Learning and teaching

Formative vs Summative

The purpose of formative assessment is to monitor student learning and provide ongoing feedback to staff and students. It is assessment for learning. If designed appropriately, it helps students identify their strengths and weaknesses, can enable students to improve their self-regulatory skills so that they manage their education in a less haphazard fashion than is commonly found. It also provides information to the faculty about the areas students are struggling with so that sufficient support can be put in place.

Formative assessment can be tutor led, peer or self-assessment. Formative assessments have low stakes and usually carry no grade, which in some instances may discourage the students from doing the task or fully engaging with it.

The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark. Summative assessments often have high stakes and are treated by the students as the priority over formative assessments. However, feedback from summative assessments can be used formatively by both students and faculty to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses.

An over-reliance on summative assessment at the conclusion of an element of study gives students a grade, but provides very little feedback that will help them develop and improve before they reach the end of the module/programme. Therefore achieving a balance between formative and summative assessments is important, although one that students don't always fully grasp and/or take seriously. Formative assessments, provide a highly effective and risk-free environment in which students can learn and experiment. They also provide a useful lead-in to summative assessments, so long as feedback is provided. 

To engage students in formative assessment:

  • Explain the rationale behind formative assessment clearly – make it clear to students that through engaging with formative tasks they get to gain experience with their assessments, risk-free, and can develop far stronger skills in order to obtain better grades in the summative assessments.
  • Create a link between summative and formative assessment – design formative assessments in such a way that they contribute to the summative task. This lowers the workload on the students and provides them with necessary feedback to improve their final performance. An example of such assessment is producing an essay plan, a structure of a literature review, part of the essay or bibliography.
  • Lower the number of summative assessments and increase the number of formative assessments – yet do not allow one single summative assessment to carry too much weight in the final grade.