Tech Can’t Teach but it Can Help with Feedback

Key Points

  • Formative assessment is a proven instructional method that involves intentional feedback and reflection on the learning process by both students and teachers.

  • Edtech can help assist teachers in providing formative assessment with high-quality accessible instructional materials, fine-grained data on student performance, and automated feedback tools.


By: Cristina Heffernan

At the height of the pandemic, many students and parents felt abandoned by the education system. The transition to distance learning was abrupt; schools did not have any time to prepare; and both students and teachers were forced onto a variety of unfamiliar tech platforms that often led to frustration before education. It showed how important fine-tuned routines and clear expectations are for education.

But there were some positives too. While educational routines are important, they can easily become stale. The pandemic was obviously a very unwelcome disruption, but it did force educators into some reinventions on the fly and it brought some new tech tools into their arsenal. Now that students are thankfully back in classrooms, it is time to examine how these new tools can help supplement the classroom experience.

The pandemic illustrated quite clearly that edtech cannot teach our students on its own. But there are a number of ways educators can successfully integrate the technology into the day-to-day practices of the classroom. In particular, tech can play a crucial supplementary role in helping teachers integrate formative assessment into the learning process, encouraging student reflection and self-regulation.

So, what exactly is formative assessment and how can we do a better job of integrating it into instruction, both in and out of the classroom?

Formative assessment, as opposed to summative assessment, is a form of assessment that is integrated into the learning process rather than just evaluating it at the end of a unit or course. It must, therefore, do more than just tell students whether they’ve gotten a question right or wrong. Instead, formative assessment intentionally gives students the feedback and support needed to reach the stated learning goals.This allows students to take ownership of their learning and, in the end, come to a better understanding not just of the material, but of themselves as learners.

For teachers, formative assessment includes practices like setting clear learning goals, including reviewing success criteria with students, checking students’ understanding of those criteria, and providing the opportunity to discuss and implement adjustments to the teaching and learning process.  

The aim of formative assessment is to shape and deepen students’ subsequent engagement with the material. As such, it’s the very lifeblood of education. It’s what students need to improve their understanding and gain confidence in themselves as learners. Whether in math, social studies, or data science, formative assessment is a must in daily practice. Teachers have been practicing formative assessment without technology for years, but it is time to get them the support they need to bring it to the next level.

Research has shown that formative assessment works best when the feedback provided to students is immediate; oriented around clear learning goals; and fitted to the student’s prior understanding and ability. One-on-one tutoring is one of the most effective ways to practice formative assessment. Tutors can develop and articulate individual learning plans with their students, gain a more intimate knowledge of students’ strengths and weaknesses, and easily provide instruction in real-time. Appropriately, momentum is building toward providing more in-person tutoring in order to address learning loss.

But obviously, most teachers simply don’t have the luxury of lots of one-on-one time with their students. This is where technology comes in. At their best, online learning platforms can assist students and teachers in the formative assessment process. There are several ways these platforms can help.

The aim of formative assessment is to shape and deepen students’ subsequent engagement with the material, rather than simply evaluate it.

Cristina Heffernan

First and perhaps most obviously, technology can make standards-aligned, high-quality instructional material easily accessible for teachers and students. This accessibility can help teachers communicate learning goals and clearly align them with learning tasks. If they’re explicit with their students, this helps students to think more deeply about their own learning and learn how to self-regulate — a key part of the formative assessment process.  

Secondly, learning platforms can offer teachers robust instantaneous data about their students that they can use to tailor instruction. This can help teachers mimic the kind of fine-grained information tutors typically absorb from their students. Platforms Carnegie Learning and Zearn offer data reports that detail potential areas of struggle and common misconceptions, allowing the teacher to adjust instruction and offer targeted feedback to select groups of students.

Thirdly, learning platforms can automate certain aspects of the feedback process. Many platforms have shown success with automated feedback that can allow teachers to individualize feedback when they’re not able to tutor students one-on-one. ASSISTments — a free math learning platform I co-founded with my husband, Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor Neil Heffernan — offers robust immediate feedback, and is currently piloting a feedback tool that will use AI to provide feedback recommendations to teachers, while also including options for teachers to create and easily insert their own feedback at scale.

Finally, at a research level, platforms afford learning scientists and other scholars the opportunity to study learning and teaching in a far more rigorous way than before. The high volumes of data captured by these platforms can lead to more reliable studies capable of producing more certain knowledge about what works in education. For example, thanks to a grant from the US Department of Education, ASSISTments is currently recruiting participants for a study to measure its impact on student learning. We are excited to learn more about how the platform works and how to make it work better.

There may yet be a silver lining to the pandemic when it comes to edtech. Although the circumstances were far from ideal, teachers and students now have a familiarity with edtech platforms that can help as we strive to accelerate learning in the post-pandemic environment. The key is learning how — through research and practice — to best align edtech tools with in-person instruction and even the trusty pencil and paper.

Easy-to-use, integrated tech tools that augment the learning environment can support teachers and allow them to focus on what they got into teaching to do: develop learning goals, generate excitement about learning, and support students in finding their stride and becoming life-long learners.

Cristina Heffernan is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of The ASSISTments Foundation.

Guest Author

Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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BMED - Medical Education Consultant

That's really nice post. I appreciate your skills. Thanks for sharing informative post.

Veena Reddy

Formative Assessment is obviously a way through which students can learn better and engage better. The info you gave on various learning platforms which give better instructions to teachers to understand the student's struggles and make them get excited to learn better.

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