The need to rethink our approach to formative assessment in Higher Education

Guest post by Dr Verona Ni Drisceoil (Senior Lecturer in Law)

Dr Verona Ni Drisceoil is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex. She is also a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). Her current research focuses on transition pedagogy, inequality in education and assessment for learning. 


Formative assessment is a familiar element in the Higher Education (HE) landscape but there has, as noted by Crossouard and Pryor (2012, 253), been ‘little questioning of the practices conducted in its name much less the theory that produces it’. In this blog post, I call for a questioning of the practice. Specifically, I argue that we need to rethink our approach to formative assessment in relation to the preparation for written based summative assessments, such as essays. In doing so, I argue for the incorporation of a more responsive and deliberate practice approach (Ericsson and Pool, 2016) – to build in, and embed, more formative written opportunities within the classroom environment as a better way to track progress, respond in real time, and ensure that all students benefit.  

To begin, I will revisit some of the current challenges to, and for, formative assessment in HE before then moving on to outline what a rethinking looks like. I will conclude with some take away messages and suggestions on how to build in written based formative opportunities into your seminars and lectures. 

What are the current challenges for formative assessment in HE? 

The challenges to, and for, formative assessment in HE are well known and include workload capacity (providing feedback during term time), time frames and students not taking up the opportunities. Challenges also arise where the formative assessment has been marked and graded (formatives should not be graded!) by a faculty member or teaching assistant not marking the summative assessment. However, beyond these challenges, all of which are valid and important, I suggest that the primary reason that formative assessments do not work well in HE – for student or faculty – is due to the predominant approach we take. Standard formative assessments in HE in advance of traditional written based summative assessments (at least in law, my discipline) include: 

  • Write a response to a problem question on X 
  • Write an essay on X 
  • Write a draft plan/outline to an essay on X 

The problem with these types of formative assessments (all of which I have used myself, so no judgement), is that they are summative in nature and form. To use a sporting analogy as utilised by Christodoulou , the ‘write an essay on X’ as a formative equates with run a marathon to see if you can run a marathon. This is not a good approach, nor is it good advice. It seems then that we, in HE, have misunderstood what is meant by formative assessment. 

What do we mean by formative assessment? 

For Pryor, the aim of formative assessment is to improve education while summative assessments aim to measure education. Wiliam and Black (1998) note that formative assessment includes ‘activities that elicit evidence of student learning that can be used by teachers, students, or others, to make decisions about future teaching and learning’. In HE, I am not sure, we, as faculty members, are very good at making decisions about future learning based on the formative assessments we set – at least not for the cohort involved. In other words, we don’t respond in real time.  

The basis for that premise is that the formative assessments we set are summative in nature (run a marathon to see if you can run a marathon) and arguably come much too late in the term. They have, in many instances, become a tick box exercise and let’s be honest in week 9/10 of an 11-week term (where they usually appear), students are not the only ones struggling with term fatigue and burn out. We are hoping, in part, that students don’t take up the opportunity. Surely then there is a better approach we can take – for student and faculty? 

Responsive teaching and deliberate practice as a better approach 

Wiliam and Christodolou tell us that formative assessment should intervene in the midst of a student’s learning process not at the end. In its ideal form then, formative assessment should be comprised of frequent, interactive assessments of student progress and understanding to identify learning and develop the skills required – with an opportunity for teachers to respond in real time. This is not to say, of course, that there are no examples of responsive and embedded formative practices being utilised in HE. There are many brilliant examples including the use of technology such as Poll Everywhere and Mentimeter. These tools are extremely useful for gauging knowledge and understanding of key principles in real time and, to a lesser degree, to test application. However, these more active, real time formative opportunities or approaches are more difficult to use when it comes to continuous written based tasks (without a significant need for response by the teacher) and thus there is a tendency to shy away from written based activities in the classroom in HE in favour of discussion-based seminars. This approach to literacy development lies in sharp contrast to teaching approaches adopted at primary and secondary level. This is deeply problematic particularly given our continued reliance on written based summative assessments in HE. Students need knowledge and skill in the subject area. To draw on Ericsson and Pool (2016), this requires identifying the building blocks, sequencing them carefully and ensuring students gain and retain them. This process is known as deliberate practice. Asking a student to write an essay for a formative assignment in week 8/9 is not going to guarantee that this will help the student to excel at writing essays in advance of the summative. In fact, it may be deflating and demotivating. As we all know, writing takes time and practice – it takes deliberate practice.  

Concluding thoughts and take away messages 

Written based tasks are more difficult to check and support within the contact time we have with students in HE but arguably what we should, and need to, spend more time on especially if we continue to assess by way of written based assessment. 

  1. As per the work of Teresa McConlogue, we should think about backward design. If your summative assessment is written, think about how you can develop useful writing exercises (formative opportunities) into your lectures and seminars throughout the term. See further the work of Wendy Garnham on ‘active essay writing’. 
  1. Linked to point 1, respond in real time (where possible) thus reducing additional workload beyond allocation. This ‘respond in real time’ should be a shared and collective exercise with students. Peer review and peer feedback to written based exercises may take time to embed and develop but arguably worth the initial investment.  
  1. Examples of the 5-minute ‘write and reflect’ exercises I build into lectures, workshops and seminars include: 
  • A free writing exercise: A response to X, or what have you learned today. This is inspired by the work of Tamsin Hinton-Smith, Rebecca Webb and Emily Danvers in Writing into Meaning  
  • Write an introduction to a problem question on X. Give students a starting sentence to get started. 
  • Summarise the position put forward by scholar X. Using the abstract from an academic article on your reading list works well here.  
  • Write a response to the position put forward by scholar X.  
  • Outline your argument/response to X or structure your argument/position to/on X. 
  • Provide feedback on a form of writing. Be the teacher/peer. 
  1. Introduce students to the excellent academic phrasebank to support academic writing. With some of the exercises above, I encourage students ‘to use the academic phrasebank when you get stuck’. 
  1. For a seminar, ask students to read examples of former student work and give feedback, grades etc. This is not a novel idea but worth repeating and hugely important in terms of building feedback literacy as advocated by David Carless, Naomi Winstone and other leading scholars on feedback. 


Black, P and Wiliam, D (1998) Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in education: principles, policy & practice, 5:1, 7-74,  

Carless, D and Boud, D (2018) The development of student feedback literacy: enabling uptake of feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 43:8, 1315-1325, doi: 10.1080/02602938.2018.1463354 

Christodoulou, D (2017) The future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press 

Crossouard, B and Pryor, J (2012) How Theory Matters: Formative Assessment Theory and Practices and their Different Relations to Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 31 (3). pp. 251-263  

Ericsson, A and Pool, R (2017) Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. London: Harper Collins 

Garnham, W (2021) The active essay writing initiative. School of Psychology blog. October 6th 2021. Available at: The active essay writing initiative | School of Psychology blog (  

McConlogue, T (2020) Assessment and feedback in higher education: a guide for teachers. London: UCL Press.  

Winstone NE, Mathlin G and Nash RA (2019) Building feedback literacy: students’ perceptions of the developing engagement with feedback toolkit. Front. Educ. 4:39. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2019.00039  

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