What is formative testing?

We distinguish two forms of tests: summative and formative. The educational literature (e.g. Boud & Falchikov, 2007; Gibbs & Simpson, 2004) contains occasional references to ‘assessment of learning’ and ‘assessment for learning’, which immediately clarifies the difference between the two terms. Whereas summative testing is intended to assess what the student has learned at the end of the learning situation, formative testing is intended to promote the student’s learning process and to provide for feedback and adjustment in each phase of the learning process. Formative testing centres on learning, and not on assessment.

Why is formative testing used?

Formative tests provide students with a way of processing learning content. They can also urge students to start working with the learning content in a timely manner (e.g. not only immediately before a summative test). Formative testing is also an excellent means of providing students with a ‘tool’ with which they can determine the extent to which they have mastered the material and where they might be in need of adjustment.

Formative tests can also be a tool for teachers. They can provide an indication of points that are still unclear to many students or identify difficult passages in the learning content. For example, the results could help a teacher know exactly where the emphasis should be placed during the lectures.

How can formative testing be done through the Blackboard learning environment?

Although it is not necessary to use the Blackboard learning environment to work with formative tests, the environment does lend itself well to this purpose. In Blackboard, a teacher can create tests for each module, which could also serve as formative tests. Various types of questions are possible within these tests, including multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank and short-answer. The tests are corrected automatically, thus providing students with an immediate idea of where they stand. Teachers are advised to include feedback on the questions. For example, incorrect answers on multiple-choice questions could be accompanied by explanations for why they are wrong. Another option could be to indicate the page or the section of the course in which students can find the correct answers.

The Grade Center in Blackboard offers a quick, simple way to monitor the use of the formative tests. Amongst other information, teachers can see how many students have participated and which tests have been completed most frequently. The ‘attempts statistics’ offer a particularly interesting possibility in the Grade Center. This option displays how many students have answered each question correctly and how many times incorrect answers have been selected. This provides an easy way to identify the questions that are posing difficulties for students (e.g. so that they can be addressed briefly at the start of a subsequent lecture).

Important points

The initial creation of formative tests requires a considerable investment of time. The advantage, however, is that most of the tests can be re-used the next year. If  the Blackboard learning environment has been used to create a test, it can simply remain in Blackboard, and the teacher need only make sure that all of the questions are up to date.

It is obviously important for students to be motivated and to continue completing the tests. Teachers can encourage this by explaining the importance of the formative tests: why does it pay to complete them? Care should be taken that students do not spend an excessive amount of time on a test, as this could decrease their motivation to complete subsequent tests. Attention should also be paid to feedback. Teachers should ideally address the tests regularly during lectures. One simple way to do this would be to provide a brief explanation of the most frequently occurring wrong answers.

Finally, teachers should be sure to indicate the level of the exercises in formative tests. Ideally, the difficulty level of formative tests should be similar to that of the summative examination. If a formative test is intended purely as an indication of whether students have understood basic concepts, however, and if a higher level of mastery will be expected on the examination, it is important to communicate this. Doing so could help avoid giving students the false impression that successfully completing the formative test means that they will also succeed on the examination.