The Importance of Practice

Assessments are often described as falling into two categories: formative and summative. Formative assessments are usually informal, ungraded, or low-stakes assignments used to check students’ understanding of course concepts. They are most often used to “form” the instructor’s instructional plan (i.e., whether it’s time to move on to new concepts or spend a little more time on something). They also give students important information about their progress and about areas in which they may be struggling. Summative assessments, on the other hand, test the sum of a student’s knowledge. These are evaluative, and they are higher-stakes, in that they typically constitute a significant portion of a student’s grade.

More Reps for Better Learning

In Psychology 350, Research Methods & Data Analysis, Professor Cal Garbin makes extensive use of large question banks to provide opportunities for his students to do enough "reps," or practice, that they develop the skills and knowledge needed to approach course assessments with confidence. Garbin’s approach combines many assignment exercises with strategic proctored testing. Read more...

Although there is nothing wrong with relying on summative assessments – almost all courses use them – what is more problematic is the under-use of formative assessments. Formative assessments are, to a great degree, practice. They allow students to attempt a task (like writing a rough draft of an essay or completing quiz questions that resemble what they will later find on an exam) without suffering too great a setback if the attempt does not go as well as it should. In many courses, however, few if any formative assessments are built into the assessment structure. This is not to say that students could not practice their skills in these courses. However, if they do this practice entirely on their own – relying on their motivations, resources, and timelines, and without any feedback from the instructor – then it is not nearly the quality of practice they would enjoy if it were built into the course as formative assessments. Students would then have critical guidance from the instructor, making them much more likely to remain on track and practice in ways that truly move them toward mastery.

In almost any other context, such as athletic competition, we would quickly recognize the absurdity of expecting someone to excel at a task without practice. If the Nebraska volleyball team were to end all of their formal practice sessions, and if the players were told to practice on their own time and then meet up only for matches, then we can be confident that their exemplary performance record would quickly crumble. Yet this is essentially what happens in a course that contains only summative assessments (official matches) and no formative assessments (practice sessions).

As you figure out how to complete assessments in your online course, remember the importance of practice, and build in formative assessments wherever you can. Common options include quizzing in Canvas, multiple drafts of papers or projects submitted over time in preparation for final submission, reflection assignments, polling during a lecture, and blind discussion responses. Use the Classroom Assessment Explorer to find formative assessments you can use to investigate different kinds of learning.

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