Edutechie - the adventures of a learning technologist

Eli Appleby-Donald's views of educational technology

Month: March 2019


Formative assessments are pointless


I work in a school (in a university) which uses formative assessment, a lot. Almost every course we run has an assessment part of the way through the year where students receive feedback but no grade, but I am fully aware that to others this seems crazy and I’ve even heard, a waste of time. Even from a student’s perspective I’ve heard of complaints that an assignment with no grade is pointless (see what I did there) and they are too busy to waste time on such thing.

I disagree and here is why.

A good formative assessment is not a stand alone thing which has no purpose. It is part of the learning experience of your students and should offer them an opportunity to assess their learning, see where they have knowledge gaps and gain feedback and insight.  Where formative assessment is pointless, is when it isn’t part of the whole and doesn’t feed into the students learning in a meaningful way. Let me explain.

Part way through the semester students submit an assessment. It is formative, they will receive no grade. However what this does is give them a chance to write an essay (or other form of assessment) on the course material they have learned so far which doesn’t have the pressure and the high stakes of feeding directly into a grade, which for a student who doesn’t feel like “they quite get it yet” is much less stressful.

It gives an opportunity to to get feedback which will guide them in the areas where they may be weaker and therefore a chance for them to get stronger, crucially, before it’s time to submit a graded assignment. Also in some cases, they gain an opportunity to practice submitting an assignment. It could be practice at formatting a document, submitting to an electronic system or using a new tool to create materials. Either way they get a practice run again without the high stakes pressure of things affecting their final grade.

Now feedback doesn’t only come from the course teacher, feedback can also come from peers and experience (maybe of submitting to said system etc). But when this really comes into it’s own is when the feedback is feedforward (I know lots of you hate this word but it really is the best way for me to describe what I mean), when the feedback directly relates to how to improve so that your summative grade is better than it could have been. This I think is a crucial element of feedback. Feedback must come at a time when it can be acted upon so that it can make a difference. Feedback in week 12 after the assignments are submitted and the course is complete is a bit like the old bullseye catchphrase, “look at what you could have won”.

Lastly, I know all too well that there is a feeling that students don’t bother reading feedback, so why then should we bother. Well, maybe we need to address why student are not reading feedback and see if we can rectify this? Are we actually closing the loop on feedback? Are we saying here is feedback now go action it, then checking and saying, show me how you have auctioned this feedback?

Do students understand the benefits of taking part in a formative assignment, even though it will not directly feed a grade into their course?

Sometimes believe it or not, student don’t actually understand what we think is obvious. They just feel time poor, especially since they are usually studying multiple courses each semester, and they may not be able to make the connection between opportunities to improve their work and that final grades that seems so far off from now.

Have a think about this when you are in the course design phase of your next course and see if you can actively design in opportunities for formative assessment.

Why do I blog? Time for some reflection.


I have been asked to take part in a podcast about blogging and normally I’d be very up for this and could, to be honest, chat the legs of a donkey. However, I’m being asked to chat about my professional blogging practice, namely this blog. This puts me in a bit of a pickle as to be honest, this isn’t “my blog”, and don’t get me wrong, obviously this is my blog, it’s me who writes it, but I actually have a lifestyle blog which is quite successful and I have built a community around that over the past ten years. I consider that “my blog”.   I consider this one, something I do for work.

So I am now trying to think about my blog (for work), why I blog, what I am trying to achieve and it’s quite daunting. I don’t think I have EVER actually thought about it.

So, a wee cup of earl grey and a treat to get the brain working and time for some reflection.

Photo by: Eli Appleby-Donald 2019

How did this blog start?

Apparently (some famous nun said) the beginning is a very good place to start, so let’s go back to the beginning.

Well, a while back, I started a blog which became this one. I started a site called The New College Technologist, as at that time this was my professional identity.  I looked after all academic tech related things for New College and I wanted a platform to put my thoughts and ideas out on so that people could find out about things I was interested in, implementing at the school or that I was championing. I wanted a way for people to choose to find out more, rather than me invading their email inboxes. So the New College Technologist blog was born and I was quite a regular blogger, but then I changed jobs and more importantly schools and I stopped being the New College Technologist. My new boss was quite keen that I keep the digital footprint I’d built so Edutechie was born.

photo by: Paul Dodds 2015

But why keep it going?

See this is where reflection is awesome, just telling you about the origins of this blog has opened the flood gates to thought.

My purpose, why then, if I was no longer trying to give my colleagues at New College news and info, did I keep going with blogging? Different audience, different purpose?

I guess it comes down to digital footprint. Although the purpose of this blog changed from delivering info, to me having a space to talk about educational technology, it was still about me having a place to think, to talk, to share my thoughts and opinions. It was about my existence in a much bigger pond. I now feel that I’m being a complete ego maniac, but it’s the truth, I wanted other people to know about the things I thought were important without the need to spend months on a paper for a journal. I wanted people to have alternative opinions of educational technology available to them so that they could make informed choices. After all not all learning tech types think the same things, do the same stuff, even those of us who work for the same organisation have differing opinions. So it’s good for all that to be visible and for me, the digital medium just feels right. Not for any clever reason tied into my role, but just because the internet and technology gave me a voice when I didn’t have one. I find social media and digital media in general comfortable. I would happily do so much more in the way of digital media for communication if I had the time. I happily create video and manage a twitter feed, so blogging is just another natural element of that to me.

Photo by Eli Appleby-Donald 2017

I also wanted a much more relaxed approach to being part of my academic community and this fit. Again I like that it’s something people can choose to read and be part of, no-one is being pressured which for me is important. I feel all too often that my job as an educational technologist is to “encourage” people to use certain tools or do things a certain way and I’m not always comfortable with that. I prefer to give people info and chat to them and be a part in their personal decision making process. This is much more me, a support and guide in the wings who is happy to say “ok this isn’t for you, so how can I help you make a success of the thing that is?”

Am I happy with the result?

Ha ha ha, oh this is a goodie, see my “other blog” has a huge community who contacted me on a daily basis. It even spawned a youtube channel which is growing steadily. I am very aware of stats for both.  I regularly check and I have rules about how I engage with the community. Which sounds crazy to me now when I say it out loud (or type it online) because this was never its purpose in the beginning. This blog, however, my work one doesn’t have a community, it has readers, I know because I see the stats, but I haven’t actually engaged with promoting it or encouraging feedback. Should I? I’m not sure. Is that what I want? Again, I’m not sure. I guess I won’t know unless I allow things to happen organically and judge from there.

I feel very much that this blog is in its infancy. I’m not sure yet what my voice here is, should I be reflecting? Explaining? Discussing? I just don’t know and I guess time will help me to find that meaning here. At the moment, it’s an outlet for me, a way for me to write, to communicate in something longer than a tweet.

So as results go, I’m not sure there is anything I can measure yet. I’m not even sure if I should, if I measure will it become something I feel is a chore, something I have to do? Or will I continue to just find solace in speaking to the void knowing that somewhere there is another soul who is happy to passively be part of an invisible community of two?

My other blog:

My professional twitter identity: @LearningTechEli

Other places on the web you may see the Edutechie:

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