Striking a Balance: Formative and Summative Assessments

Yesterday, I got my teaching evaluations from last semester.  This post is not about how to better evaluate teaching or about learning to love the evaluation process despite its shortcomings.  My evaluations made me think about redesigning my assessments.

Specifically, I am reconsidering the way in which I give credit for formative and summative assessmentFormative assessments are important in research classes. In order for students to improve, feedback on actual research is vital. Students see where they can improve strategy and refine their skills.  Formative assessments work well in law school, but often, formative assessments are given few to no points so that students can learn from them and then do well on the summative assessment.  This is consistent with other law school exams (i.e. there is little idea of grade until the end of the semester) but this may not be the best idea.

I am torn about points for formative assessments.  I don’t want to penalize students too much for practice exercises; they do need to practice.  On the other hand, students usually don’t complete optional assignments just to get feedback.  So what is a research professor to do?

I have been trying to split the baby and making no one happy.  In one class, I made formative assessments worth very few points, telling the students the real value of the assessments is the feedback.  Many students did not complete all assignments.  In those class evaluations, many cited the low point value as a reason they did not complete all assignments, but those same students were some of the lowest performers on the final assessment.

So I tried to fix it. In last fall’s class, I made the formative assessments worth more so that students would complete them, but I made the grades a “good faith effort grade.”  Although the students got significant feedback and guidance on their assignments throughout the semester, all of the assignments were graded not for correctness but simply for completion of an assignment in a timely manner.

I thought this would solve the problem – and all of my students did turn in all the assignments. But now I had a different problem.  In the end, all of that good faith effort meant that every student had the same basic grade going into the final project and presentation, and the student evaluations showed that the students wanted their effort rewarded by grades.  Although my evaluations for this class were better than those of the first class, there were several negative comments, all of them about good faith efforts.  The students wanted their work to have value, to be graded for content and not just effort.

What is the final takeaway?  I am not sure yet.  In my next class (coming up fast – spring is here!). I am going to give formative assessments more point value.  I am planning 40% to 60% of the class points. I hope that will give students enough information about their grade and their performance, while allowing someone who improves at the end based on the feedback the opportunity to improve on the final assessment.  It is a fine balance.  What about you – has anyone out there struck a good balance?


About Shawn Friend

This entry was posted in Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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