Summative and Formative Assessments For English Language Teaching

Russell Stannard and Anthony Basiel

Students when receiving the assessment usually pay most of their attention to their scores and are almost negligent to the instructional comments given by the teacher for future improvement. (Kwok, 2008: 85) ‘Summative assessments’ often take place at the end of a unit, module, or a whole course. The focus tends to be on the mark and the idea is to evaluate how well the student has learned what has been presented. Formative assessments take place during a course, module or unit. The focus is more on gathering data about the student’s progress and using this data to help them improve.

We often read about these two forms of assessment as if they are clearly distinct from each other. However, it is our view that the distinction between summative and formative assessment is perhaps exaggerated, and that if greater use was made of the information from summative assessments, then in reality they too could inform. The distinction between the two types of assessment really develops out of how the information from assessments is used.

Summative assessments often come at the end of the course and therefore the information gathered from them cannot always be acted upon since the teacher may not continue teaching the class. The literature often talks about product and process. When we provide formative feedback we are trying to focus more on the process and helping students to produce better drafts or recordings. Focus on the product is providing feedback on the final outcome. What is perhaps more important, is that the formative assessments and summative assessments are well aligned and that what is summatively assessed at the end of a course or unit has been supported by the formative assessments that take place during the learning.

Most teachers no longer view assessment as something that only occurs after the fact. Rather they recognise the benefits of conducting assessment before, during, and following teaching and learning. (Stoynoff, 2012: 527)

One of the biggest and most obvious changes that has happened to assessment is that there is now much more interest in the area of formative assessment. In other words, we assess students at different stages and provide feedback that they can use to improve, re-draft or change what they are currently working on, but also to help them into their future learning (often referred to as feed-forward). Key to this change is an understanding that assessment is part of the learning cycle. In other words, for students to improve, they need to take the information from assessments and use it to improve their work. This immediately makes the feedback provided from assessments a vital cog in the process. It is the feedback and information from assessments that will help students improve.

This shift is not easy. Both teachers and students struggle with providing good formative feedback. The importance of formative feedback is obvious, but the practicalities of the classroom may mean that it is not done as much as one would hope. Of course, teachers informally provide feedback all the time but providing feedback in various stages of a process can be very time-consuming. We believe that well designed formative assessments with useful, and well thought through feedback, will greatly help both our students and our understanding of their progress. We believe that it is in this area where teachers in the classroom can have the most impact.

Washback (backwash) effect

The washback (backwash) effect is the impact that an assessment will have on the teaching and learning. This impact can be very broad. A certain assessment might impact on what a teacher teaches, what the students revise, how motivated the student feels, what skills the students focus on. If an assessment correctly reflects the skills a student needs to be a good language learner then it is likely that any work the students does in preparation for the assessment, or as part of the assessment, will have a positive impact on their learning. Prodromou (1995) highlights the limitations of the positive impact of washback if the assessments the students are given are too narrowly defined, focus too much on accuracy and are time limited.

Good assessments, that reflect good practices in language learning, are likely to have a positive washback both from the teaching perspective and the learning perspective. Indeed, good assessments will actually offer real opportunities for learning (Tomlinson, 1995). There is considerable interest in the idea of students self-evaluating and in getting the students to build up a picture of their own learning. You hear terms like reflection, peer evaluation, self-evaluation and self-assessment. All these procedures are attempting to make students better learners, to get them to think more about their own learning, to be aware of their own shortfalls and strengths. The ultimate goal is to make the students more independent learners and hopefully more motivated too. These processes are at the heart of assessment since one of the key goals of assessment is to provide information that will help students in their learning.

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