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Formative and Summative Assessments: What’s the Difference?

    formative and summative assessments

    Formative assessment definition

    • The assessment for learning
    • Monitors student learning

    The term Formative Assessment refers to a wide range of tools/methods/strategies that educators use to assess students during the educational process. Educators use formative assessments to monitor student comprehension on a subject matter, various learning needs of students, and/or the academic progress a student is making over the course of an instructional unit, such as an individual lesson, lesson sequence, chapter, or unit. They identify misconceptions and other learning gaps. When used correctly, formative assessments will reveal the concepts or skills (represented by learning standards) that students have mastered, as well as those which students are having the most difficulty in acquiring.

    The purpose of data from formative assessments is to inform teachers as to what adjustments must be made to instruction or curriculum to ensure each student is mastering the material. This feedback should result in the teacher making intentional adjustments to instruction that could include changes to lesson plans, activities, instructional techniques, academic supports/scaffolds, and other aspects that affect student learning. This feedback can also be used to identify the weaknesses or deficits that are particular to a specific student, which can in turn be used to designate additional support, scaffolds, or other accommodations that the student will need to master the material. Formative assessments can be given before, during, or after a lesson to see what the student knows.

    Formative assessments can be assigned by teachers (and most often are), but they can also be designed as self- or peer assessments, both of which provide unique learning opportunities for the student. More on that further in the article!

    Formative assessment examples

    As mentioned before, formative assessments come in a variety of forms. Technically, any form of student work can be a formative assessment as long as the data from that work is used by the teacher to make changes to instruction or curriculum. Here are some commonly used examples of formative assessments:

    • Checks for understanding
    • Intentional question sequencing
    • Class or homework assignments
    • In class discussions or dialogues
    • Weekly quizzes
    • Exit tickets
    • Self-assessments
    • Peer assessments
    • Rough Draft Essays

    Remember, the most important part of assessments is the feedback the students receive from the teacher (or other evaluator). Without feedback, students are left to guess as to the changes they need to master the material. Without feedback, formative and summative assessments are generally ineffective as educational tools!

    Summative assessment definition

    • The assessment of learning
    • Evaluates student learning

    Summative assessments are the ultimate assessment students take which determine what content they have learned at the end of an instructional unit. Usually, summative assessments come at the end of a unit, marking period, semester, and can come in many forms, such as essays, exams, or other types of large tests. Technically, a quiz or small assignment can be summative if you are using it to determine what a student has learned in a course.

    Summative assessments are generally designed to determine if a student has mastered skills or knowledge as put forth by a set of educational standards or benchmark. Because of this, they are given higher stakes than formative assessments, often worth more points or credits, and are falsely considered to be more important than formative assessments. Feedback from summative assessments can be used formatively if the student (or teacher!) uses the data to make changes in their academic habits for later courses or if they go back to the material to review and relearn the material.

    Summative assessment examples

    Summative assessments also come in a variety of forms. Because the purpose of summatives is to see the sum of a student’s learning, the form chosen should best match the skill or knowledge being evaluated.

    • Exams
    • Final draft essays
    • Tests
    • Dialogues
    • Final projects or reports
    • Final performance evaluations
    • Final presentations
    • Final grades
    • Standardized Tests

    Formative and Summative Assessments: What is the difference?

    Technically, formative and summative assessments can look almost identical. Most often what is different between the two is how the data from the assessment is intended to be used.

    If the data collected from an assessment is meant to address inadequacies in a student’s knowledge or skill set by informing a teacher on how to change their instruction, then that assessment is a formative assessment. For formative assessments, what matters is that the teacher is using the data to change some aspect of their teaching to address the inadequacy. Formative assessments are NOT end of unit/term assessments.

    If the data collected from an assessment is meant to represent what a student has learned over an instructional unit, then that assessment is a summative assessment. An instructional unit could be a chapter, a unit, a marking period, a semester, or some other period of time in which specific concepts, topics, or material are expected to be learned or mastered by a student. Most often, summative assessments look like tests, essays, exams, and other end of term evaluations. Because they are meant to represent what a student has learned in total over a period of time, summative assessments are often more formal, substantial, and more time-consuming than formative assessments.

    • Formative assessment tend to be
      • Shorter
      • More focused on a specific set of skills
      • Low stakes and more risk-free
      • Informal (but can also be formal)
    • Summative assessment tend to be
      • Longer
      • More cumulative or general
      • High stakes
      • More formal

    When is one more effective than the other?

    Ideally, formative and summative assessments should be used together, specifically by balancing the two. Highly effective formative assessments will guide a student’s acquisition of skills and knowledge towards mastery, as represented by a summative assessment. Thus, formative assessments, including teacher feedback, should lead a student to succeed on the summative assessment.

    Successful use of formative assessments can be difficult because they are meant to change a teacher’s instruction to fit the immediate learning needs of the students. This requires further effort by teachers, but more importantly, and elusively, time to restructure and reinvent lessons that meet these learning needs. Thus, there is often an over-reliance on assessments that are more summative in nature or use, rather than formative. However, a strong sequence and scaffolding of specific skills can produce a series of formative assessments that work effectively towards a summative assessment.

    Because summative assessments are often found at the end of an instructional unit, there is not much time for students to review the feedback and ask questions of the teacher. A grade is given, but feedback isn’t. When appropriate feedback is either not given or enough time for students to synthesize and comprehend the feedback is not given, the summative assessment becomes less effective as a tool for change. Thus, even though summative assessments can be used formatively to help students make changes to their learning, they are not often used effectively.

    Ideas for using formative and summative assessment in the classroom

    1. Explain the purpose of the assessment to students. Students will appreciate knowing how an assignment, quiz, test, or exam is used by the teacher.
      1. Formative: Is the assessment being used to determine what help they need?
      2. Summative: Is the assessment being used to determine what they have learned in total?
    2. Design formative assessments to lead into summative assessments – they should be connected! For example, rough and final drafts. This lowers student workload (which they appreciate!), increases feedback opportunities, and makes the assessments more meaningful to students.
    3. Increase the number of formative assessments but decrease summative assessments. Two or three summatives in a course are probably sufficient, and all other assessments should be formative and leading to those summatives.

    Use special formative assessments! The following is a list of special formative assessments that can help you guide your students to mastery and to success on their summative assessment! Here are some you should consider using:

    Checks for understanding (CFU)

    CFUs are really powerful for determining if you students are comprehending material in a moment. Traditional examples include hand-raising or whole class questioning, in which verbally identify to the teacher what they know or don’t know. There are also alternative methods such as :

    1. Clicker questions
    2. Quick surveys
    3. Thumbs up-thumbs down
    4. Green-yellow-red lights
    5. Finger ratings
    6. Quick writes
    7. And more!

    Self assessments

    Self assessments are really powerful tools for student assessment because they are generally more meaningful to students. They also give students more power over their learning and education. Using a rubric or work sample, students can assess themselves to determine their strengths and weaknesses. This can enable students to develop and improve skills of self-awareness and self-regulation, and can ultimately help students to learn to manage their own education (which should be the goal of any teacher!). Students do not naturally have the skills to monitor or assess their learning; they need to be taught how to self-assess, so make sure you include time in your lesson to teach this! Some examples of self assessments include:

    1. Checklists
    2. Rubrics
    3. Reflection writing assignments
    4. Surveys

    Peer assessments

    Peer assessments are another really powerful tool for student assessment. Students tend to highly value the opinions and ideas of their peers which makes this kind of feedback more meaningful to students. Also, students often work harder if they know that a peer will see their work. However, just as with self-assessment, students do not naturally have the skills to effectively evaluate their peers. They need to be taught these skills specifically! Make sure you carve out time to teach these skills! Some examples of peer assessments are:

    1. Essay peer review
    2. Presentations peer review
    3. Project carousel
    4. Peer grading

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