What is Digital Formative Assessment?

Digital formative assessment (DFA) encompasses a broad range of practices, including the use of personalised learning platforms, e-portfolios/digital diaries, social media (wikis, blogs), digital storytelling, e-textbooks, mobile learning, classroom polling, dashboards and monitoring tools and digital games. 

What all these practices have in common is that they support the assessment of student progress and provide information to be used as feedback in order to modify the teaching and learning activities in which students are engaged. 

Why DFA?

Research indicates that digital formative assessment (DFA) has great potential to support more powerful student learning. Both researchers and educational professionals are increasingly interested in how digital technologies can enhance the ways teachers provide feedback to their students (example). The Assess@Learning literature review highlights different ways in which digital tools can enhance formative assessment practices.

Digital tools allow for teachers to collect rapid (real-time) feedback and to scaffold the next steps of their students’ learning at an appropriate level of difficulty. Collecting such rapid feedback can help teachers, for instance, to organise class discussions that respond to the different needs of each student.

Benefits of digital technology in DFA contexts

Consider a teacher wants to assess students’ reading comprehension. She asks students to read texts on a computer program. At the end of each section, the program asks students a multiple-choice question about the section. If the student chooses a wrong answer, the program provides an explanation why the answer is not correct and gives hints on where to find the correct answer. A study (Hooley & Thorpe, 2017) shows that students who used this program performed better at reading and comprehension than the students in the control group. This is only one example for where DFA can result in better learning outcomes. 

Rapid, real-time feedback

Digital tools allow for rapid (real-time) feedback and scaffolding of next steps for learning at an appropriate level of difficulty.  

Automatised, constructive feedback

Digital tools can help the teacher to collect feedback from all students at the same time and analyze the results quicker. Digital tools can also help with automatising feedback to typical responses that occur frequently.

Learning anytime, anywhere

With increasing access of learners to the Internet and mobile devices, digital tools can also support learners’ choices and learning ‘anytime, anywhere’, also helping them to design their own learning goals and strategies.

Enablers for the systematic uptake of DFA

Digital tools can create more time for learning and teaching, provide new opportunities for each student to participate and create a fun and engaging learning environment. DFA practices can be taken up by one teacher individually or by several colleagues, based on a whole school approach. To successfully implement DFA at classroom level, both schools and policy makers need to provide support. What enablers need to be put in place? 

For many DFA practices, ideally each student has their own device (for use at school and home). For some activities, smart phones can be sufficient.  Moreover, a stable internet connection is necessary.  The school also needs to ensure that students are protected from any possible harm that could come from security threats, outdated devices or a lack of agreement within the school on how to ensure students’ data privacy.

Teachers’ skills to integrate effective formative assessment in their lesson plans, to respond to evidence of student learning and needs, and to provide opportunities for students to direct their own learning, are fundamental. To that end, there is a need for greater attention to teachers’ assessment competences in both initial teacher education and continuing professional development. Moreover, teacher training is needed on the effective and safe use of different tools that ensures the privacy of student data and also covers ethical considerations. 

School managements need support on how to provide the necessary infrastructure at school level and guidance to teachers on pedagogical, technical, safety and ethical aspects. Furthermore, guidance is needed on how to inform and engage parents, where relevant. 

Challenges to the uptake of DFA

Establishing DFA as a new practice at school, all stakeholders can be more prepared by being aware of the challenges and how to meet them.

Equal access

Students ideally need one device each as well as a stable internet connection both at school and at home. While access to digital devices at school and at home has grown significantly in recent years, it is not universal. Differences between regions, schools and urban and rural areas persist. 

Data privacy

Using digital tools for assessment, both formative and summative, requires teachers, school heads and policy makers to consider how to ensure a secure and valid use of student data. Digital tools used with students need to be checked (e.g. where data is stored, for what purposes it is used and whether it is shared with third parties). Seen the quick pace at which new tools and apps become available, keeping track is not an obvious task. 

Making sense of data

Teachers and students need to be able to interpret data on learning. Teachers should be able to aggregate results at the right level to obtain information on learning that teachers can communicate with students and colleagues and compare with the data collected at other situations and time points. Data from different educational sources need to be clear and comparable. However, it can be difficult to aggregate results at the right level to create exchangeable and comparable information about learning.

Ethical considerations

More data is used – with or without human intervention – to make decisions on student learning. While this opens exciting new possibilities, it also raises ethical questions. ‘Is every possible scenario desirable?’, ‘Do teachers and parents need to be able to see everything a student has done online and when (e.g. when a student completes homework)?’, and ‘What rules should govern the use of Artificial Intelligence in schools?’. Policy makers and school management need to consider these aspects and provide guidance to teachers. 

What our participants say

  • “Digital tools enhance self-regulation, notably when they allow feedback or have responsive features (the digital platform reacts to the right and wrong answers of students with new activity proposals). They facilitate access to information by all stakeholders and they also increase student motivation.”
    Ana Veigas Portuguese Directorate-General for Education
  • “In formative assessment, in addition the feedback provided by the teacher also pupils can self-evaluate themselves and their peers and learn from each other. Digital tools can make this process more engaging and fun. Digital tools can help creating exercises, through which students will learn by doing.”
    Marjo Rissanen Counsellor of education, Finnish National Agency for Education
  • “Digital tools help teachers collect simple data produced during teaching. These tools can visualise and present data in a form that can help teachers take decisions more efficiently regarding the planning and reformulation of their teaching. They also support the provision and exchange of learning materials between teachers.”
    Nena Karagianni Computer Technology Institute and Press “Diophantus”