[43] Practice makes perfect – Online methods of summative and formative assessment


Practice makes perfect – Online methods of summative and formative assessment

Author (s)

Angharad Thomas Lecturer
College of Science

Please note : This is an interactive workshop and therefore it is suggested that participants bring their own laptops/tablets in order to get the most from the session


Practice makes perfect is an old adage that still has relevance in the 21st century. For many students, especially those who come direct to university from school or 6th form college, their main method of revision is to “do past papers”. In transitioning them to university it is important to provide opportunities to practise while also supporting them to learn the general cases and be able to apply their knowledge to new problems.

In numerate disciplines it is usual to provide worksheets or question banks (sometimes in the form of sample or past papers) to allow students to practise. However, this only allows a finite number of questions and also, if deployed as summative assessment, is open to plagiarism or collusion within the class.

Online forms of assessment circumvent both problems. Creating questions where the values in the question change each time you regenerate a question allows for an infinite number of questions for the student to attempt (and to be marked automatically); and allows for a different set of questions for each student, thus reducing the opportunity for cheating.

Some methods of e-assessment marking only provide a crude ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ response. However, with new forms of e-assessment it is possible to use adaptive marking. This is where if a first part of a question is answered incorrectly, it is still possible for students to gain marks on subsequent parts as the software recalculates subsequent answers based on the student’s answer to the first part of the question. It is also possible to allow the student to select whether they would like to view the intermediary steps within a long calculation, so that a student can build confidence towards answering more complicated questions without showing steps.

Online assessment also allows us as teachers, to assess the students’ knowledge and to ascertain the engagement of the class with the taught material. As a lecturer it is useful to see what parts of the course are proving problematic to students and this can be done by analysing the responses to questions in Blackboard.

Within the physics department we use both Blackboard tests as well as Numbas (a free and open-source way of creating mathematically-based problems). In a third year (FHEQ 6) physics undergraduate course, I use both Numbas and written questions in all three of my assignments. I restrict both Numbas and the written questions to be only available via Blackboard. This allows me to work out when students are accessing the assignment (both written and Numbas) and how long they are spending on it. This, along with the student marks, allows me to look for trends. I will present the results of my findings during the workshop.

Online assessment methods can be used by multiple disciplines across the university from calculating dosages in the healthcare sciences, to working out the albedo of a planet orbiting the sun in physics.

Session Outline

The session will start with a brief introduction to online assessment methods (including Khan Academy, Blackboard, Numbas etc). I have been using online assessment since October 2013 and I have developed many different methods to support students and assess them. I will describe the benefits and potential dangers of using such methods, as well as briefly indicate how students respond to online assignments (by way of the Student Module Evaluation). I will then demonstrate the two methods I use most, Numbas and Blackboard to the workshop participants.

The main part of the workshop will be an opportunity for the participants to try out some of the tests and assignments themselves. The participants are invited to register on the test module within Blackboard (“e-assessment”) as a student so that they can try out some of the tests and assignments that we use within Physics during the workshop. I currently use both Blackboard and Numbas, which is deployed via a SCORM package in Blackboard in order to allow the capture of marks into Grade Centre. I will demonstrate on the screen how the system looks to the instructor and how to access interesting data regarding student performance, engagement etc. [Maximum benefit will be obtained from the workshop, if the participants bring their own laptop. However, I will be showing the student view and instructor view on two separate large screens.]

Information will be provided regarding my recommendations on how to deploy the tests for different scenarios:

  • Practice / formative assessment – this is especially useful for first year undergraduates.
  • Engagement – this could be used prior to a student starting at university to engender motivation and application before they begin at university. It could also be used to ascertain the ability of the students and their core knowledge before the beginning of their first term.
  • Summative – this is useful for assessment of large enrolment classes, it also can provide data to the lecturer on engagement with the course, it can also be used to influence behaviour. I allow the students to try an assignment three times (each time each question will have different variables) and I take the highest mark of the three attempts. This allows students to aspire to obtain 100% in the online part of the assignments.

Key Words

e-assessment, Numbas, summative assessment, formative assessment, Blackboard

Key Messages

  • Using Blackboard (or/and Numbas) tests to assess student learning.
  • Engaging with students using practice questions.
  • Benefits (and risks) of using online assessment methods.
  • Opportunity to glean information regarding student behaviour when approaching credit-bearing work.


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