October 30th, 2017

Unlocking the Promise of Digital Assessment


formative assessment activities in class

For many professors, student assessment is one of the most labor-intensive components of teaching a class. Items must be prepared, rubrics created, and instructions written. The work continues as the tests are scored, papers read, and comments shared. Performing authentic and meaningful student assessment takes time. Consequently, some professors construct relatively few assessments for their courses.

Unfortunately, this practice limits professors’ ability to reliably assess student learning. If a course grade is a mosaic, then each assessment is a tile. A mosaic with just a few tiles only presents a part of the picture. Professors can improve the quality of their assessment mosaic by increasing the number of performances they assess. These smaller and more frequently administered snapshots of student learning are frequently termed formative assessments. The integration of frequent formative assessments improves the validity of course assessment and has been demonstrated to have a variety of benefits, including improving student achievement and helping students develop more agency over their own learning (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). By providing more numerous and authentic measurements of student thinking, professors can improve the fidelity of their assessment mosaic and the reliability of their assessments of student learning.

The proliferation of mobile devices and the adoption of learning applications in higher education simplifies formative assessment. Professors can, for example, quickly create a multi-modal performance that requires students to write, draw, read, and watch video within the same assessment. Other tools allow for automatic grade responses, question-embedded documents, and video-based discussion. In addition to simplifying formative assessment, the use of these tools has been shown to amplify student engagement (Hwang & Chang, 2011).

Emerging tools and approaches open new opportunities for professors to gather more frequent and more authentic formative assessment data. This, in turn, can help students learn the course material and can help professors to tailor their instruction to meet the needs of their students.

Formative Assessment Tools to Consider

There are hundreds of formative assessment tools available. Many, however, perform similar functions. You can narrow your search by considering what approach would work best in your teaching context then identifying a tool you can integrate into your practice. If you are a novice, start small and aim for a win. Choose a course for which you would like to improve the quality of your assessment then select one technology tool to get started with.

  • Multi-Modal Assessments – Several applications allow professors to create multiple-choice and open-ended items that are distributed digitally and assessed automatically. Student responses can be viewed instantaneously and downloaded to a spreadsheet for later use. Examples of these tools include Socrative (socrative.com) and Poll Everywhere (www.pollev.com). Some tools in this category have unique capabilities. Formative (www.goformative.com) allows professors to upload charts or graphic organizers that students can draw on with a stylus. Formative also allows professors to upload document “worksheets” which can then be augmented with multiple-choice and open-ended questions. Nearpod (www.nearpod.com) allows professors to upload their digital presentations and create digital quizzes to accompany them. Nearpod also allows professors to share three-dimensional field trips and models to help communicate ideas.
  • Video-Based Assessments – Question-embedded videos are an outstanding way to improve student engagement in blended or flipped instructional contexts. Professors may upload their own videos and screen-capture files, or use pre-existing streaming video from YouTube. Once uploaded, videos may be embedded with multiple-choice or short answer items. Using these tools allows professors to identify if the videos they use or create are being viewed by students. EdPuzzle (edpuzzle.com) and Playposit (www.playposit.com) are two leaders in this application category. A second type of video-based assessment allows professors to sustain discussion-board like conversation with brief videos. Flipgrid (www.flipgrid.com), for example, allows professors to posit a video question to which students may respond with their own video responses.
  • Quizzing Assessments – Finally, tools that utilize close-ended questions that provide a quick check of student understanding are also available. Quizizz (quizizz.com) and Kahoot (www.kahoot.com) are relatively quick and convenient to use as a wrap up to instruction or a review of concepts taught. Quizizz works on any device with a browser and features specific apps for iOS and Chrome. Kahoot also has specific apps for iOS, Android, and Windows devices. Kahoot now features a team function and the ability to adjust the time limit for questions. Themes, memes, and avatars are available to choose so professors need only focus on the content of the assessment. Ten to 20 questions are easily administered in both tools; although longer assessments tend to lessen student engagement. Both multiple choice and true/false question format work well with either tool. These provide a fast-paced formative assessment that can address fact-based knowledge as well as higher order thinking.


It is important to ensure that your integration of technology is aligned to sound formative assessment design. Formative assessment is most valuable when it addresses student understanding, progress toward competencies or standards, and indicates concepts that need further attention for mastery. Additionally, formative assessment provides the instructor with valuable information on gaps in their students’ learning which can imply instructional changes or additional coverage of key concepts. The use of tech tools can make the creation, administration, and grading of formative assessment more efficient and can enhance reliability of assessments when used consistently in the classroom. Selecting one that effectively addresses your assessment needs and enhances your teaching style is critical. Moreover, it is important that you determine if the tools you select are compliant with your institution’s accessibility and student privacy policies.


Using tech tools to support assessment can enhance the assessment mosaic of nearly every course. These tech-enhanced formative assessments produce actionable data that can help students learn more efficiently (Yorke, 2003). The design and function of the applications introduced in this article provide a starting point to enhancing your course assessment. The wide array of tech tools available allow professors to select one that match teaching styles and assessment needs. The promise of real-time assessment information and the convenience of collecting data digitally make emerging technologies a great place to advance your teaching practice.


Hwang, G. J., & Chang, H. F. (2011). A formative assessment-based mobile learning approach to improving the learning attitudes and achievements of students. Computers & Education, 56(4), 1023-1031.

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

Yorke, M. (2003). Formative assessment in higher education: Moves towards theory and the enhancement of pedagogic practice. Higher education45(4), 477-501.

Stacey Newbern Dammann, associate professor and chair, Department of Education, York College of Pennsylvania. Josh DeSantis, assistant professor of education, director of Masters of Education Program, York College of Pennsylvania.


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  • svenab

    Thanks for a good article. When discussing these issues, I notice many faculty members are not quite confident of the difference between formative and summative assessments.
    Here is a short article trying to clarify the issue https://eteachingandlearning.wordpress.com/assessment/

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    The only assessment worth doing is that which shows how much students have learned. This is truly demonstrated only by what students are able to do as the result of taking the class (e.g. designing new experiments, developing new points of view, showing high critical reasoning, building a useful variation of an electrical car, etc.). “Assessment” that consists of seeing how well the students have memorized material, or how well they can regurgitate it, are not all that useful, except that they make us suspect the class was not that valuable to begin with. All this digital assessment seems to fit in with the latter, largely worthless type, while making it grow to technically grotesque proportions.

    • HarryByTheSea

      You have a two valuable insights here (1) what is assessment? and 2) figuring out what students know and can do is not well determined for the most part with narrow, selected-response instruments that are easy to grade but capture more often than not a small reflection of what it is we want to measure. Acknowledging that, we should also acknowledge that at the heart of good tutoring and instruction, whether human or AI, is the ability to constantly read small signals that guide instruction to reinforce, amplify, redirect, or otherwise augment what is being taught / learned to address misconceptions, incomplete or inadequate understandings. using short “quizzes”, scenario-based reactions or other simple mechanisms can be useful to guide instruction, maybe don’t rise to the noble title of “assessment” — and yes, like anything else, can be overused to the point of having the opposite of the intended effect: wasting time, discouraging students, making learning into regurgitation / boring / mindless repetition. But don’t throw out the formative assessment baby with the bathwater!

      • Gonzalo Munevar

        I am the first to agree. The best form I know of such formative assessment is to closely monitor what students are doing. That works even better if the students are doing something that matters. For example, instead of PowerPoints and lectures in a psychology class, followed by a large number of quizzes and tests, I would have the students read the textbook or journal articles and then come with at least three questions on the assigned materials. The session would use those questions as a starting point for discussion. And instead of tests they would work in small groups to design an experiment (midterm) and then carry out a preliminary version of it (final). I would meet with each group, analyze what they were doing, and then give them feedback on subsequent drafts or about problems they encountered carrying out the experiment. I would have an idea also of individual progress by the quality of their questions and comments in class, and by their work within their teams (e.g. they would place their names in each section to which they contributed in the drafts of their projects). In this ways I would be taking the pulse of the class constantly.