Formative Assessment: Stopping the fires breaking out

Here’s the question: How do you know that student or trainee is taking in what they are being taught?

Notice the phrasing: “are taking in” not “have taken in”.

The difference was made clear to me when marking a batch of assignments a while back. Most of the class did fine but one student was struggling with basic concepts.

I was mortified. As their tutor I prided myself in carefully checking for understanding during and after each topic, yet I had clearly failed this individual.

Summative vs Formative

The assignment was what is called a summative assessment. This simply means the person showing the sum of what they have learned. In this case the short answers was “not enough to pass”.

The consequence was the student undertaking a recovery programme and resubmitting the assignment.

While ultimately successful, it was stressful and time-consuming for the student.

I remember being thanked by the student’s line manager for “a great bit of fire fighting”. I also remember thinking that it would be better to stop the fires breaking out in the first place.

What went wrong

Talking with my under-performing student, they spoke a lot about their relatively modest background and not wanting to “appear thick” in class.

They also felt the same about participating in the group exercises that I used to help students come to grips with a topic.

I felt awful for not having noticed this.

Stopping the fires

Wanting to avoid a repeat of this situation I looked again at the technique of “formative assessment”. As the name suggests, formative assessments are used to assess how well subject matter is being understood and learned

The analogy I use is that of running my business finances. At the end of every financial year I am required by law to submit a financial statement to my tax authorities.

The returns summarises the financial performance of the business over the year and the amount of tax to be paid. What is doesn’t help me do is manage my cash-flow and profitability day to day.

For that I need my tracking spreadsheet. Using this I can record transactions and judge how well I’m doing.

If I’m on or ahead of expectations, I carry on. If not, I have to do something about it.

I think of formative assessment in the same way: understanding how much progress each student is making we work through the required material, then correcting any issues as they arise

As I said earlier: stop the fires breaking out.

Making it better

Later in the year I was asked to deliver a course on “Managing Financial Resources” to two cohorts of operational staff.

The people were all bright and capable, each holding a significant position within the organisation, but were more concerned with getting things done that the niceties of balance sheets and cash-flows.

To track their progress I developed a series of short exercises for them to complete individually. Each exercise took about 20 minutes, after which they paired up to compare answers.

Where a pair couldn’t resolve an issue it was discussed in the wider group.

How well did it work? Everybody passed the end of course (summative) test and submitted high quality assignments.

Less formally. on both courses the students were able to relate the principles of financial management to their personal finances.

As an example, seeing the cumulative effect of interest payments on loans a number of them started making over-payments on their mortgages to shorten the term.

Is that demonstrating learning, or what?

Did it work for the students? Feedback scores in the 90s suggest so.


I hope that you have enjoyed reading this post and found it useful. If you have thoughts on what I have written so far please leave a comment.

Also if you have an idea for another business topic let me know and I’ll be delighted to find a space for it.

Thanks again

Bob Windmill

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