Discover how to use tests in the classroom as effective formative assessment

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Formative tests can motivate students, reduce exam anxiety, identify opportunities for improvement and promote independent learning.

What is formative testing?

Using a test to support learning is a formative activity, whereas tests of learning are summative and are less relevant to the learning process. This means that in terms of assessment for learning, tests are used in a different way.

They may be used:

  • as snapshots to identify gaps and plan the next stage of learning
  • to familiarise students with the eventual summative test
  • to aid revision.

Feedback needs to be more than marks, for the test to foster learning.

Why use this technique?

Using tests in a formative setting is a means for students to look closely at the learning and standards that they will be expected to demonstrate in summative tests. This motivates students, can reduce examination anxiety, focuses learning and promotes independent learning.

How do I set it up?

  • Set questions that will allow meaningful feedback.
  • Ask individual students to create their own questions and then to answer themselves.
  • Collate questions devised by individuals to create a class‑devised test.
  • Ask students to look at test questions and decide where to direct their preparation in advance of a test.
  • As a result of self-assessment before a test, group students who have similar weaknesses, to help each other learn. This can also be done when an assessment has been completed.
  • Arrange students into groups to explore marking criteria and then create model answers.
  • Have students mark each other’s work and give feedback.

Hints and tips for effective formative tests

  • Use tests sparingly.
  • Translate examining board and other criteria into student-friendly terms.
  • If there is a widespread problem, deal with it with the whole class. Less common gaps could be worked on using peer-to-peer support.
  • Make use of ICT. For example, store questions that students can access and self‑report.
  • Ensure that feedback remains a component of the process.
  • Give students time to plan and take action following feedback from tests.

Common issues to watch out for

  • Higher demand students may feel threatened, if they are having to work on or revisit too many questions.
  • Challenges related to following good practice when constrained by institution or external examination regimes.

How can I tell if it is successful?

When you devise your checklist, to evaluate the session, consider how you will measure:

  • How well the test and feedback relates to required outcomes and criteria.
  • Any improvement in motivation.
  • Any reduction in anxiety.
  • How much the students are taking control of their own learning.

Principles of assessment for learning