Designing for Feedback: Formative Assessments in Online Distance Learning

A very crucial part of online distance learning is the presence of helpful formative assessments and timeliness of feedback to the online learners. In an online distance learning environment, we recognize that there is a geographical, pedagogical, and psychological gap between the teacher and learner which can have a negative effect on the side of the learner. In distance education, this theory is often referred to as the transactional distance theory. According to Michael Moore, the proponent of this theory, teachers in distance education should ensure that the structures in a distance education course promote sustained interaction between the teacher and the learners. One way of fostering that interaction is through providing timely and regular feedback to their learning through formative assessments, which are strategically embedded throughout the online course.

For the teacher, the pertinent information from the formative assessment helps in adjusting the content and process of instruction delivery. It helps the teacher to specifically target students who may need guidance and assistance in learning. For the student, the feedback from formative assessments helps the student to focus on the more pressing content or skill that needs to be further developed and mastered. In a way, the feedback from formative assessments help develop self-monitoring skills in students as they become more mindful of their progress throughout the course. If the teacher promotes the idea of growth mindset-learning from mistakes and failures-formative assessments in distance education becomes a key ingredient in promoting better learning and achievement of desirable learning outcomes because feedback and formative assessments are learning by themselves.

Probing deeper, formative assessments are ways that can help the learner to individually and personally gauge his or her understanding of the content in the instructional material, lesson, or unit. Formative assessments serve as checkpoints for students to check-in and gather feedback on how well or not they understood the lesson. The feedback that comes from formative assessments will in turn inform both the teacher and the students to make necessary actions geared towards improvement of teaching and learning.

Some principles in designing and embedding online formative assessments and feedback include:

  1. Formative assessments should help in developing skills and mastering concepts that students need to make sense of and accomplish the summative assessment at the end of the online course.
  2. Formative assessments should engage and enable students to individually construct and connect what they are learning to what they already know.
  3. Formative assessments should engage and enable students to collaboratively construct and connect what they know with what other students know.
  4. Formative assessments should provide proper feedback. In giving feedback, Grant Wiggins recommends that feedback should be tangible, transparent, actionable, user-friendly, timely, ongoing, and consistent.
  5. Formative assessments may also be accompanied by helpful rubrics or checklists for students to use as they reflect on what they know and can do.
  6. Formative assessments should give students the chance to reflect and monitor their own learning.

Formative assessment and feedback converge with online tech tools or materials to deliver online formative assessments. Indeed, technology tools are very helpful in delivering feedback especially in online courses, which allow a great amount of self-paced learning. Online technology tools should be taken advantage of to provide timely feedback even when students are learning on their own through asynchronized learning activities. Feedback should continue even when there are no direct interactions between
the teacher and the learners. In a way, the feedback in formative assessments takes on and manifests the needed teaching presence in an online distance learning course.

Note: This is an excerpt from the Independent Report to UNESCO on the status of education in this time of COVID-19 Pandemic, which I co-authored with Armand Doucet, Koen Timmers, and Dr. Deborah Netolicky. Access report here.