What’s the Difference?

In the last two posts, I’ve written a bit about multiple studies that support the need for positive feedback and assessment to improve both teaching and learning.  Feedback and assessment can take a variety of forms, however.  So before I continue, I thought it might not be a bad idea to revisit what is meant by feedback and different forms of assessment.*

1.  Feedback – I think the clearest and most concise definition of feedback comes from Shute (2008).  She defined feedback as “information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behavior for the purpose of improving learning.” To put it even simpler: feedback informs.  Researchers distinguish between negative and positive feedback.  Negative feedback does not fundamentally influence student learning because it does not truly inform.  Writing “Good job!” on an essay, while positive praise, is not positive feedback because it does not tell the student what they did well or how they can continue to do so.  The student has no idea what made the essay “good” unless you tell them.  Positive feedback, even when critical, is feedback that is specific and detailed so that the student knows what they did wrong, what they did right, and how to proceed in the future.  This does not mean doing the work for the student.  For example, an English teacher may identify that a student has lots of fragments throughout her paper.  She may explain how to fix the fragments, but she doesn’t actually fix all the fragments for the student.  If the teacher proceeded to fix all the fragments for the student, she would not be providing feedback because the student is not actually changing her own behavior and is likely to continue writing fragments in the future.

2.  Formative Assessment – Here’s a simple definition of formative assessment from Popham (2008).  “Formative assessment is a planned process in which teachers and students use assessment-based evidence to adjust what they are currently doing.”  Formative assessment is not a single test but a process involving formal and informal assessments as well as many other activities.  Therefore, formative assessments are used during instruction.  Evidence is gathered from these activities, analyzed, and used to change instruction and learning as a result.  Formative assessments can be graded, but they do not have to be graded.

3.  Summative Assessment – In contrast to formative assessments, summative assessments occur at the end of instruction, whether that be at the end of a unit, a semester, or an academic year. Theoretically, summative assessments gauge how much a student mastered or learned in a given period of time.  While summative assessments range in terms of their informative value to the student, they can be incredibly useful for the teacher.  For example, consider a student who takes an exam at the end of spring semester, a summative assessment.  They often only see a grade posted to their report card and do not get a chance to go back and review the exam or the material before moving on to the next grade or graduating. The teacher, however, should examine the results of the exam to analyze what areas the entire class had trouble with and consider adjusting her teaching accordingly.  In this way, a summative assessment for the student becomes a formative assessment for the teacher.

Special Note: I’ve heard people distinguish between formative and summative assessments using the following analogy.  It’s not perfect, but it does the trick.  Formative assessments are checkups with the doctor, while summative assessments are autopsies with the coroner.

4.  Authentic Assessments (Alternative Assessments) – I am going to use authentic and alternative assessment interchangeably here. Authentic assessments are assessments that attempt to replicate real-world situations for the student.  In other words, these are assessments that are not based on objective questions or essays. Instead of a multiple choice test, a student is asked to apply what he or she knows to a real-world situation.  For instance, a student in government may be tasked with researching, proposing, and lobbying for a change in their local government.  A math student may be asked to use what they’ve learned in mathematics to build something. These authentic assessments can replace traditional assessments entirely or supplement them.

*If you are looking for a good overview of formative assessment, check out Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading by Robert J. Marzano.



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