Information Age Education
   Issue Number 200
December, 2016   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

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Online Learning Can Help to
Remove Barriers to Formative Assessment

Racquel Biem
Chinook Cyber School, Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada

Formative assessment is a cycle of teaching, learning, and feedback that occurs when learning is in progress, while there is still opportunity to learn and change (Heritage, 2011). Formative assessment has long been acknowledged for its benefits in increased learning for students. Wren and Cotton’s article acknowledges that there are barriers to implementing formative assessment in traditional classrooms, such as peer comparison and the belief held by many students and teachers that not all students can achieve a high level of success (Wren and Cotton, 11/06/2008). Online learning has the ability to eliminate many of these barriers, thus making online learning a perfect opportunity to implement formative assessment for learning excellence (Heritage, 2011).

I would caution people against using the blanket statement that formative assessment means no mark is attached. Formative assessment is feedback that allows a student to apply new knowledge to their learning before the summative assessment phase. As long as a student has the opportunity to apply feedback to demonstrate further learning, whether a grade has been given or not, it is formative assessment.

Incorporating formative assessment that only comes from the teacher can quickly swamp even the most experienced teachers. I would encourage instructors to find a way to divide up the formative assessment among peer feedback, self-feedback, computer automated feedback, and teacher feedback. Formative assessment from multiple perspectives will benefit the student and ease the pressure on the teacher.

Added Think Time

One of the drawbacks to discussions in a face-to-face classroom is that students who think to talk (think carefully before talking) rather than talk to think (use talking to guide one’s thoughts) may be reluctant to participate (TeacherStream, 2009). Online learning removes this barrier, as online discussions allow students additional time to think before responding. This, in turn, can reduce anxiety for anxious students (Blackboard, 1998).

Classroom discussions are an excellent way to check for student understanding. They allow students to learn from one another and to develop critical thinking skills, while also giving the teacher additional feedback about where the students are in their learning (Black and Wiliam, 1998). Discussion boards (threaded discussions in online instruction) can be tricky in terms of time management if it is also a heavy assignment week. As long as other course assignments are taken into consideration, discussion boards are an excellent way to find out students’ understanding of a particular concept. Teachers may also want to try assigning students to be the discussion board moderator on rotating weeks to ease the load on the teacher. Student moderated discussion boards work well once established norms are in place and your students are comfortable with discussion boards. Feedback does not have to come from the teacher to be effective.

Discussion boards at Chinook Cyber School typically use the following structure: a question is posed on Monday and students have until Wednesday to post their response. Their response needs to follow the S.E.E. model: State your answer to the question, give an Example, and Explain how the example backs up your statement. The students who like to talk to think typically respond right away which benefits the students who need more think time. They now can see others’ responses and formulate their own with no immediate time pressure. From Wednesday until Friday, each student needs to respond to two other students’ posts. It is a great way to allow for think time, keep the students on track, and give them flexibility with time to reflect.

Immediate Feedback without Increased Workload for the Instructor

Online quizzes allow for immediate feedback and can be set up to allow multiple tries without any additional work for the instructor. With the increased capability of online quizzes, teachers can structure future content based on a student’s prior scores. Online quizzes are an excellent way to direct students to the learning material they need as soon as they need it, while being low maintenance for the instructor.

Once a quiz is set up, allowing a student to redo it until they have mastered the skill or concept is effective for the instructor and student. It takes a fair bit of time to make a quiz with effective feedback, but the time saving for the teacher and decreased anxiety for the student is worth it. In our school, teachers are using their quizzes to open different computer-presented content depending on their mark. For example, if a student scored low on a math quiz involving fractions the teacher can dictate which content will open next. Someone who needs to review fractions will get different information than will someone who already has a strong base. The course management system platform we use is Moodle (Moodle, n.d.). It takes a bit of understanding of how to use groups, restrictions, and set access permissions, but once a teacher navigates through groups and restrictions, Moodle can be very powerful for individual learning paths.

Fear of Peer Comparison Removed

Another benefit of online learning is that there is little peer comparison. No one needs to know that it took one student twice as long as another to finish an assignment, that another student needed to do additional assignments, or that yet another student chose a different method of assessment.

Occasionally, I have two students both taking the same course at the same school. When the content starts to differ for two students who work closely together, I have received emails asking if something was missing or why his/her course looks different from that of his/her friends. Those situations are rare and a simple explanation to the student usually clears things up.

There are also other teachers at our school who make use multiple-choice quiz that randomly chooses 25 out of 50 possible options. This prevents collaboration on assignments that are meant to evaluate individual skill.

Ease of Adjusting Instruction and Assessment to Meet the Needs of the Student

Most importantly, formative assessment is implemented to allow the teacher to adjust the teaching to meet the individual needs of students. In a face-to-face classroom, switching from one assignment to another for one or two students may lead to increased classroom management issues, peer comparisons, and self-defeating attitudes (Wren and Cotton, 11/06/2008). In an online environment, the teacher has space and flexibility to change the path to the learning goals without the worry of how to explain or give instructions for three or more different assignments in the same class period and still keep students on task.

In our professional learning communities, all teachers have incorporated at least one unit where the students can choose between option 1 or option 2. The feedback from students indicates that they are more engaged because they are able to choose something that is of interest to them. We are making sure that the students have multiple methods to demonstrate their learning, whether it be through a written essay, an audio file, or even an artwork. Read and Write is a software package that we have invested in (Read and Write, n.d.). Read and Write allows the student to highlight a list of vocabulary words and the program will automatically generate a written definition and a picture definition. Read and Write will also read a web page or a Google document to a student. We use Read and Write with our students as a reading strategy where they can highlight key areas of text using different colors for different themes. The program will pull all the highlights into a Google Docs document and cite the source at the bottom. This program supports the Universal Design for Learning philosophy where a student doesn’t have to be identified with a learning disability to access the resource (Universal Design for Learning, n.d.). Every student has access to the program.

The barrier to learning created by a belief that not all students can be successful is one that, unfortunately, my experience has led me to believe is still a strong barrier in online learning (Wren and Cotton, 11/06/2008). Time and time again, I see an underlying belief by both teachers and students that not all students can be successful online. Data from the Chinook School Division indicates that 98% of their students are successful in passing their online courses (Budd, 3/09/2016). This level is well above the same province’s graduation rates of 74.8% (Graney, 1/13/2016). I know changing unchallenged beliefs can be difficult, but perhaps further data provided and the increased effective use of formative assessment online can help to establish a belief that online students are every bit as capable of success as are face-to-face students.

References and Resources

Allen, I.E., & Seaman, J. (2007). Online nation: Five years of growth in online learning. Online Learning Consortium. Retrieved 9/5/2016 from

Biem, R. (2016). Online learning. Retrieved 9/5/2016 from

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Assessment Group of the British Educational Research Association. Retrieved 9/5/2016 from

Blackboard (1998). Educational benefits of online learning. Retrieved 9/5/2016 from

Budd, S. (3/09/2016). Interview by R. Biem. Chinook Cyber School, Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

Graney, E. (1/13/2016). Saskatchewan graduation rates stall. Regina Leader-Post. Retrieved 9/5/2016 from

Heritage, M. (2011). Formative assessment: An enabler of learning. New Horizons for Learning. Retrieved 9/5/2016 from

Moodle (n.d.). Moodle. Retrieved 11/5/2016 from

Moursund, D. (7/9/2016). Project Tomorrow: A report on uses of computer technology in education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 9/14/2016 from

Mupinga, D.M., Nora, R.T., & Yaw, D.C. (2006). The learning styles, expectations, and needs of online students. College Teaching. Retrieved 9/14 2016 from

Read and Write (n.d.). Read and Write. Retrieved 12/5/2016 from

TeacherStream (2009). Mastering online discussion board facilitation. Retrieved 9/5/2016 from

Universal Design for Learning (n.d.). National Center on Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved 12/5/2016 from

Wren, D.G., & Cotton, J.A. (11/06/2008). Using formative assessment to increase learning. Retrieved 9/5/2016 from


Racquel Biem is a teacher at the Chinook Cyber School currently living in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, Canada. Her interests range from technology to arts. She is also interested in running, reading, and education. See


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