Creating Engagement in the Classroom: Formative Assessments and Real-Time Results

How capturing real-time data helps educators keep their finger on the pulse of the higher-education classroom.

Here’s a secret you may not be privy to, students: Professors are always assessing your performance.

In today’s crowded and increasingly less intimate classrooms, it may not seem like educators are keeping their fingers on the pulse of the class, but we are. As the classroom has evolved, so have professors’ techniques for accomplishing this goal. In past years, thorough, sweeping assessments—like midterms and finals—were the go-to methods for instructors to gauge learning in the classroom. Classes identified as “midterm and final only” were high stakes and high pressure, but the importance of these assessments was always well known, so students generally prepared accordingly.

But there’s another way for an educator to see what’s working and what’s not.

While midterms and finals still have merit (and likely always will), technological advances allow professors to assess student learning and understanding in a way never before possible. Contemporary methods permit for the capture of real-time data, allowing professors to make adjustments day-by-day, and week by week – before it’s too late.

Two Leading Methods Defined…

Historically, summative assessments – such as term papers, midterms, and finals – served as the primary measure of comprehension in the classroom. This type of assessment is intentionally kept separate from the lecture and is designed to assess students at the end of a given learning cycle. The results are usually measured against some predetermined benchmark, like the students from last semester or a target grade point average established with the syllabus. Unfortunately, the high-stakes nature of these assessments can create higher rates of stress for some students and instigate academic dishonesty.

Formative assessments—which have been around since the 1960s but have only more recently begun to boom in popularity—differ from summative assessments in that they can be formal or informal, they’re highly varied, and they monitor in-progress learning. That last point is key—a formative assessment measures a student’s comprehension as they progress through a lesson or activity, allowing the professor to gather real-time data and insights to help hone future classes to better serve each student’s unique needs. Today, the formative assessment is widely considered to be one of the more effective instructional strategies used by teachers, and there is a growing body of research to evaluate and assess these strategies.

From the Professor…

As a professor, I understand the role of a mid-term (summative assessment) to understand how each student is doing, from a big picture perspective, just as I understand its role at the end of a semester to measure how they did. Similar assessments, like a term paper or an individual presentation, provides an opportunity to look at the students understanding of the material cumulatively presented and purposefully applied.

The role of formative, though, fills in all the blanks in between. Blanks like, “Do the students understand the material I presented from week one?” Am I okay proceeding, as planned in my syllabus, to move on to the next concept in week two which builds off of a foundation from week one? If they don’t get the basics how can I move on? The answer may not be what you think.

I can move on, and often do because the syllabus says I am supposed to, and if I don’t I will not be able to cover all of the material required to be presented in my class. If I don’t present all of the material required to be presented  in my class then I have to explain why not, and “because I couldn’t get my students to learn the material” is not a good answer from a professional (paid) educator to their employer.

Formative assessments, like a scored quiz after my required reading, helps increase the percentage of students who read the assigned article and assess the individual’s understanding. A low score may indicate lack of participation, or a challenge with the material, which initiates an inquiry: “What happened on the quiz?” Based on this answer I can help the student within the first week: now, when they need help. The same types of assessments happen weeks two through eight so that I don’t have a classroom full of students who didn’t “get it” after the (summative) mid-term.

From the Student…

One of the most stressful classes I have ever taken involved a mass of students, stadium seating, and a grade determined by only a midterm and final. Any time I have the opportunity to take a smaller-sized lecture, I take it. The larger the class, the less personalized my learning experiences have been. I have always struggled in these scenarios. I am very hands-on, and I strongly prefer real-world experience to a textbook.

Unfortunately, not many classes offer this type of learning environment. In many cases, students are forced to take classes in massive rooms, surrounded by hundreds of students, just one professor and a TA or two. Opportunities for engagement, social learning, and student expression decrease drastically and the entire educational experience is less impactful.

“My freshman year I took my first ‘college lecture,’” says senior Ana Luca. “The class met twice a week, but the only points that counted toward my grade were the midterm and final exam. I was always nervous and exhausted from cramming for the exams before going in.”

“I love the idea of a one-on-one learning experience—a class where I know the instructor, the instructor knows me, and if I’m ever confused on a topic or absent from class, someone actually notices,” says sophomore Diana Pham. “But the truth is, I haven’t had that since high school.”

“Most of my large lecture classes have few weighted assignments that can make or break your grade,” says senior Kelly Lee. “I prefer smaller classes where I can have a more personal experience as well as many assignments to grade from instead of just those three exams or a huge term paper.”

Three Proven Formative Assessments…

1. Questions Asked to Individual Students During the Lecture

A targeted question-and-answer session is one of the most common formative assessments seen in the higher-education classroom. The professor can ask questions at any time throughout a lecture, seeking out specific responses from specific students to gauge their learning. This is particularly beneficial as the professor gets to know their students. If the instructor knows a particular student struggles in a particular area and has shown up for office hours for help there, the professor can ask them a question during class to make sure the out-of-class learning stuck.

2. Peer-review Sessions or Self-assessment Exercises

Peer review sessions and self-assessment exercises—where students assume a dual student/professor role—also allow for the real-time capture of the classroom’s strengths and weaknesses. By encouraging the students to rate and grade their work in pairs or groups, the professor can save time and identify trends throughout the classroom as a whole. If several students are noticing the same problems, that’s something the professor can address at length during the next lecture. Depending on the expected outcomes of these exercises, though, professors could notice some academic dishonesty here, as well. Students are sometimes not honest in the assessment of their own learning, and they may also want to take it easy on a friend/peer during their review to avoid any backlash.

3. Real-time Assessments

Real-time assessments represent an increasingly popular type of formative assessment in the high-education classroom. Usually, real-time assessments involve technology and present students with questions or polls throughout the class period. Students will respond to the prompts, and the professor will have access to each student’s answers, which they can then use to tweak and modify future lessons/teaching strategies. By seamlessly integrating into the professor’s lecture, real-time assessments keep the class moving smoothly while also assessing learning and allowing students to provide feedback on their experiences.

Many professors, like myself, are including real-time assessments as part of our weekly class presentations. With systems like CourseKey, a well-placed multiple choice question at the end of a concept helps assess each student’s understanding. It can also help me confirm that how I have presented the material to the class is working. A series of questions throughout the lecture provides valuable feedback to the student while they are still in class, where teachers can still help. Adding points to the questions can provide intermittent grading, rewards for participation, and can also contribute to the impetus for attending.

Share Your Experiences…

Both summative and formative assessments have their place in the modern classroom. Tried-and-true, summative assessments were the standard inside the classroom for decades, and they likely will never go away. They’re remarkably thorough and in-depth, assessing a student’s learning throughout the semester in one sweep. Formative assessments, on the other hand, are varied and insightful by nature, capable of molding to each classroom’s unique needs. This gives both professors and students various avenues to express themselves and engage with one another to create better learning outcomes.

With face-to-face, paper-and-pen, and technologically driven options available, each professor can test the waters to determine which type of formative assessment works best for them and their students. Using these assessments to better understand their classroom, professors can then leverage the real-time data collected to tweak and modify future lessons to better serve each student’s needs.

While formative assessments still have their issues—academic dishonesty in peer reviews/self assessments chiefly among them—professors are finding real-time results through technology to be an invaluable combination inside the modern classroom.

For professors: How do you assess your students’ learning? If you utilize summative assessments, what do you like about them? If you’re a proponent of formative assessments, why? Which specific type of either do you use?

For students: What methods help you feel comfortable and engaged during class? If you’ve experienced both formative and summative assessments, what are your thoughts on each?

Leave a comment below to share your experiences.

As we continue to analyze and discuss more issues like this one throughout the blog series, our collective contributions will prove valuable. Share the article with a friend or colleague and see what they think, as well. All of us know more than one of us.

Follow authors Kevin Popovic and Ryan Vanshur as we continue to share our own experiences and insights. Please connect with us on LinkedIn to speak directly.

Download ebook: Creating Engagement in the Classroom


San Diego State University Lecturer Kevin Popović and SDSU student Ryan Vanshur combine their learnings about improving the classroom dynamic with their mutual experience and research, creating an insightful look into the strategies and technologies that influence today’s faculty and students.

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