Why I Love Formative Testing

Everyone hates tests, right? OK, maybe not everyone, but a certain amount of test anxiety is pretty universal. The anxiety stems from the fact that all of the work you have done, all of the study, and ultimately your success or failure in a class comes down to your ability to answer a few questions the way your teacher wants them answered. For a student, this means that there is a lot riding on the exams, in other words they are high stakes assessments. But what we generally think of when we say “test” only describes one type of evaluation, the summative assessment. Summative assessments are usually given at the end of a study unit and are typically high stakes since they are trying to evaluate whether or not you have successfully learned the material in the unit.

I realize that some kind of summative assessments must be done, but I don’t really like them. Summative tests tend to be classic written exams or papers (though other methods are occasionally used), which often do not effectively assess the student’s understanding or the effectiveness of the instruction, yet they are used to determine understanding¬†and ability. Generally, it is assumed that the instruction has been adequate to prepare students, but I think we all know this is not always the case, and often, even in a rich instructional environment, students do not pick up on what the teacher feels is the most important (and, therefore, what ends up on the test).

Although I do not really like summative tests and find them to be imperfect at best, I do acknowledge a need for them; however, I believe that there should be many low stakes opportunities to evaluate progress along the way to that final evaluation. This is done by formative testing. Formative tests tend to be very low stakes (I try to make them just valuable enough for students to care) and are given throughout the study unit allowing both the teacher and the student to gain insight on both the effectiveness of the instruction and the depth of the developing understanding. Furthermore, formative testing allows several opportunities for the student to understand a teacher’s “testing style” allowing them to study more effectively. The best part is, formative testing can even be fun. While formative evaluations can take the form of quizzes and short papers, they can also be done with games, demonstrations, activities, etc. Even if the formative activity ends up being a quiz, these can be made more fun by using tools such as Socative or Kahoot to make the quiz more interactive and more likely to foster effective questions and discussions.

As I have gained a better understanding of both summative and formative testing, I find myself looking for opportunities to include formative exercises in my lessons. I believe doing so helps me to identify struggling students, unclear concepts, and ineffective instruction (and all teachers know some days are better that others) and better prepares my students for the “big” exam. I think all instructors owe it to their students to at least consider formative evaluations. To my way of thinking, formative testing makes the summative test easier (tests are only hard if you don’t know how to answer), guides improvement to my instruction, results in an overall better class experience, and leads to a higher success rate. Remember, when a student fails, neither the student nor the teacher look good. I like it when everyone can look good and I love having formative testing as a method of reaching that goal.

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