Varying Perspectives and Practices in Formative and Diagnostic Assessment: A Case Study

Mar. 30, 2010

Source: Journal of Education for Teaching, Vol. 36, No. 2, May 2010, 137–151.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In comparison with the school sector, formative and diagnostic assessment have received relatively little attention in higher education. This article reports on an in-depth study of assessment across one university, exploring views and practices in each of the five faculties.

The authors conducted semi-structured interviews with eight staff and small group interviews with 60 students.

Research Questions
The authors set out certain questions which influenced their interviews:
- Do staff within and across programme teams have common or differing views of formative assessment and its relationship to summative assessment?
- Do students value assessment that carries no marks?
- Is it possible to develop ‘good habits’ in both students and staff regarding the use and value of formative assessment?


The data indicate that: there is very little common understanding of the terms often used to describe forms of assessment in policy documents and other literature;
students, contrary to popular belief, do value assessment that carries no marks, although a form of ‘deferred instrumentalism’ may be at work here;
staff are sometimes engaging in formative and diagnostic assessment without explicitly recognising it;
and that students in this case study do value assessment which relates to and will be valuable for life after university.

Recommendations and issues for consideration

The authors conclude with recommendations for practice and practices, based on the case study.

- A framework for discussing assessment of students’ work.
In order to discuss assessment of students’ work, the authors found it valuable to identify certain key terms and concepts and to make our working definitions of them explicit.

- Assessment, assignments and coursework. The authors suggest that it could be helpful to treat assessment as a process, and assignments and coursework as products of students’ work.

- Alignment of intention and impact. The authors found it useful to distinguish between a teacher’s intended purpose of an assessment process and its impact on the students. 
The authors would like to suggest certain practices that are, in some cases, occurring and that might take the adoption of formative assessment further:

Two-stage submission of assignments
This procedure has been devised to incorporate formative assessment into the assessment process. In other words, by spending more time on formative assessment and less on summative assessment, the tutor’s energy is used in a way that can make a difference.

Staff development
A shift in assessment away from traditional forms towards heavier reliance on formative feedback (Brown 1999) and diagnostic assessment will necessitate staff activity and research on best practice in this field. It is also likely to influence teachers’ conceptions of teaching (Brown et al. 2009).The authors found widespread interest from staff interviewees in the possibility of sharing good assessment practices and ideas.

- Brown, Gavin T.L., R. Lake, and G. Matters. 2009. Assessment policy and practice effects on New Zealand and Queensland teachers’ conceptions of teaching. Journal of Education for Teaching 35, no. 1: 61–75.

Updated: Sep. 27, 2010