Choose your own adventure: Formative assessment

Book Cover for 'Choose your own adventure booksI remember having one of those books of Choose your Own Adventure when I was a little girl. If you also like reading, these books offered an exciting new possibility over the universe of just one closed end. As I was uploading the formative assessment essays of Renaissance and Restoration, it just occurred to me that formative assessments are a bit like these books. As the date for uploading essays for level 4 draws near, I thought I might share with you my thoughts and try to give you an insight in this crucial process of our studies.

One of the first things you realize with formative assessment, as with the aforementioned books, is that there is not only one valid possibility, but many equally valid ones. If you look through the examiners’ reports, which I really recommend, you will see that there are many ways to successfully tackle one single rubric. This can be a bit scary at first and give you a feeling of inadequacy, thinking that you cannot arrive at the single (and safe) universal answer. Even if it is a bit scary, it is also quite liberating. As long as you argue soundly your approach, there is no need to worry for not “getting it right”. Try to leave the anxiety behind by accepting that there is not a way to realistically  have a single good response for everything.

Written word 'Feedback'Part of that anxiety is due to the need of telling the marker what s/he wants to hear, and the impossibility of doing so. Because there is no right or wrong opinion, you cannot expect to write a model answer. As the Student Handbook says, tutors are not assigned to “catch you off guard”, but to provide useful feedback. When I wrote my assignments for Approaches to Text and Explorations in Literature, I wrote what I thought my tutors wanted to read, and at least in Explorations, it resulted in a poorly written essay, where there was no central argument, but just a catalogue of opinions by critics on a given topic. For me, the comments of the tutor were a wake-up call. I realized that being confident in your own opinions (and having such opinions!) is as important as having read widely on a topic. It is like turning one of those pages in the Choose your Own Adventure books: you do not know what awaits you at the turn of the page, but there is no bad choice after all, the whole fun is in choosing.

Formative assessments rely on choice too. First, the choice of what question are you going to tackle. This should be informed by the interests in your study pursuit and by a thorough review of the past papers. At level 4, even if you are to select a question of the past year’s paper only, a previous glance of the questions which have arisen in past papers should give you a pointer as to which topics tend to be repeated and reformulated, and in turn, how to rewrite and reformulate a given topic.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, your choice of how to answer the question. The choice of how to answer, in my opinion, should be informed first and foremost by your own stand on the topic. For example, I tackled one question on reputation and used Machiavelli’s work as the axis of my discussion. This of course leads to considerations of Machiavelli’s own reputation as “evil”, and how criticism has focused on this aspect of his work, either by trying to exonerate him of such reputation, or by trying to argue in favor of it. How to reflect this in my discussion? Do I consider Machiavelli to be “evil”? To what extent can he be considered evil? By what standards? How did his own experience inform his ideas of reputation? These questions were part of the previous brainstorming, before setting to write, because they gave me a clear stand of myself towards Machiavelli’s works.  If you have doubts on how to approach essay questions, you can find practical help in the exercises posted in the Learning Support Forum on the VLE.

Nevertheless, if we are to consider differences between the formative assessment and the Choose your Own Adventure books, the first that comes to mind would be that you have to produce an essay out of nothing, whereas the books offer a prefixed path of development. This is, at least for me, the harder part of the assessment: where to start. It becomes hard especially when the topic at hand is very general and invites multiple approaches, for example: marriage, love, passage of time, generational conflict, etc. In this case, what helps me is first writing one introductory paragraph for two or three ways to approach the answer. By re-reading them I usually discover which feels more engaging to me, or what offers me more possibilities to develop my thoughts. This is vital: a topic that you find engaging should produce a better discussion, and feeling engaged with the topic usually translates to engaging the reader. Of course, you cannot think out three different introductions in the examination room, but formative assessment is not meant as a future performance predictor, rather as a training ground for practicing arguing and writing skills.

Look at formative assessment as an opportunity to gear yourself towards examination. When I ended my essays and uploaded them, a sense of relief sunk in me, not because I managed to meet the deadline (well, that too), but because in looking at my essay I realized that, in one more year, I had learned new things. While formative assessment can feel mentally tiresome, it is also an excellent way to check that the long hours spent working do have a reward: new ideas and tools acquired to express yourself.

Ana is studying the BA English by distance learning in Luxembourg

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