Maintaining learning momentum: Chinese college students’ beliefs of formative assessment in their English learning

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Contribution: Introduction Formative assessment (FA) has become a prevalent practice in higher education everywhere for its purposes of improving the quality of education. Students’ beliefs of FA serve as a powerful determining force for the optimisation of FA potentials on learning. However, few studies have investigated students’ beliefs of FA in a thorough manner in higher education. In this study, a group of 27 Chinese non-English-major college students were individually interviewed about their beliefs of FA implemented in their English curriculum and the underlying reasons for such beliefs. Four specific research questions were explored as listed as follows. a) What purposes do students believe FA serve? b) What attitudes do students hold towards FA tasks? c) How do students evaluate the effectiveness of FA tasks on improving their college English learning? d) What factors mediate students’ beliefs of FA? Literature review: FA offers teachers and students alternatives to assessment by eliciting evidence about learning progress ‘to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have taken in the absence of the evidence that was elicited’ (Black & William, 2009, p.7). Struyven et al. (2005) systematically examined the academic papers in the databases of the Educational Resources Information Center, the Web of Science and PsychINFO between 1980 and 2002, and concluded that students preferred multiple-choice examinations to essays and thought that alternative evaluation modes encouraged deep learning approaches and were fairer than traditional evaluation modes because of authenticity in assessment. Brown (2011) summarises four major students’ conceptions of the nature and purpose of assessment through a literature review. Firstly, students realise that assessment serves the purpose of improving learning and teaching. Secondly, students are aware that assessment is external to them and is used to guarantee quality of education and measure learning. Thirdly, students know that assessment has an affective function and influence learning environment. Fourthly, students realise that assessment can be unfair, negative or irrelevant. Recently, researchers have found that students hold distinctive views of assessment. They are more likely aware of summative or negative use of assessment than their teachers. However, few studies have explored the factors that contribute to students’ unfavorable beliefs of FA. For example, Fletcher et al. (2012) explored faculty’s and students’ conceptions of assessment in four universities in New Zealand. They found that faculty tended to regard assessment as a credible process which assisted teaching and learning, while students emphasised the accountability of assessment and viewed assessment as irrelevant or even neglected in the process of teaching and learning. A few FA studies have been conducted in Asian higher educational contexts. In these studies, teachers’ interpretation and practices of FA are the focus of investigation. Students tend to be subordinate in providing a complementary perspective of outcomes caused by teachers’ FA practices or in providing information that would allow for triangulation of data obtained from teachers. Sometimes, they are even ignored in the research. For example, Thanh Pham and Renshaw (2015) described how two teachers transformed their formative assessment in Confucian heritage culture classrooms in Vietnam and reported students’ data on the difficulties they faced in conducting peer assessment and their change of beliefs of learning as result of teachers’ adapted FA practices. Zhou and Deneen (2016, 1154) explored 17 award-winning tutors’ perceptions and practices of class-based assessment in mainland of China and found that tutors emphasised the improvement purpose of class-based assessment and paid considerable attention to the ‘non-achievement dimensions’ of assessment. These studies show that FA appears to be interpreted and implemented in a special way in Asian higher educational contexts. Method: Methodology Research setting South University (a fictitious name) was selected as the research site. It is one of the leading universities in College English curriculum reform. The students are allocated to different bands of classes on the basis of their English performance in the university’s placement examination. The university teaching syllabus stipulates that the students’ performances on FA account for 60 percent of their final course grade. In this case, FA in South University serves summative purposes as well. The teachers have autonomy in deciding FA tasks, and normally they assign students three major tasks, namely, class participation, online learning tasks and oral presentation. Informants A total of 27 students taught by six different teachers gave their informed consent voluntarily. These informants exhibit variations in terms of age, gender, major, band of class and birthplace. Data collection and data analysis Individual semi-structured interview was adopted as the major research method in this study. The guiding part of the interview focused on students’ beliefs of FA, including their attitudes towards it, its purposes and effectiveness. The exploring part of the interview centred on the reasons which underlie their beliefs of FA. The interview questions were embedded in the three major FA tasks which the informants usually performed to elicit their responses to the questions. All the interviews were audio-taped and transcribed for later analysis. Thematic analysis was employed to analyse the data obtained in this study. Expected Outcomes: Findings The purposes of FA perceived by the informants were classified into four categories, namely, maintaining learning momentum, accountability, improving learning and teaching and affective/social functions. Most students paid attention to the psychological purpose of FA and its accountability. Less than half of them realised the improvement purpose of FA, and a few of them were aware of its affective/social functions. When asked about the necessity of different FA tasks, all the students welcomed FA in their English learning. Their positive attitude towards FA was significantly related to their awareness of the different purposes of FA. Although all the informants welcomed FA in their college English learning, they acknowledged the limited role of FA in improving their learning. Four groups of factors constituted a complex system where the informants’ beliefs of FA were formulated. They were the Chinese educational context, college FA policy, teachers’ FA practices and student factors. The findings of this study serve as a window into students’ complex beliefs of the purposes of FA, its importance and effectiveness on learning in a non-Anglophone context. Although the mechanism of students’ beliefs of FA is still premature and tentative, it provides guidance for future studies on students’ beliefs of FA in higher education. Despite the significance of its findings, this study has some limitations which call for further research. A relatively small sample of university students volunteered to participate in this exploratory study. Therefore, the findings of this study are evidence only of what those informants thought of FA. Generalisation of the findings should be made cautiously. In addition, the effectiveness of FA on learning was only reported by the informants instead of being measured accurately. An interesting study is to further explore the convergence between the perceived effectiveness and the actual effectiveness and contributing variables. Copyright © 2017 ECER.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2017


Zhan, Y. (2017, August). Maintaining learning momentum: Chinese college students’ beliefs of formative assessment in their English learning. Paper presented at the ECER 2017: Reforming Education and the Imperative of Constant Change: Ambivalent roles of policy and educational research, Copenhagen, Denmark.

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