I spent 20 years as CEO of a testing company so I had lots of opportunity to get a very good sense of how our corporate clients were using testing within their training programs. Of the millions of tests that were delivered on our platform virtually 100% were Summative Assessments. For those not familiar with the term, summative assessments are assessments that are given at the completion of a training program to determine mastery of the material. This is understandable. It’s what training departments do: train, test and certify.
But there is another type of assessment that is just as important, especially in its impact on learning: Formative Assessments. Formative assessments are assessments that help students learn, and lots of research evidence over the past few decades points to the significant role testing can have as a learning tool.
Formative assessments can be diagnostic tests, self-assessments, module-level tests with feedback, pre-tests, etc – basically any test for learning rather than of learning.
How effective can formative assessments be? How much can they improve learning outcomes?
In this recent study :
the authors gave daily on-line quizzes, with feedback, to a psychology class that was traditionally taught by lecture only. The quizzes took 10 minutes at the beginning of each lecture; there were eight questions per quiz.
The authors then compared the outcomes (lecture only vs. lecture plus daily tests) on final grades at the end of the course. Grades were half a letter grade higher for the lecture plus testing group than for the lecture only group. Interestingly, the gains were most significant for lower socioeconomic students (note: the TOWER group was the group that had test-enhanced learning):
And what was really fascinating was that the effect extended to courses the students took that were not part of the study:
For most of us testing has a negative connotation because we associate it only with summative assessments, but repeated studies, including this one, demonstrate that formative assessments can enhance learning significantly.