Course Resource Kit

Formative and Summative Assessment

As we have established, assessments are not only those assignments that “count for marks.” Indeed, the concept of assessment is much broader, and encompasses any assignment or in-class activity that gives students and instructors feedback about course progress. In general, we refer to two general types of assessments: formative and summative.

Formative assessments are low- or no-stakes (eg. few or no marks assigned) tools to assess how a student is learning in a course, while summative assessments are typically high-stakes assignments that assess what a student has learned in a course. This is also referred to as assessment for learning.

Formative assessments are learning tools. They help students to determine their own progress through course material, and can provide feedback to an instructor about what content might need further elaboration. They can also provide an opportunity for students to “practice” the ways they will be evaluated — for example, allowing students to practice using a particular tool that might be new to them for an online exam, or to practice responding to a particular kind of question prompt. This kind of formative assessment allows students to understand course expectations, and can help them build confidence before being formally evaluated.

Formative assessments can be very casual, and likely encompass many classroom activities you might not think of as assessments. Indeed, when learning is happening, opportunities for self-assessment are a necessary component. For example, a small group discussion can be an opportunity for students to assess their own comprehension of an assigned reading. Likewise, an informal class poll to see if a concept has been understood is also a form of assessment, in this case providing necessary feedback for both student and instructor. Formative assessment can include in-class activities that review content from previous weeks, low-stakes reading quizzes, and lecture response papers.

Summative assessments are evaluative. They allow an instructor to assess what content the student has learned in a course, and involve some kind of standard against which the student is being measured. Summative assessment includes more formal assignments, like unit tests, midterm exams, and final papers. 

Information students receive from summative feedback can be used formatively, but instructors should be aware that students approach and respond to feedback on high- and low-stakes assignments differently. Given the structural importance of numerical grades to student progress, the feedback on high-stakes assignments can be lost in the focus on the final grade. For example, if students do not seem to be making use of the lengthy feedback you give on their essays, consider offering the more formative components of feedback — eg. how to improve for next time — on an earlier stage in the process, like as feedback on an essay outline or thesis proposal.

In a well-structured course, then, a range of different kinds of formative assessments are laddered into the summative assessments, so that students have an opportunity to practice all necessary skills and demonstrate their understanding of course content before they are assessed in a way that “counts” towards their final grade in the course.

In some contexts, it might be worthwhile thinking also about a third type of assessment: diagnostic. This kind of assessment is typically used at the beginning of a course to establish where student competencies lie. A diagnostic assessment may also be referred to as a ‘pre-test’, as it would later be compared to another assessment to determine student progress toward the intended learning outcomes. This type of assessment can serve to engage learners in the process of metacognition, or thinking about their own thinking and learning. When students are asked to grade and assess their own work, or the work of peers, it can help students develop a sense of mastery over their learning, improve self-efficacy, and relate new knowledge to prior learning. This has been referred to as assessment as learning.

For more, check out:

Rowe, Jessica. (2015, February 9). MET: Assessment as learning. UBC Wiki.