Formative Assessment in Large and Small Classes

Balancing Formative and Summative Assessment

“I try to keep things as low stakes as possible, so they have the opportunity to try and to get things wrong” – Dr. Jason Donev


Dr. Jason Donev is a Senior Instructor in the department of Physics and Astronomy the Natural Science Program at the University of Calgary. He teaches various sizes and levels of physics and energy science courses. His main teaching strategy (strategy is what I do, my philosophy is what I think about, which is a different statement) is to provide as much low-stakes formative assessment into his classes as he can, so that students are prepared for summative assessments such as midterm and final exams. Although it was easier to try unique formative assessment methods in his smaller classes, such as his upper division energy classes like Introduction to Nuclear Power and Heat Engines in the Modern World (SCIE 421 and SCIE 507), he has found ways of making sure his large lecture classes of over 100 students, like Introduction to Energy (PHYS 371), still have valuable formative feedback opportunities.


Dr. Donev developed his method of formative assessment in SCIE 421 and 507, energy science classes of 12-20 students. In small classes like these, providing formative feedback is fairly straightforward. Each student is given a worksheet at the start of class with various problems to solve in small groups. Students are encouraged to use notes, textbooks or the internet to help them understand if needed. Once groups have completed the questions, Dr. Donev goes around the classroom and asks related conceptual questions to each member or has the group provide their thoughts. This ensures that all group members understand the ideas in the worksheet and that there is equal collaboration. For example, if students were asked to calculate kinetic energy of a system on the worksheet, Donev might ask what would happen if the speed were to double. If a group member cannot answer the question, the whole group is asked to re-work the questions that they missed. The class is structured so that everyone demonstrates that they know the concepts. Worksheets are handed in at the end of the class period, so Dr. Donev can further check the work and see what students are doing well and what areas need more attention in future classes.

PHYS 371, Energy Physics, has 120 students, so the formative assessment method had to be approached differently. A mixture of TopHat clicker questions and worksheet questions are used. TopHat questions are important for getting students thinking about concepts, but the format of texting in answers limits what can be asked. Dr. Donev redeveloped his worksheet method to ask the students the deeper, more thought-provoking questions and stimulate discussions. Students are put into groups of four, and given a set of questions to complete. While they are working, Dr. Donev and some teaching assistants walk around and answer questions and guide groups who are having trouble. When they finish, the answers are discussed with the entire class. While the larger class does lack some of the student accountability that the smaller classes afforded, the worksheets led to better student engagement with the content than the TopHat questions alone.


Dr. Donev knows that there will always be some students in the larger lecture classes who don’t participate in answering the worksheet questions. But he says overall, students like the opportunity to see what they know, and that most students try to do well on the formative assessment questions. He says that some improvements will be necessary in both the larger and smaller classes. He wants to find ways to give students in larger classes opportunity to get to the answer if they get a question wrong. He is currently working on how to effectively do this in upcoming classes.

One challenge with the first iteration of the worksheets in many classes was that students did not use them as study aids for their summative assessments. Formative assessment tools are best used when they are used by the student to further their learning. Dr. Donev highlights the importance of communicating the purpose of the worksheets. When students know that the ungraded work will help them on future exams, they will put more effort into them. The benefits of formative assessment are most visible when students use it to guide their preparation for summative assessment. Formative assessment is a great way for both students and instructors to see how learning is going in a course. It can lead to better student engagement and understanding.

-Ashley Weleschuk

To read about how Dr. Donev has improved student assessment through TA training, click here