Tell and Show: Demonstrating the Value of Formative Assessment Across the Institution

In Give and Take: Finding the Value in Classroom Feedback, I made a case for the value of formative assessment data in the development of teaching and learning. My personal point of view about classroom feedback is steeped in my own experience and my individual philosophy of education. When I’m donning my Campus Labs consultant hat and working with campuses across the United States, however, my classroom experience fades into the distance. I focus instead on the reality of helping institutional constituents scale up and onboard their entire campus to the possibilities of data in the continuous improvement of student learning.

In my time as a consultant, I have met faculty members of all backgrounds and pedagogical philosophies. I have fought the good fight in support of deeply strategic and well-implemented assessment processes with instructors who haven’t yet seen the utility of assessment data come to life in their practice. I have also considered both the success stories and the moments of real challenge these dedicated professionals have shared in workshops and committee meetings. Administrators and faculty members often share the same goals—because who would work in an institution of higher education if they weren’t dedicated to the success of students in college and beyond? Still, in practice it can feel at times as though we are not on the same page—or even in the same book. Where is the common ground, and how can campus administrators foster a culture of formative assessment that is both authentic and valuable for all parties?

It is no secret that faculty relationships are largely considered to be the frontline of student success on the modern college campus. In Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action, Vincent Tinto wrote that “for most institutions… the classroom is the one place, perhaps only place, where students meet each other and the faculty engage in formal learning activities. For the great majority of students, success in college is most directly shaped by their experiences in the classroom.” (2012, pg. 115-116) The vital impact of faculty members on a campus’ goals around retention affects both academic and non-academic factors. Not only do instructors shape the learning experience and, by extension, the students’ path toward outcome attainment, but they also serve as mentors who can help students develop holistically over time.

Let’s consider the benefits of formative assessment activities in the classroom on the institutional landscape:

  1. Culture of Continuous Improvement – Anyone who has traversed a regional or disciplinary accreditation process can speak to the value external accreditors place on creating a culture of continuous improvement on campus. Gone are the days that institutions can rest on their laurels; to excel in an ever-changing field, campuses must also demonstrate that they have the flexibility and know-how to critically reflect on their processes and make the difficult but necessary decisions to keep a complex organization thriving. One perspective might say that this wide-reaching idea takes root in the classroom, where instructors can set the stage for continuous improvement. Indeed, by engaging in formative assessment, they can improve the quality of teaching and learning in their own venues and, by extension, across campus.

  2. Emphasis on a Growth Mindset – The 2016 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) indicates that a majority of undergraduate students ascribe to concepts of a growth mindset, which is to say that intelligence is malleable and can be affected by persistence and experience. Formative assessment activities in the classroom encourage students to view themselves as active learners in a growth experience as opposed to empty vessels for knowledge that instructors are compelled to pass on. The most recent NSSE results showed that “growth mindset students report gaining more from their college experience in both academic and personal areas” and that this “is consistent with a stronger belief in their ability to grow and improve.”

  3. Improved Student Perceptions – The 2016 NSSE data also showed that students who report feeling like they are members of a supportive, caring campus community “had more positive interactions with others on campus, perceived greater institutional support, and believed more strongly that their college experience had facilitated their growth and development across a range of outcomes.” Since relationships with faculty have already been identified by so many researchers as meaningful for students, it follows that formative assessment allows instructors to better know their students. This familiarity increases feelings of support and improves perceptions of the institution’s interest in student success.

  4. Outcome Attainment – Students who have been given multiple opportunities for feedback in a low-stakes environment may have a better chance of mastering the learning outcomes in their path toward degree attainment. The impact of providing early, consistent feedback on academic performance as an institution-wide practice could be significant, allowing more students to accomplish their academic goals and make satisfactory progression through their program’s curriculum.

  5. Decreased Evaluation Anxiety – From my experience as a consultant, faculty anxiety is an unfortunate reality in course evaluation processes on campus. The stakes for summative student evaluation feedback results are reaching new heights, as they are tied to tenure review determinations and resource allocation decisions. It is no surprise, then, that faculty members respond to the process with a certain amount of fear. However, faculty members who have incorporated ongoing assessment into their teaching practice and have received the benefit of student feedback throughout may look at summative course evaluations differently. Their focus has already shifted away from thoughts of punitive measures and unwanted surprises, in favor of meaningful opportunities to develop as professionals. And, in turn, formative assessment activities can improve the collaboration that is necessary between administrative and academic units to best facilitate a course evaluation process that suits the needs of students, faculty, and administrators alike.

Having established formative assessment as an important priority for teaching and learning, how can administrators best engage faculty members in the process? As with all things engagement, the answer lies in the approach. Faculty, just like other stakeholders, need to find the institutional initiatives meaningful and relevant. According to Tinto, “Some faculty and staff may decide to participate because of perceived intrinsic benefits, but for a program’s long-term success, institutional incentives and support are essential.” (2012, p. 93) Consider your campus’ unique culture and any opportunities to demonstrate the value of data. Aim to convince instructors that formative assessment practices can give them information that will help them in the immediate, and not become just another institutional hoop to jump through. Properly supporting these assessment efforts will also be important, as administrators who want to see more impactful practices in the classroom will want to leverage internal resources to sustain them in the long term. Teaching and learning centers, institutes for professional development, and department chairs should be looped into an integrated approach that is buoyed by both time and resources for a smooth execution.

And finally, don’t forget to walk the walk. Solicit feedback from faculty on the approaches they are already using to improve student learning. Give instructors opportunities to not only showcase those practices across the campus community, but also incorporate them into your greater plans and processes. Keep the dialogue open and productive, and the dividends will follow.


Photo of Emily-Rose Barry

Emily-Rose Barry

Director, Campus Success | Campus Labs

Emily-Rose Barry is Director, Campus Success, for Member Campuses in our south region. She provides high-level consulting on the value of campus-wide, data-oriented process improvements for institutions.