The Four Traps of Evaluation

Reflective writing assignment for PIDP 3230 Evaluation of Learning

Summative evaluation of learning is key in determining if students have reached the learning goals outlined in the course plan and can apply what they learned in their further education and work settings. Summative evaluations are generally scheduled for the end of a unit, a course or an exam.

Formative evaluation is designed to give feedback not only to the student about their progress but also to the instructor to give information about the student’s progress and to guide the continuation of the course.

To design authentic evaluation for both summative and formative assessments it is important not to fall into the “Four Traps of Evaluation” (Parsons & Fenwick, 2009)


“Formative assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning” (Wiliam, 2017)

Because formative assessment directs the progress and direction of learning and is an important tool for the instructor to determine if the students have learned the key elements of the material it is easy to fall into the following traps:

  • Measuring what is easiest to measure
  • Underestimating the learning embedded in the evaluation
  • Unexamined power
  • Reductionism

I will briefly explain each trap and how I plan to avoid them in my practice.


Especially in trades education, everything is focused on enabling our students to gain the pre-determined knowledge and successfully pass the exams they need to work in their chosen profession. Because of this focus, it is easy to model the formative assessment too much on those exams and get caught up in “practicing exams”.

Measuring what is easiest to measure

Facts, numbers and dates are often the obvious choices in evaluations. These questions provide easy, yes or no answers. Unfortunately without context, these items are easily forgotten after the lesson or after the exam. It is much more effective to evaluate if students can use the newly acquired skills in a different context.

Underestimating the learning embedded in the evaluation

Often we see evaluation as the final step of learning. However, if we design the assessment correctly it will contain more learning and deepen the understanding of what has been learned. If the students are able to apply the new skills in a new context then we have provided the opportunity for them and us to feel confident.

Unexamined power

In a traditional teacher-student setting the power lies clearly with the teacher. In adult education, this can be detrimental to the learning progress. It is much more productive to have students participate in their education and treat them as partners in the progress of the course.


As described above, our focus in trades education is often on preparing students to pass an exam. It seems easy and logical to model the evaluations to this exam. It can even be helpful to “practice” exam questions. Especially for formative evaluations, this can be detrimental because it takes the focus away from learning skills and creates a situation where students learn to give the correct answer to a question without understanding the context. In real-life situations, however, they have to recall what was learned and apply it to new situations.


Designing effective evaluations that give useful information to students and instructors is not easy and requires experience and refinement.

Formative evaluation is a key tool to determine if my teaching reaches the goals I want my students to achieve. In my research for this paper, I came across the book by Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment (Wiliam, 2017) which explains more about building guiding assessments into our teaching practice.


It has become clear to me that I under-use formative evaluation in my teaching practice. I rely too much on quizzes and tests after a unit and need to rely on the review of material that my students did not learn to a sufficient degree.

I realize that evaluations need to be an essential part of any lesson plan. Dylan Wiliam introduced me to the concept of “hinge questions”. These planned questions determine if a lesson proceeds along the planned course or if I have to revisit concepts that my students have not learned. Can they apply what was learned? This is more important than getting through the material on time.  So far I have always assumed that my students can follow along with the plan but I don’t spend enough time making sure of that.

I see an opportunity to make my classes more valuable and interactive by introducing hinge questions and other formative evaluations – some of them will serve as feedback to my students and others will be more important milestones for my own information only.

Having learned about the traps we can fall into will enable me to be cognizant of the pitfalls. The realization that evaluations don’t necessarily disrupt the flow of instruction will help me engage my students more and make them experiment with the new material. This will also help to guide my lessons to a more learner-centred approach and avoid the pitfall of unexamined power.


Jackson, D. (2021). Book Club 2 What you will learn from Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam. Retrieved from Teachers PD:

Parsons, T. J., & Fenwick. (2009). The Art of Evaluation. Thompson Educational Publishing.

Wiliam, D. (2017). Embedded Formative Assessment. Solution Tree.

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