How to make formative assessment effective online

Assessment Types

Summative assessment is the assessment of learning, while formative assessment is an assessment for learning. Summative assessments measure what the student has learned; formative assessment informs the instructor on how they are doing with their teaching and the student on their progress. The use of formative assessment is critical for the instructor to adjust their teaching and also to provide feedback for the student. It should be noted that it is often the assessment, and not the curriculum, that defines how and what students learn. Various forms of assessment encourage different kinds of learning, formative assessment is particularly important because it increases student learning and helps with meeting course objectives.

What works in a face-to-face setting will not necessarily work in an online environment and in the online setting it is easy to forget about formative assessment. When teaching online, the learning theory remains the same but the implementation of that theory is different. Instructors need to begin assessing their students very early on, even before the course begins, to make sure that technological obstacles are not impeding students.

Formative Assessment in Online Learning

There are some key principles instructors can follow when designing their online courses in respect to formative assessment. Assessment activities should be authentic and seamlessly embedded in the teaching and learning process; and they should be accompanied by rubrics that help the learner understand the expected level of achievement. Feedback should be provided in a timely manner and be provided by both the instructor and peers. Perhaps most importantly, assessment activities need to create opportunities that engage learners in meaningful reflection. Students must be allowed and encouraged to reflect on their own understanding and progress.

A simple way to incorporate formative assessment online is through the use of multiple-choice practice tests. Multiple-choice tests are shown to encourage students to understand concepts and big ideas rather than memorizing details as they would for short answer tests. In order to use a multiple-choice test as a formative assessment, students should be given a short test and then be allowed to immediately review which questions were correct and which were incorrect. After reviewing the questions, the students are given time to revisit their reading material before making a second attempt on the test. Test questions and answer choices need to be randomized to avoid memorizing answers. After the second attempt, students are shown the correct answers to any questions they still got incorrect. These tests do not count toward the student’s grade; they are only used as formative assessments to provide the students and instructor with feedback on the learning process. They could however count as a participation grade to encourage students complete the test. A summative test based on the same learning objective would follow a week later.


Research indicates that students did better overall on their summative assessments after having these formative assessment. Some academics feel that giving students a second attempt compromises the assessment’s results, but in actuality, it provides the students a chance to learn from their mistakes and encourages reflection. This method also creates less anxiety and makes students believe that the institution and instructor are being supportive of their learning. Formative assessment in the online learning environment provides students with immediate feedback, something that is not easily achieved in a traditional classroom.


Thinking about moving courses fully or partially online? Contact PRIMED to receive a consultation and discuss the best methods to implement your ideas.



Baleni, Z. G. (2015). Online formative assessment in higher education: Its pros and cons. Electronic Journal Of E-Learning13(4), 228-236.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *