Are students still learning during COVID-19? Formative assessment can provide the answer


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Students studying in a classroom in Armenia
Students studying in a classroom in Armenia

As schools around the world have closed due to coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (and many have extended closures for the remainder of the school year), students, teachers, and parents are settling into the "new reality" for the foreseeable future. Many schools are implementing their distance learning contingency plans (some of them put together recently), and connecting students and teachers through online platforms and tools. National and local governments are partnering with broadcasting service providers to deliver educational content via television and radio during dedicated hours. Under these unexpected circumstances, teachers and parents have had to quickly adapt to teaching in this new reality to ensure that students engage in learning.

What are the learning assessment challenges and priorities in the current context?

Assessment of student learning is "the process of gathering and evaluating information on what students know, understand, and can do in order to make an informed decision about the next steps in the educational process." (See What Matters Most for Student Assessment Systems: A Framework Paper). Learning assessment is a fundamental feedback mechanism in education, allowing all stakeholders of the learning process to understand what is being learned and where learning resources need to be focused. Assessment may take different modalities depending on its purpose. Along with high-stakes examinations and large-scale assessments, formative assessment is, under normal circumstances, carried out by teachers in the classroom as part of the teaching process and encompasses everything from teacher observation to continuous feedback to homework. Formative assessment is particularly relevant to understand the learning needs of each and every student and to adjust instruction accordingly. In addition, teachers usually implement summative assessments whereby specific educational content is reviewed to determine the extent to which students reached the expected learning goals and acquired critical knowledge and skills.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, all modalities of learning assessment had been strongly dependent on students' physical presence – either for administration or for observing the learners' daily progress. Current school closures necessitate development of alternative approaches to delivering the critical feedback function of learning assessment. While all types of assessment of student learning are important, the need for formative assessment right now is particularly critical because learning needs to take place outside of the physical classroom, and teachers and parents-turned-teachers need to understand whether students are absorbing the content that is delivered to them in formats that differ from business-as-usual.

How can formative assessment support learning in the context of school closures?

Formative assessment can be administered in synchronous and asynchronous forms. In the synchronous form, where the teacher and the student are working together at the same time (via online platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams), as well as directly by phone, teachers can provide feedback to students in real time. The United States has a history of combining TV instruction with synchronous phone-based connection between learners and teachers. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Unified School District in California worked with the local TV channel to produce "Homework Hotline," an educational TV program that was paired with teachers connecting to students using a toll-free number.

In the asynchronous form, where students and teachers are separated by both space and time, online tools such as Google Classrooms and Moodle can help teachers to provide feedback to students through questions, tasks, activities, and quizzes. Various online applications such as Recap: Video Response and Reflection for Education, WURRLYedu, and Screencastify can be used to record performance tasks created by students and shared with teachers. Especially for younger students, parents also need specific guidance on how to communicate the results of formative assessment to teachers. These instructions should be made available in electronic and/or printed form and emailed or mailed to homes or made available for pickup from the school or other designated location.

Even in low-resource and low-connectivity contexts, formative assessment can happen during school closures. Teachers can provide feedback to students through mailed or emailed instructions and tasks. Messaging platforms (such as Messenger and WhatsApp) can also be used: companies are making available solutions that allow teachers to design, deliver, and track multiple-choice and short answer assessments through text messaging. In the United States, when Florida issued stay-at-home guidance, Miami-Dade County Public Schools moved the physical distance learning helpline center that had been created at the start of the school closures to a virtual format, with questions from students, teachers, parents, and administrators on learning content and technical issues being routed, via a software program, to the computers of content-area and information technology experts.

Direct phone calls between teachers, students, and parents can also be utilized even under lockdowns. "Homework hotlines" have been used in several states prior to COVID-19 to provide feedback to students and parents, and they have expanded in some locations during COVID-19 to support learning.  This has been done in Tennessee, where dedicated local phone numbers connect students and parents to certified teachers who provide support in many school subjects in English and in six other languages, in Kansas, and in Michigan, with the latter also providing mental counseling and emotional support as well as support for students with disabilities and/or special/diverse educational needs through a toll-free phone number. In addition, homework hotlines have been created to support students with print disabilities during COVID-19, as demonstrated by National Homework Hotline for Blind/Visually Impaired Students (NHH-BVI).

Irrespective of how formative assessment is communicated, it needs to be valid, timely, constructive, and specific to the learning needs of the child. The validity element is linked to the alignment of assessment content with the knowledge content the student should have acquired as part of the learning process. The timeliness aspect refers to the opportune use of the assessment to take quick action and provide remedial support if needed. The constructiveness element refers to the assessment's capacity to deliver feedback to the student and for the student to gain information that helps him or her identify misunderstandings, get guidance on how to improve, and understand the goals of the learning process. Finally, the specificity of formative assessment implies its ability to inform teachers and students about whether specific learning goals are being reached, and what is needed in case they are not there yet. Teachers and parents need to be empowered with resources and means to conduct formative assessment in line with these elements, even in low-resource environments.

Various resources can be used by teachers and parents to support formative assessment in the context of COVID-19, and companies are making their tools more available to a broad range of users during this time (however, in choosing any specific tool, it is important to check the contract terms and confirm that the its use is in line with all applicable laws and regulations). Some examples of applications for formative assessment use include DreamBox Math (which provides math instruction based on performance and enables teachers to create targeted activities using the AssignFocus option), Questbase (a free online tool to create quizzes compatible with most browsers and IOS), and Woot Math (a free application that automatically generates and assesses thousands of problems to meet each student's learning needs). In low-resource contexts, where connectivity and access to smart devices cannot be taken for granted, printed materials can be developed to support early reading skills for younger children, and to provide support for teachers and families.

Even though in many places it is currently not possible for teachers and students to come together in the same space, it is necessary for teaching and learning to continue to avoid learning losses and to stay on track in decreasing learning poverty. Formative assessment can help all students to continue along their learning trajectory, providing them, their parents, and their teachers with the necessary information to support the learning process, albeit from a distance.


Disclaimer: Resources in this article are provided for informational purposes only. The World Bank does not endorse any of the tools, companies, or applications mentioned in the article.





Rhys Ivan C. Jimenez
October 15, 2021

First and foremost, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for finding means for us, students, to continue our studies despite the global pandemic. Continuing our studies online is now possible thanks to these new assessment methods. Lessons can still be delivered to students via synchronous and asynchronous forms, eliminating the need for kids to travel to school and jeopardize their health. In the context of school closures, I've already seen how effective formative assessment may assist learning. Although the information we received was not as beneficial as it may have been, it was still preferable than none at all.

Anna Monica Millan Corpuz
October 15, 2021

I strongly agree that formative assessment definitely support the learning of student in the context of school closures during this Covid-19 pandemic.Formative assessment can help us students by providing us the necessary information to support and meet our learning needs.

Mae Angelyn Braceros
October 15, 2021

We have different Point of View so as a student we are stuck in this amidst of pandemic, we're not yet having a physically interaction in the class due this pandemic but teacher assess students by giving a quizes, recitations, by group activitiesand group performances through online. Even though it's difficult because the internet connections and the current problem, it can adequately support our learnings during this pandemic. Formative assessment, can support learnings even though we're suffering this epidemic, teachers observed and monitor students by the participation in synchronous meetings and answering those different activities provided of teacher's that can improved student skills and prior knowledge,it can be determine the students proficiency to know the teachers to improved their self on teachings or change their strategies of teachings and they assess the weaknesses and strength of his/her students.

Yhna Charissa P. Mabbun
October 15, 2021

• Students enroll because they don't want to be left behind, not because they want to study. Institutions of higher learning strive for the best, yet frequently overlook the importance of becoming human. I agree that some students are not learning to this new normal. Some students can’t go to online class because they don’t have money to buy load or they are not financially stable and some others are having a problem in their internet connection. In this situation, students are the most susceptible. Education used to be considered as a path to a better future; now, it is a burden for the poor and a benefit for the wealthy. For me, I admit that I am not learning for the other subjects because some teachers will uploading learning activities without discussing it, but I’m still doing my best to cope up with the subject and submit all before due. But this pandemic taught me that let us be aware and understand the situation we have. In this pandemic, we should be still be proud and appreciate all the achievements we’ve done and work hard so we can contribute to the world’s economies by being well educated individuals.

Roxanne Jane D. Baniel
March 14, 2022

With the global pandemic, most of students lost their interest in studying since learning seems like impossible but with the help of this formative assessment, it becomes possible. Teachers still manage to deliver the course content via synchronous and asynchronous class. With that, students are still given enough time to understand the course content and perform the given activities. And with the help of innovative technologies, both educators and learners still manage to have interaction through chats, google classroom, zoom, and others about their lessons and their class concerns. Feedbacks are still employed despite of some difficulties in internet connection, but this set up is better than nothing. So, I do agree that formative assessment made learnings accountable and possible in this global pandemic.

Marinella C. Macatiag
March 14, 2022

I strongly agree that students still learning even Covid-19 stops them to enter in the school. Formative assessment support students to mert their learning goals. Through digital communication tools, learning management systems tools and other specialized tools have made formative assessment a viable immediate and long term solution for comprehensive learning performance of students. It also presents a lifelong learning by capturing all forms and outcomes of learning and address learning gaps. Online platforms assess students gauge progress through observation,quizzes,assignments and feedback. In times of pandemic, both synchronous and asynchronous methods are used in formative assessment. Existing communication tools enable teachers and learners to interact and collaborate.

Reina Marie N. Ramos
March 14, 2022

I agree that formative assessment support learning in the context of school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Formative assessment is helpful right now since learning must take place outside of the physical classroom, and parents and teachers must determine whether students are acquiring material provided in formats other than the usual. Prior to COVID-19, formative assessment helps in examining each student's real learning level based on observation of what the student knows and can do, as well as determining what each learner is ready to learn next. But formative assessment must be valid, timely, constructive, and suited to the student's individual learning needs. Through asynchronous and synchronous forms of teaching and learning, teachers provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding, knowledge, and skills.

Wendylyn Villon
March 14, 2022

Covid 19 is not a hindrance to education, there are a lot of ways to continue learning even we’re amidst this covid 19 pandemic. In distance learning, both synchronous and asynchronous methods of formative assessment can be used. By definition formative assessment is meant for learning. It is a tool for reflection. This allows us, students, to be part of our learning environment and to develop the self-assessment strategies that will help us to understand our own thought processes.