Enhanced Formative Assessments: Improving Student Performance through Meaningful Feedback

Mapping summative exam items to a variety of outcomes or objectives has long been best practice when it comes to gathering data to improve institutional processes. Tagging assessment questions to categories allow educators to gather data to provide a more in-depth evaluation of student performance. Institutions and faculty can learn so much about student performance beyond exam scores through this simple process of tagging questions.

While mapping our summative exam items is a successful process in and of itself, we can’t stop there. It is imperative for the success of our current students to map items to categories from all assessments, not just our summative assessments.

So, what are the other assessments we should be mapping? You guessed it—formative assessments. Those assessments for learning that provide tremendous value in student learning and retention. For years and years, these types of assessments have been used to give students feedback on their performance to allow for self-assessment and improvement. These methods have been used for so long with good reason—they’re proven to positively impact student outcomes. Alas, this doesn’t mean that educators should get complacent with how formative assessments are implemented in their classrooms.

Use of computer-based assessment and the data they provide allows educators to enhance the effectiveness of formative assessments, using them unlike they have ever been used before. The ability for faculty and students to have data points beyond whether or not individual students answer questions correctly or what their overall scores has officially changed the game—as well as formative assessments. Here’s how: in the past, formative assessment feedback tends to be in the form of a quiz score, verbal communication, and/or giving the questions of the assessment back to the students to review. While these can all be effective methods, there are more meaningful tactics that can be used.

When providing students with feedback on formative assessments, educators must make sure the information we give students is purposeful—meaning timely and quality. Providing students with feedback as close to the end of the assessment as possible helps them to learn from the feedback as the content is still fresh. This is of the utmost importance in fast-paced programs, such as the health professions. The fast pace of our courses causes students to move on to new content shortly after completing an assessment. Therefore, we must strike while the iron is hot and get the information they need so it can make a difference immediately.

Making feedback meaningful is driven by our ability to make it useful—information that can truly impact retention of knowledge and future performance. Giving students their grade on a quiz isn’t necessarily as meaningful as it could be. While this is an overall evaluation of their performance, it doesn’t tell them where they need to improve their performance. And yes, giving students the quiz back so they can look at the questions certainly has value as well. However, we must be weary that students will only use these questions as opportunities to memorize answers instead of seeing trends in their performance. This helps them in the short term, but in the long term students will continue to struggle in the same content areas they struggled in previously because these deficiencies simply weren’t addressed.

Mapping your formative assessment items to specific content categories allows faculty and students to see the specific trends in student performance. This more nuanced information can be shared with students to provide more meaningful feedback than what a score can provide. Therefore, students will know the content areas they need to study instead of just memorizing a few select answers. This will allow them to establish a solid knowledge base on which future content can be built. As students complete more formative assessments, faculty will be able to provide more in-depth data, which will make their performance trends stand out that much more. The more data we compile for ourselves, the more we can share with our students. The more data we share with students on their performance, the better we can help influence their studying and future performance. This can all happen real time after every assessment, big or small. Which, of course, allows us to impact our students now…not after it’s too late.

When mapping exam items to categories, we often encounter bonus unintended findings that can benefit our institutions. In this case, mapping formative assessment items to content areas allows us to use these items as part of our curricular mapping process, including mapping for accreditation. So, while we’re helping our students improve, we can help complete what is one of the more tedious tasks in education. Plus, when we map our curricula using assessment items, it is the actual proof accreditors need that we actually taught content. We wouldn’t assess it if we didn’t actually teach it…right? Right.

One easy step – mapping formative assessment items to categories – can have such a great effect on our students and institution. As educators, we set out to improve student outcomes to the best of our abilities. Using this simple method, we can do exactly that while also having a positive impact on our curricular mapping efforts. As faculty, it really doesn’t get much better than that.