied with opportunities to provide formatively useful, ongoing and timely feedback. Elaborated, timely feedback not based on marks should be provided to students by both the lecturers and peers
  • The assessment activities need to be accompanied by analytical and transparent rubrics that assist the learner to clearly understand the expected level of achievements. Such rubrics enhance student preparation for the submission of tasks and builds confidence in students to know that marking will be transparent
  • The assessment activities need to create opportunities that engage learners in meaningful reflection. Students must be allowed to reflect on their own understanding, i.e. self-assessment to motivate them towards achieving set outcomes
  • There is need to provide opportunities for ongoing documentation and monitoring of learner achievements and progress over time. This will nurture students to be self -sufficient and the lecturer will also reflect on students’ progress
  • Teachers need to be more explicit in stimulating shared purpose and meaning of learning and assessment activities. There should be evidence of alignment of teaching outcomes and assessment criteria
  • The assessment activities need to involve learners in multiple roles. Students should be part of planning assessment like choosing which rubric or what design of the rubric should be used to assess their tasks
  • The assessment activities need to be flexible and provide room for multiple approaches and solutions. Opportunities must be provided for students to reflect by looking at the rear mirror of their understanding of the topic as well as how they have developed to be independent thinkers.


Although formative assessment can help all students, it produces predominantly good results with low achievers by focusing on specific glitches with their work and providing them with a clear comprehension of the mistakes and how to correct them. Good formative assessment is not easy to achieve, taking into account the pressure from the public/parents, students themselves to produce results, and requires a jump of confidence by the teaching fraternity. The Blackboard selection is just one of the good effects of our technology focused eras. Some of the benefits of implementing e-learning for formative assessment can be specified as follows: It provides immediate feedback to the students so that the learning route ensues without deferment compared to traditional classroom based method, the possibilities to generate comprehensive feedback supports the student to find a solution for his/her slip-up, with appropriate clarification, it creates an attractive learning feature for the students as they do the assessment online and it shows the scores to the students so that proper assessment on one’s situation in terms of topic knowledge is clarified. Learner and assessment-centered approaches can offer a framework for moving away from the traditional viewpoint of attaining knowledge towards a new viewpoint that is compatible with active learning relevant to the 21st century learning. While acknowledging that there may be other ways of creating such a learning environment, application of formative assessment within the context of online learning is a viable option to achieve this. Online formative assessments are, somehow, more privatised efforts to learn; and, especially if students are afforded several attempts and average scores are used, they offer a much greater prospect to great achievement (Rovai 2000). I have observed that, with undergraduate students, the use of formative assessment is an irreplaceable and extremely valuable technique to enhance student understanding and supporting achievement. In essence, formative assessment leads to students being able to measure their own progress. It is also a tremendous value to lecturers as it can provide very important feedback about what exactly students are learning; the exact nature and extent of their difficulties.

Lastly, in recent years, as e-assessment tools become progressively used, lecturers benefit in both marking time and administrative costs of mark compilation, while for students, online quizzes give prompt and comprehensive feedback and prominently enhanced flexibility around the time and place of taking the assessment task. To enhance the feedback or online correspondence expected from the part of the lecturer, other Blackboard tools like discussion forum and virtual class room can be used.

© Baleni, Z. G. (2015). Online formative assessment in higher education: Its pros and cons. Electronic Journal of E-Learning, 13, 228–236.
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