Formative digital assessment

Jonny Johnston, Academic Developer, writes about classroom assessment techniques (‘CATS’) in digital teaching and learning

Higher Education as an endeavour (and as an industry) has spent the last 30 years worshipping at the cult of assessment: is/our assessment practices fit for purpose? What are we assessing? Are we assessing for learning, as learning, assessing to take stock of learning, or assessing to certify learning and award degrees? Why do we do assessment the way we do, and how do we see it changing? And, topically – where does digital fit into the debate?

When we talk about digital transformation in assessment, quite often we put the focus on high-stakes summative assessment practices and focus on the shift towards open-book cultures or on the potential privacy invasions of remote proctoring. Our use of classroom assessment techniques (often referred to as assessment-for-learning strategies) is often what gives as a sense of whether or not students have tuned in or just turned up – and whether they’re engaged or not.

In a face to face environment like a lecture hall or seminar room, we can judge from students’ expressions whether or not they’re with us – and break up teaching activity with think-pair-share activities, solo minute papers, group discussions, and a whole raft of collaborative activities. We change our delivery, repeat and clarify, highlight concepts based on how students are responding. Shifting these activities into the digital space isn’t always straightforward – particularly if we’re not aware of just how often we do these in real time when we’re teaching in person.

Some of the things we do in person can work better online: particularly for large group teaching. VLE tools and videoconferencing apps like Zoom can support anonymous annotation on shared slidedecks, encouraging learners to ask questions at low-risk to themselves. Structured engagement in breakout rooms can be used to replicate the ‘talk with the people on either side of you to discuss as a think-pair-share’ – and asking students to report back their ‘group’ answers is lower stakes for a learner than sharing their individual answer in front of 300 peers.

Polling tools are quick and easy to set up on the fly and can be used in almost any situation to give you a sense of where your students are. Wordclouds generated in response to ‘muddiest point’ or ‘minute paper’ style prompts (using tools like TurningPoint or Menti) can be used for responsive plenary activities and let you really quickly and easily see what students have taken away from the session – or haven’t, as the case may be! ‘Post-it’ style ideation, brainstorming, and ‘card-sort’ activities on virtual pegboards can be done with tools like Flinga or Padlet and can be used by groups or individuals.

We don’t necessarily think explicitly about formative assessment in action in the digital classroom. I think it’s a major oversight: the vast majority of assessment we do as educators is on-the-hoof and formative, particularly when we’re teaching in live time. Our digital teaching is evolving rapidly. Is our digital assessment evolving to match?

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