Formative and Summative Assessments

Ask any student to define what an "assignment" is, and he or she will probably respond along the lines of "something you hand in for a grade." It's not a bad working definition, from the perspective of a student; but we encourage instructors to define the concept more broadly. At the Bok Center, we think of an "assignment" as "any activity which students are asked to perform so that the instructor may offer feedback on the student's progress towards mastery," whatever form it may take. While this broader definition obviously includes the kinds of high-stakes, graded essays, projects, and problem sets which students imagine when they hear the word "assignment," it has the virtue of also including a wide array of low-stakes (perhaps even ungraded) activities which instructors might set for students when they are only just practicing and developing their skill or knowledge of a topic. These, too, are assignments. Ideally instructors will draw upon a mixture of high- and low-stakes assignments (known as summative and formative assessments, respectively) when designing their courses.

Assessment vs. Testing

Assessment and testing always share the same goal of measuring student learning: Did the students learn? How well? But in practice, testing often measures how well students prepared for the test, rather than how well they learned. Tests also take place too infrequently, and in circumstances too straitened to provide an accurate reflection of student learning.

Happily, assessment techniques extend far beyond testing to encompass myriad other kinds of measurement, many of which are also common teaching tools. Every time you as a teacher review a concept, lead a discussion, give a quiz, or assign a response paper, you're performing a mini-assessment. 

Unlike testing, though, the purpose of assessment isn't always to assign a grade that announces—in a purely symbolic and famously ambiguous way—the extent of a student's learning. Rather, measuring learning is a prelude to learning more: the assessment should help teachers and students adjust their respective efforts. In other words, assessment precedes feedback, which should be qualitative at least as often as it is quantitative.

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For more ideas about what constitutes effective assessment, see McKeachie et al. (2006), McKeachie's Teaching Tips, 74-86, and Angelo and Cross (1988), Classroom Assessment Techniques.

Summative (i.e. “high-stakes”) Assessments

Summative assessments receive the lion's share of students' attention, and not only because they tend to weigh heavily upon students' grades. They also tend to occur at key inflection points and/or endpoints within the overall scheme of the course, whether that be the end of a unit, at the midterm, or at the conclusion of the semester. As such, summative assessments tend to be opportunities to synthesize large amounts of content and/or skills and to engage with course material creatively (if not quite in the popular sense of artistic creativity, then at least in the academic sense of creating one's own argument about a particular field of knowledge). Some of the most familiar types of summative assessment are:

  • Exams
  • Term papers
  • Portfolios
  • Poster presentations
  • Gallery walks
  • Performances 

When designing a cumulative exam or final project, instructors should think carefully about what kind of mastery they are assessing, and about how best to ask their students to demonstrate it. If you have read our page on taxonomies of learning, you will know that different "assignment verbs" correlate to different levels of sophistication. Asking students to "list" the causes of the French Revolution, for example, is a relatively low-order question: in essence, you are asking students to remember what someone else has told them about French history. So, too, is asking students to "recognize" something. On the other hand, "analyze," "apply," "evaluate," and "create" represent higher-order tasks: the students must take what they have been taught and use it to perform a new action, with varying degrees of self-awareness and disciplinary sophistication as they do it. Any of these kinds of verbs could be appropriate at some point in a summative assessment—the key thing is to make sure that you are not asking students merely to "remember" a concept that was crucial to the class, and with which they ought to be able to do much more; or to "evaluate" something that was more tangential to the course, and for which simple recall would be a sufficient measure.

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Formative (i.e. “low-stakes”) Assessments

Formative assessments, by contrast, often receive less attention from students, in part because they tend to be weighted less heavily—if at all—within the grading scheme of the course; in part because they often occur more frequently, each one counting for a sub-fraction of a smaller fraction of one's overall grade. That's a shame, though, because thoughtfully designed and implemented formative assessments are the preventive healthcare of teaching and learning. A quick typology includes: 

  • Pre-draft or reflective writing assignments
  • Shorter papers
  • Quizzes
  • Problem sets
  • In-class workshops, problem solving, or other activities

Formative assessments, so-called because they offer students an opportunity to gain proficiency and take stock of their gains, make natural scaffolds for summative assessments, which offer students something more like a final or definitive evaluation of their achievement in a course. In that sense, formative assessments are most effective when they are aligned with summative assessments—especially when that alignmentment is clearly and consistently reinforced within the syllabus, individual prompts, and in-class discussions.

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