Developing Formative Assessments on Evidence for Pre-University History


Pre-University History teachers often use A-Level History examination questions and general formative assessment strategies (e.g. questioning and student reflection) as formative assessments. Such approaches to formative assessment provide limited information about students’ understanding of historical concepts and skills to inform teaching and learning. This article outlines the process of developing a formative assessment that assesses students’ understanding of historical evidence. It uses ideas from the Stanford History Education Group’s Historical Assessments of Thinking and the affordances of the Singapore Student Learning Space to expand the range of formative assessment tools available to teachers. The use of short assessments designed to make students’ thinking visible provides teachers with valuable and timely information on students’ learning to inform their teaching for deeper historical understanding.


Identifying students’ learning gaps is often a challenge for Pre-University History teachers. Besides generic formative assessment strategies such as teacher questioning, think-pair-share and student reflection, formative assessments carried out at the A-Levels also involve getting students to discuss or write essays in response to past year history examination questions. While these tasks provide teachers with some sense of how students are able to manage question items in the A-Level History examination, how much do these essays or Source-based Case Study (SBCS) assignments tell teachers about students’ understanding of historical concepts and skills?[i] Furthermore, how helpful are these assignments in informing the next steps of instruction?

Generally, many pre-University history teachers recognize the value of formative assessment in supporting teaching and learning. Knowing where students ‘are at’ at significant junctures of the learning process can help teachers decide what to do to close students’ learning gaps (Wiliam, 2011). However, in the absence of formative assessments that can be quickly implemented and targeted to elicit information on students’ knowledge of historical concepts and skills, teachers often end up using summative assessment for formative purposes.

Yet, to meet formative assessment objectives, dealing mainly with A-Level History examination questions may have limited utility. The first issue is that lengthy essays make it difficult for teachers to quickly identify particular skills or concepts that need further attention (Breakstone, 2014). The second issue relates closely to the purpose of the assessment. Specifically, A-Level History examination questions require students to synthesize component skills in the course of answering them. Yet, a student’s response to A-Level History examination questions offers little or limited information on precisely where the student’s strengths and weaknesses lie and do not serve as an effective compass pointing teachers towards appropriate instructional interventions. As put forth by the National Research Council (NRC) in Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment, “…the more purposes a single assessment aims to serve, the more each purpose will be compromised” (National Research Council [NRC], 2001: 2).


Related Teaching Materials

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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