Guide to Good Practice in Assessment

Summative and Formative Assessment

Summative and Formative Assessment

"As coach and facilitator, the teacher uses formative assessment to help support and enhance student learning, As judge and jury, the teacher makes summative judgments about a student's achievement..."

Atkin, Black & Coffey (2001)

The purpose of summative assessment is to provide "a sampling of student achievements which lead to a meaningful statement of what they know, understand and can do" (Brown & Knight, 1999, p.37). In other words, it is mandatory assessment that results in the calculation of a grade that can be used to make a decision - a decision about credit, further study, promotion, award, etc. (Lenze & Warner, 1995, p.1) Generally summative assessment occurs at the end of a topic or the end of a course in order to evaluate how well students have acquired the knowledge and skills presented in that section or during the complete course.

It is possible that an assessment that is primarily designed to be summative may also be considered formative if feedback on student performance is given as well as a mark for the assessment. It is rare for an assessment task to be purely 'summative' or purely 'formative' and the challenge is to try to obtain the correct balance of formative and summative assessment to maximise student learning and achievement.


Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is designed to provide feedback to students and instructors for the purpose of the development of teaching and learning. From a student's perspective, formative assessment provides information on a student's performance and how they are progressing with the skills and knowledge required by a particular course. Generally the results of formative assessment do not contribute to a student's final grade but are purely for the purpose of assisting students to understand their strengths and weaknesses in order to work towards improving their overall performance.

A major barrier to the effectiveness of formative assessment is the fact that the mark generated doesn't usually count towards a student's final grade and therefore students can be less motivated to put a great deal of effort into such assessment. However, if used in an effective manner, formative assessment can help students to be more autonomous in their learning and to reflect on their performances and take responsibility for their academic growth (Brown and Knight, 1999, p.38). It provides an opportunity for students to identify weaknesses or gaps in their learning and to focus on improving these areas before undertaking major summative assessment.

From an instructor's perspective, formative assessment is a diagnostic tool that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of course and curriculum design. In fact, many authors say that assessment cannot be considered to be formative unless it leads to some form of learning and teaching action or change (Boston, 2002; Black, 2003; Box, 2003). Formative assessment has the potential to highlight areas in which teaching and curriculum design needs to be improved as well as any areas where teaching methods have been very effective in improving student performance.