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Formative and Summative Assessment (When you assess)

Assessments of student progress within a course fall into two broad categories:

  • Summative. This takes place at the end of a course segment to evaluate student mastery of specific concepts and skills. Summative assessment is what we usually associate with tests, papers and projects due midway or at the end of semesters. These graded activities typically translate into the student’s final course grade.
  • Formative. This is ongoing during a course. Through ungraded tests or surveys, polling, discussions, projects, and other activities, an instructor gives students a chance to assess their own mastery of topics and concepts as they are being taught. Students can then use these self-checks and feedback to focus and improve on problem areas. Formative assessments help instructors by providing information on what students are mastering and where they are having trouble as material is being taught. Instructors can then provide help and clarification as needed.

Research suggests that formative assessment is the best way to promote deep learning. Citing a Swedish experiment from the 1970s, professor Ken Bain and author of What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press) contends that most learning approaches fall into three general categories: surface learning where students are primarily interested in simply surviving a course, strategic learning with students motivated by grades and receiving accolades, and deep learning where students are intrinsically motivated to learn and challenge themselves.

Summative assessment is likely to appeal to surface and strategic learners who will learn information presented to them just to pass the test, often quickly forgetting what they have learn through rote memory or cramming. Formative assessment supports deep learning by giving students feedback and ideas for how to learn and to test their understanding while they have the chance to correct misunderstandings and reinforce key concepts. Both types of assessments can use the authentic assessment techniques described in the next section.

These presentations talk more about the potential learning differences between formative and summative assessment approaches and how to plan for each within a single course.