LOA and the Continuum of Formative to Summative Assessment

In the LOA literature, it is generally recommended that assessments designed for a primarily learning purpose not be graded (Carless, 2007). However, our project was conceived as a way of making use of a graded summative class assignment for a primarily formative purpose - specifically, for encouraging student awareness of and critical engagement with assessment criteria for academic writing. There is considerable debate regarding the use of the same activities for both formative and summative assessment purposes (Brookhart, 2010), but Boud and Soler (2016) contend that this “unhelpful binary division” results in neglect of the potential of summative assessments to inform learning (p. 402). One argument in favor of their being mixed, according to Brookhart (2010), is that they already are being mixed in classrooms anyway - albeit with summative purposes generally taking precedence. There are apparent challenges in designing summative assessment tasks that can be effectively used to promote student learning (Carless et al., 2006); for example, students might focus more on the summative grades and overlook the formative benefits.

We argue for the blurring of the boundaries between these two purposes here because, in practice, the distinction between the two is often difficult to maintain: while a high stakes standardized assessment for professional certification might be seen as having a clear summative purpose and use, what about a short class quiz used by the teacher to determine what concepts to review before the final exam? This quiz is worth a few points and will be reported with students’ other results, but its purpose is clearly to inform future instructional needs. Harlen (2006) provides a compelling argument for the conceptualization of formative and summative purposes along a continuum. On one end are very informal formative assessment activities, which are more ad hoc, unsystematic, and unplanned (e.g., deciding to ask a few students to share which questions they found the most difficult in an exercise and why). At the other extreme are assessments used primarily for reporting purposes at the end of instructional sequences, which are not necessarily used for follow up with students. In the middle of the spectrum would be more systematic and planned activities used for formative purposes that direct the curriculum. Also in the middle of the spectrum would be activities that are reported, but are actually used primarily for LOA objectives, which prioritize learning and inform instruction (such as the quiz described above).

A few studies have explored the effectiveness of an assessment approach that serves the “double duty” (Boud, 2000) of measuring the students’ learning for certification purposes, as well as enhancing their learning and preparing them to become lifelong learners (e.g., Lam, 2008, 2013; Lee & Coniam, 2013; Sadeghi Sc Rahmati, 2017). It is our belief that this project will contribute to this conversation.

LOA and Peer Assessment

At every point along this continuum from formative to summative assessment, peer assessment serves an important learning-oriented function. During peer evaluation,

[discussion follows about the qualities of a good assignment, how it can be recognised, and how [students] can produce successful assignments for themselves ... it also helps develop a practical understanding of assessment standards and criteria through an activity that benefits students as they see how work gets marked ... This helps students to understand the differences between excellent and satisfactory work, without having to expose their own work to critical scrutiny.

(UTS, 2013, para. 6)

Benefits of peer assessment have also been established through empirical research. According to Saito (2008), research has demonstrated that “peer assessment encourages reflective learning through observing others’ performances and becoming aware of performance criteria” (p. 554). Saito’s (2008) own work involved training university students on the rating of academic essays and comparing both their scoring and their descriptive comments on the essays. While training did not seem to help predict the instructor score, the quality of the comments that students wrote on the essays improved with training (e.g., they made more relevant comments). In our own work (Baker et al., 2020), students making use of the same test-taker-oriented rubric described here were not able to successfully predict the official scores on a set of peer essays. However, they reported very positively on the pedagogical benefits of the exercise of being trained to use the rubric.

Turner and Purpura (2016) identify future areas of research in LOA which include more work on “the roles of stakeholders (teacher, learners, peers) in the assessment process ... and the characteristics that distinguish summative from formative assessment” (p. 257). They also state that a persistent question to be addressed in future LOA research is how instructors can “guide students to raise awareness of and effectively use information in both peer and self-assessments with the goal of self-regulation” (p. 269). The project reported here responds to all of these elements: by training students to rate their peers’ essays, we examine their capacity to examine writing in a mindful way as they also reflect on the grade it is likely to get. We are curious to see to what extent their grading responses on others’ work reveal gaps to be addressed in their own future development. Because this is a summative assessment, we were also curious to see whether students themselves would be aware of the formative potential of this summative assessment. In other words, would this assignment have characteristics of sustainable assessment, with students providing insights related to their future writing development beyond just the course grade they would receive for this present assignment? We will now present details of the instructional context for this project as well as details of the class assignment itself.

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