MET:Formative Assessment in Virtual Learning Environments

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This page was originally authored by Kathryn Hay (2008).
This page was edited by Riea Elder (2010).
This page was edited by Stephen Hawkins (2010).
This page was edited by Matthew Christian (2015).

Stop-Motion Introduction to Formative Assessment

An Introduction to Formative Assessment

Formative assessment plays a key role in the training and education of learners. The key premise of formative assessment “is that for students to be able to improve, they must develop the capacity to monitor the quality of their own work during actual production.” (Sadler, 1989, p. 1) Formative assessment requires the student to apply the assessment in the learning process, if it is not applied, then the student is not learning from the descriptive feedback. Within this process, the student becomes an active participant, gaining control over the learning, and becomes more engaged. Formative assessment is a strategy that benefits both the student as well as the teacher. The student develops a better understanding of what they currently know as well as gaining an understanding of how to progress. The teacher is able to gain information on how well the students are progressing, and can adjust instructional strategies to fill gaps in the students’ learning prior to any summative test.

In a face-to-face learning environment, educators and learners interact in real time to foster the development of quality work and understanding. They are able to decipher tone, emotion and facial expressions to gather more information about the level of understanding that you cannot necessarily interpret through written words. In a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), educators and designers face additional challenges to encourage learners to monitor their learning. Strategies are required to counteract the removal of instantaneous interplay between educators and learners. Implementing formative assessment requires a pedagogical shift from the normative summative assessment strategy. It is more than supplying clarifications to students’ questions; it is an active and proactive process. Integrated questioning that provokes higher-level thinking must be planned on within the lessons.


Formative assessment is diagnostic in nature, giving feedback to both the learner and the educator as to the degree of comprehension and ability to apply skills and concepts. The ability of self-monitoring is useful for this purpose. Sadler (1989) asserts that “[i]f the learner generates the relevant information, the procedure is part of self-monitoring. If the source of information is external to the learner, it is associated with feedback.” (p. 4)

Formative assessment also has the ability to provide the appropriate scaffolding to expand a learner’s zone of proximal development.

The social interaction of feedback between the educator and learner assists the learner to understand concepts in small manageable pieces to a point where the learner is able to accomplish task on their own.

Bell & Cowie

According to Bell & Cowie in Formative Assessment and Science Education, they have identified 10 characteristics of formative assessment that they have concluded from the research of eight case studies:

  1. Responsiveness (or action) of the educator/learner to the assessment information
    1. Ongoing and progressive - for both educator and learner
    2. Formal or informal - can be a written record or verbal
    3. Interactive - assessment gathered was used in the interaction between educator and learner
    4. Proactive or reactive - feedback can be given before a task or after
    5. Individual or class - feedback can be addressed to the individual or as a whole class
    6. Risk taking - educators are not aware of the reaction of the learners when giving feedback
    7. Varying degrees of responsiveness - educators have to manage learning of the individuals as well as the whole class
  2. Source of information and evidence - assessment can be gathered from educator's observation, written work, collaborative group work, questions
  3. Student disclosure - evidence of student performance
    1. Teacher assessment tasks and strategies - social factors interfere with students participating in discussions
    2. Relationship between teacher's rights and disclosure - although learners feel protective of being disclosed very few did not consent to disclosure
    3. Confidentiality - educators replied to questions in a public way which made learners hold back ideas from educators for fear of disclosure
    4. Expectation of peer and teacher actions - fear of reaction from peer and educators limited learner participation
    5. Leading to help - in contrast to the fear of reaction/disclosure learners indicated that asking questions lead to help from peers and educators
    6. Trust - trust in educators and peers corresponded to the amount learners participated and disclosed
  4. Tacit process - educators were not always aware when giving formative feedback because it is implicit
  5. Using professional knowledge and experiences
  6. Integral part of teaching and learning
  7. Both learner and educator performs formative assessment
  8. Purpose of formative assessment - inform student learning and inform teaching
  9. Contextualized nature of formative assessment - the purpose, information, interpretations are dependent on the class situation (small groups, individuals), activities, teacher's knowledge etc.
  10. Dilemmas - formative assessment is not a problem that can be solved, but are dilemmas which relies on the professional judgment and discretion of the educators

The Educator’s Role

Encouraging learners to transition from being the recipient of feedback to being able to self-monitor is a goal common to many educators and learning environments. (Sadler, 1989, p. 4) While communication between educators and learners in a VLE can be a combination of text, audio and video, this does not wholly substitute for face-to-face interactions. When communicating with learners, Harlen and James (1997) suggest that educators should:

  • strive to heighten motivation and self-efficacy
  • ensure clarity of learning outcomes and criteria
  • provide constructive guidance on how to improve
  • encourage learners to be reflective
  • encouraging learners to submit preliminary work
  • develop a community of learning
  • promote interaction among learners

Formative assessment should be an integral part of the learning process. The assessment provided through formative assessment not only allows students to learn and develop as a process, but it also allows the teacher to adjust their teaching, prior to the completion of the task. The assessment process allows for adjustments to be made during the learning process. The formative assessment is therefore a tool for both student and teacher. When properly used, formative assessment enables the students to correct their course of learning to reach specific goals. The process is to enable the student to gain an understanding by guiding them, through descriptive feedback, as opposed to simply evaluating their work as correct or incorrect. This also means that formative assessment is generally not for grade collection. The information gathered is for the purpose of learning and instructional modification, generally leading to summative assessment. The distinction here is that formative assessment can be thought of as assessment “FOR” learning and summative as assessment “OF” learning. Grades do not necessarily need to be assigned to formative assessments. Sadler (1989) suggests that assigning grades to formative assessments may divert attention “away from fundamental judgments and the criteria for making them. A grade therefore may actually be counterproductive for formative purposes.” (p. 3)

The Role of Design and Technology

Young (1993) suggests that assessment cannot “be viewed as an add-on to an instructional design or simply as separate stages in a linear process of pre-test, instruction, post-test; rather assessment must become an integrated, ongoing, and seamless part of the learning environment”. (p. 48)

To enable educators and learners to fulfill their roles in a virtual learning environment, technologies and software should be selected that allow for:

  • constructive feedback
  • heightening motivation
  • encouraging self-monitoring.

A main component is descriptive feedback from the teacher. It is this feedback that enables the student to progress in their learning. This feedback is a necessary component as it allows the student to understand what they are doing well. In this sense, formative assessment becomes part of instruction, and therefore part of pedagogy. Other key aspects of formative assessment include the setting of clear learning outcomes and expectations. The time requirement for educators to communicate with learners, within a VLE, on an individual basis can potentially be more significant than in a face-to-face environment. Designing a VLE that enables learners to link to educational software, and receive automated feedback, can efficiently supplement the efforts of educators.


The research results of FAM-WATA (Formative Assessment Module of the Web-based Assessment and Test Analysis System) show that the following six strategies “benefited students learning in an e-learning environment … [by allowing] students to actively assess themselves.” (Wang, 2007)

  • repeat the test (encouraging mastery, discouraging passive answering)
  • correct answers not given (encourages learners to access teacher/resources)
  • query scores (adds element of competition by examining peer scores)
  • ask questions (ask for a hint)
  • monitor answering history (encourages learners to self-monitor)
  • all pass and then reward (such as an animation)

When consideration is given to the quality of the assessment’s wording, in conjunction with a constructivist VLE, it is possible for the above strategies to take on self-monitoring qualities.


Formative assessments should be valid and relevant. However, educators frequently confuse the purpose of formative assessment with summative assessment. It “is not necessary to be over-concerned with reliability in formative assessment since the information is used to inform teaching in the situations in which it is gathered.” (Harlen and James, 1997) A balance between formative and summative assessment can form a detailed assessment plan for the students that goes well beyond a simple letter grade.

In order for formative assessment to be valid and relevant, immediate feedback should be given to students to close the gap in their learning (Buchanan, 1998, p. 72). It would be quite pointless to correct a student two weeks after a quiz has been completed when the class has moved on to a new topic. It is clear to see the benefits of immediate feedback, but it can be a time consuming task to generate individualized feedback quickly to a large number of students or respond to lengthy essays in a timely manner.

To date, virtual learning environments frequently consist of preset modules that educators are unable to significantly customize to meet a learners needs. Since learners have different needs, learn at individual paces, it would be safe to say that learners will benefit greatly to have feedback that is tailored to their learning style (p. 72). Effective formative feedback may be challenging in modules that do not offer flexibility.

Even if constructive feedback is given in a timely manner, it is up to the learner to actually use the assessment to improve their future learning. Nothing is gained if the student does not take advantage of formative assessment (p. 72).

Solutions: Feedback Technologies

Virtual learning environments offers educators an array of opportunities to present learning materials in an efficient and flexible manner, but there are obvious obstacles when implementing new technologies to learning process such as formative assessment. Face to face informative feedback or classroom discussions which has long been used as an effective tool to close learning gaps cannot be accomplished in the same way virtually. But understanding how to incorporate online strategies can improve the delivery of formative assessment.

Blogs & Discussion Forums

Blogs and online discussion forums are examples of asynchronous formative assessment tools. Although feedback is not given in real-time, learners find it helpful to be able to have the discussions saved to reflect and answer thoughtfully. Both peers and educators are able to participate in feedback as well as the learner's own self assessment. Facilitating productive discussion requires balance. Structured questions tends to leave learners to answer the questions rather than promote discussion and open and free discussions leads to frustrated learners due to ambiguity (Nulden, Hardless, n.d.).

Computer-Based MCQ Testing

Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ) is an effective formative assessment tool, especially for knowledge-based disciplines such as basic sciences or medicine. MCQ is one of the easiest methods to administer assessment because learners can take the quiz on their own time and it will automatically provide scores on the quiz. Learners can retake the quiz for practice and the format of the quiz can simulate that of the summative exam, which is also good practice for learner who may experience exam anxiety. In some online quiz formats, written feedback by the instructor is incorporated into the scoring section so that students are able to read the rationale and resources of the answer options.

Concept Maps

Concept maps are a viable tool for formative assessment and support Ausubel’s Assimilation Learning Theory. Assimilation Theory enables educators to see the connections learners are making between concepts. Integrating concept maps into the design of a virtual learning environment makes learning meaningful to the learner as the learner relates new information “to an existing relevant aspect of [their] knowledge structure.” (Novak, 1998, p. 51)

Numerous licensed and freeware programs are available, including:


In an Electronic portfolios or e-portfolios learners can collect and organize their work in one location and share their work and ideas amongst other learners. The components of e-portfolios are as follows: collection, selection, reflection, projection and presentation (Mason, Pegler & Weller, 2004, p. 718) Self-reflection is a key element in assessment because it is through reflection that student are able to understand their competencies. Similarly, projection or goal setting is an interactive assessment process where students can compare reflection and adjust their projections (p. 719).

Google Documents

Providing students with ongoing, descriptive feedback in a virtual learning environment (VLE) is a challenge that can be eased with the use of Web 2.0 tools. Web 2.0 tools such as Google docs, blogs, wikis, instant messaging, and interactive games are used by many students and provides a relevant platform for learning. Students feel a sense of belonging and authenticity when learning is relevant to their lives. Web 2.0 tools are a familiar medium for students. It can be difficult to regularly monitor students learning in a VLE, but Web 2.0 tools, in particular Google docs, can be used effectively with formative assessment practice. Google docs will not only motivate a learner, but will also allow ease of ongoing, instantaneous descriptive feedback, co-creation of criteria, and peer and self evaluation. We know from the research of Black and Wiliam (1998) that formative assessment practice will increase academic success of students, so it is imperative to consider promising feedback technologies that can be used to meet the challenges of ongoing, descriptive feedback in a virtual learning environment.

Faced with the challenges of providing descriptive and formative feedback to learning within a VLE, is the benefit of using technologies that are relevant and an authentic medium of information exchange for students. The authenticity and relevancy of this learning space has great potential to capture and support learning. While the virtual world may be a place disjointed from nature itself, the environment is not foreign to students. As articulated by Sprenger (2009), many youth are “digital natives” and their need for immediacy of virtual connection provides the rationale for using such a synchronous feedback tool as Google docs. These youth are accustomed to instant feedback, and would reap the benefits of such an instantaneous feedback tool as Google docs.

Google docs is a free educational tool requiring the user to have an account with Google. The Google docs subset of the account provides word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software that are multi-user, synchronous documents for collaboration. These facets of its design allow for ongoing, descriptive feedback as students work through any project that is supported with word processing, spreadsheet, or presentation software. Google docs support the use of project based learning and allows the teacher to have instant access to students’ work in progress, and provide them with immediate feedback prior to the summative submission of their work. While the virtual environment removes the immediacy of physical presence between teachers and students, Google docs allows for a sense of proximal support as students witness their document being edited synchronously by their instructor or classmate. Teachers can easily load criterion (e.g., rubrics) on the document including exemplars (models, samples) or other forms that describe excellence. Students, peers, and teachers have a direct reference from which to evaluate their progression of learning toward a targeted goal. This type of feedback is understood well by students because it is explicitly directed towards the learning intentions, and provides a visual of what quality work looks like (Davies, 2007).

Included in the descriptive feedback functionality of Google docs is the ability for students to be co-creators of criteria. Once a teacher has clearly articulated the learning path with students, the group can then become co-constructors of describing excellence. Student inclusion of setting criterion references will immerse them in the formulation of success and will deepen their overall understanding of the learning (Davies, 2007). An example might be the co-construction of a rubric directly on a Google doc. Supported with exemplars (models, samples) of excellence, students and teachers can then input those descriptions of quality work into the shared rubric. Student ownership of their learning will increase as they now have a model for which to compare their work, and have co-authored the criteria for excellence. The exemplars and descriptive criteria co-created by students can serve as an excellent reference point for peer and self evaluation.

Google docs supports formative assessment in a VLE and can function as an immediate feedback tool for students. The synchronicity of the Google docs environment provides students with immediate support for assignments and projects and lends itself well to other integral facets of formative assessment including articulation of learning intentions with the use of exemplars, co-construction of learning criteria, and instantaneous, synchronous feedback. This supports the tenants of formative assessment where learning is a feed-forward progression. Analysis of feedback technology such as Google docs in reference to student achievement would support its use within a VLE, and encourage the development of more sophisticated technologies that support formative assessment practice.

Stop Motion

Katie Cox's stop motion video for ETEC 510, 65A (2018):Formative Assessment in online learning


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See Also