Formative Reflective Essay

The Journal of Business Research special issue (61/12) covers controversy about formative versus reflective model specification. This essay comments on that special issue and illustrates specific points relating to the controversy by discussing recent studies of business-to-business relationship value, comparing their differing specifications, and noting that the variations of specification result from quite distinct conceptualizations. The essay makes the more substantive conclusion that the differences in conceptualization result from more than one underlying streams of research and that each stream is conceptually quite distinct and needs to follow its own direction for future research. The specific case of relationship value illustrates the broad necessity for researchers to consider in-depth how they conceptualize models. Other research areas have distinct research streams that lie behind different conceptualizations and specifications that researchers must nurture explicitly if useful ontology is to develop effectively.

For this first feature in our mini-series on assessment and feedback, based on LSE departments’ Assessment and Feedback Statements, academic developer Ellis Saxey explores the variety of formative assessment being practised in several departments and the benefits it can afford for summative assessment

The recent Assessment and Feedback Statements from LSE departments have made visible a great variety of formative assessment types in use at the school. Law (for example) describes multiple choice tests, short pieces of writing, mock exams and student presentations, while International Relations requires students to engage in group projects, write blogs and produce films.

Thoughtfully devised formative assessment activities have a powerful capacity to show students where they stand, and how to progress. This can have a significant impact on their summative achievement, and their broader skills and confidence.

The following three examples from around LSE show formative tasks devised to help students develop. The tools for this development include peer and self-assessment; isolating and assessing specific student abilities; and assessing early in a course, to ensure students are on track.

Management: a focus on argument

Summative feedback tests the full range of abilities and skills demanded by a course. But could it support your students to assess these abilities more individually, in formative tasks? Dr Shasa Dobrow Riza recently redesigned the assessment for MG102: Organisational Behaviour. Rather than a full formative essay, students are now required to write an essay outline.

This shorter piece of work allows Dr Dobrow Riza to test specifically students’ ability to formulate an argument of their own, and support it with evidence, without the added stress that first year students can experience at writing a full length essay.  This is particularly crucial as first year students are being inducted into writing at university, and often need to develop their skills at taking up a position and defending it.

The essay outline can be quicker than a full essay for the member of staff to assess and feed back on. Because of its brevity and simplicity, the outline can also be used for peer assessment and feedback. For this, Dr Dobrow Riza has devised a peer feedback form which guides students in their evaluation. It asks students to rate the essay outline in several categories (Stance/thesis, Structure and Argumentation) broken down into simple questions. This peer evaluation helps students sharpen their understanding of the demands of the task, and better evaluate their own work. Staff then comment on the peer comments, and contribute their own feedback.

International Development – early assessment for success and flexibility

Assessment tends to take place late in a course, so a student can develop as far as possible before being assessed. However, assessing students earlier can be incredibly useful; it checks their current understanding, and makes sure they’re moving in a productive direction.

Working in teams, students on DV453: International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies will eventually write a consultancy report, using a brief supplied by an external client. Because of the complexity and ambition of this summative task, Dr Stuart Gordon decided to include early formative activities. Students therefore create an ‘inception’ report – both written and presented to their peers.

This allows staff to assess students’ understanding of the project ahead. Have they comprehended the terms of reference from the client? What data do they think they need, and what methodology will they use? Do they have a realistic sense of what is possible, particularly given the limited timescale?

This initial formative report functions as a contract between student, staff and client, stating what students will do next. But rather than pinning the student down, Dr Gordon argues, the inception report can allow students greater leeway. A team can be more creative or innovative, knowing that peer, staff and client input will confirm the suitability of their approach.

Government: supporting self-reflection and teamwork

Formative assessment can also develop skills which may not be explicitly tested by the format of the summative assessment. In GV249: Research Design in Political Science Dr Thomas Leeper uses his formative work to develop teamwork, and to encourage students to reflect on their learning process.

Pair and team tasks require each student to check their own understanding against their peers’. Every task also involves a reflective prompt, asking what the student has learned from the work. Dr Leeper finds that around half the responses to these are straightforward, but that the other half can be more provocative – students describe initial over-confidence, their struggles and mistakes, and how they consulted peers and resources. This reflective writing is valuable to Dr Leeper as instructor, to see how students work. It’s also a useful habit to inculcate in students – who rarely reflect on how they work, Thomas believes, unless reflection is structured into the assessment itself.


Each of these formative activities serves more traditional assessment ends, as well: encouraging students to engage more deeply with the material of their course, and allowing staff to offer valuable feedback. All of them aim to improve students’ performance in their summative assessment. But they also demonstrate that formative work is an excellent opportunity to encourage many kinds of learning.




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