Assessments are a crucial part of education. They are a type of feedback that tells you what your students have learned in the classroom, and they come in two broad types: formative and summative.
In this article, we’ll explore the purpose of both types of assessment, providing examples, use cases and more to help you understand the key differences between the two, and where you might use them in your teaching practices.
What are formative assessments?
Formative assessments allow teachers to measure their students’ understanding or skills during the learning process, so that they can form their teaching plans. A common example is a quiz that covers the foundational content from last week’s lessons, which as a teacher, tells you whether students know the content well enough for you to move onto the next part of the curriculum. A mind map is another example, which gives you an impression of how well students know a particular topic and its associated ideas, helping you to effectively pace the content that needs to be taught. Or you may feel that the students are learning a unit especially fast and decide to test them on content that is still a few weeks away, to determine just how advanced they are.
Those are class-wide examples, but formative assessments also help you gauge the progress of specific students and provide inclusive, personalised education. They can illuminate those who are falling behind the rest of the class and need extra attention to succeed, as well as any gifted and talented students who may benefit from being given advanced work. Whatever your goal, formative assessments are an informal, low-stakes way to create a snapshot of your students’ knowledge and skills so that you can make an educated decision about what to teach them next.
While formative assessments can be any sample of work, these are some common types that can work well in your classes:
- Quizzes – quantitative multiple-choice tests with clear yes/no answers.
- ABCD cards – cards that allow students to hold up their answer based on what is written on the board.
- Surveys – simple questions that you ask the class, with students putting their hands up to answer.
- Discussion boards – students write what they know on the board. This can take the form of a “graffiti wall.”
- Low stakes writing – measure students’ writing abilities with casual tasks like story summaries, open letters, or self-reflection.
- Informal debates – students casually debate a topic based on their viewpoints.
- Checklists or rubrics – scaled rubrics that help you assess skills like writing.
- KWL charts – a three-column chart with “what I know,” “what I want to know,” and “what I learned,” filled out before and after the class is complete.
- Mind maps – good for gauging knowledge around a central topic.
- Entry and exit slips/tickets – slips that student fill out before and after the class to determine learning. They are a form of pre- and post-tests.
- Anticipation guides – a way to uncover misconceptions and assumptions by asking students how they tackle/anticipate a question.
- Off level assessments – tests that are above or below the grade level of your class.
The examples listed above are essentially a way to diagnose your students’ skills and knowledge. If you’d like deeper explanations on what they are, you can find them in our diagnostic assessments blog.
Because formative assessments provide continuous, ongoing feedback on what your students know, they should be a regular part of your lessons. They’re like a compass you can frequently pull out to determine whether you’re heading in the right direction, and tend to work best when they are baked into your learning sequences from the outset. You may set them as standard before starting a new unit to learn the class’ average knowledge before creating your lesson plans, and also give them spontaneously during lessons to maintain an accurate bearing. Despite being a low-stakes type of assessment, they are incredibly important because they help to answer the crucial question: do my students know the content well enough to move on?
The results from formative assessments must be tangible and directly observable. You should be able to either see it, hear it or touch it, so that you have something concrete to act upon. For example, inviting students to add their ideas to a “graffiti wall” on the board helps you to see what they know; listening to students undergo an informal debate with partners allows you to hear their ideas and knowledge; and having students handle and describe objects with varied textures helps you assess their knowledge using touch. The output of a formative assessment can be written/drawn, spoken or acted, and in fact, setting a varied selection caters to the diverse learning styles of your students. This isn’t just an effective and inclusive way to gauge your students’ skills and understanding, it’s often more fun! The result is an engaged group of students who enjoy your classes and are more supported and confident, which can make learning feel more meaningful and typically leads to better outcomes.
When it comes to giving feedback to students during formative assessments, as always, it must be constructive and actionable so that students can use it in some way to improve their learning. If their mind map looks sparse, guide them to the missing topics. If they answer incorrectly for an informal survey, give them a clue that points them in the right direction. Formative assessments should never feel like imperative tasks with consequences for wrong answers, and providing gentle constructive feedback is an important part of this.
Finally, because formative assessments are such a vital part of K-12 education, it can be beneficial to work with other teachers and teaching partners to come up with strategies that work for your classes, as well as analysing the results that come back for the assessments themselves. Two heads are usually better than one, and supporting each other with formative assessments should help you to succeed.
What are summative assessments?
Summative assessments provide a summary of a student’s knowledge or skills after learning has finished. They are an evaluation of what students have learned, and so are typically standardised and graded using set criteria. They tell educators whether their students have learned what was expected, show parents how their children are performing at school, and for certain high-stakes assessments, they can affect a student’s future school choices.
Exams are a common example of summative assessments, typically given at the end of a unit or subject. In the UK, Year 11 students take GCSEs for each subject they have taken, which form final grades and determine their options for further education. SAT tests are their equivalent in the United States, and Australia has the “Certificate of Education” for each state, as well as ATAR. Because these types of summative assessment have important consequences, they are considered high-stakes, which can be nerve-wracking for some students (though others thrive in formal assessment environments).
As a teacher in Australia or New Zealand, depending on your school’s location, you may be obliged to run low-stakes summative assessments at the end of units which are based on the specific learning outcomes in your state’s curriculum. The reports may go into “Mid Year” and “End of Year” reports, which can be used to measure the success of your learning programs and make improvements for the next cohort of students. If a new student joins your school, you can review their previous reports to determine their current academic level and what kind of help and information they may need in your classroom. Or the reports can be used to determine which class a student should join at the start of a year. For parents, these reports are turned into report cards which help them to track the academic progress of their children (in addition to non-assessed factors like their behaviour, attitude and effort), revealing what their strengths are and where they can make improvements.
Types of summative assessment vary depending on the subject and what is being tested. These are some common examples:
- Exams – exams remain a popular way to assess student knowledge. They are suited to almost every subject, though each school may have different approaches on how they use them.
- Assignments/projects – specific pieces of work with a clear outcome. They tend to take a number of weeks to complete and are as varied as the subjects themselves. Students might create a calendar for a period of history, a collage in art class, a fake autobiography for an admired celebrity, or something else that assesses the learning outcomes in the syllabus.
- Coursework – any kind of work that is included for a course or subject. As with assignments, this can take a wide variety of forms: essays, posters, experiments, and many more. Teachers must clearly distinguish this kind of graded work from non-graded work.
- Presentations – students research a question or topic, create a presentation for it, and then deliver it to the class. This is often nerve-wracking for students, but good practice for their future workplace.
- Speeches – similar to presentations, but without a visual aid.
- Experiments – typically used in science. Students collect data to prove or disprove a hypothesis.
As you can see from this list, summative assessments can be written, designed, oral, performative, or a combination of all.
Because summative assessments are used for grading purposes, they tend to be much broader than formative assessments, testing entire units or subjects rather than specific skill levels. Teachers rarely give feedback for the same reason – their purpose is to assess and grade students’ knowledge and skills after learning is complete, rather than a way of assessing and making changes during learning.
Many teachers work hard writing accurate summative assessments, attempting to create exams and other tests that encourage students to apply, analyse, understand, and synthesise the tested content. This goes far beyond just fact recall or “teaching to the test.” Exams also create a competitive environment in which some students may thrive, giving them confidence for important future exams/tests at university or for job applications, which have been shown to improve long-term memory for the tested topics.1
Formative and summative assessments compared
Now that we’ve covered the purpose and details of each type of assessment, here are the most important differences between the two:
|Formative assessment||Summative assessments|
|Used to improve learning programs; diagnostic||Used to assess performance and give grades; evaluative|
|Occur during learning||Occur after learning is complete|
|Low-stakes; meant to be fun||Can be a combination of low or high-stakes, depending on whether they affect students’ school choices|
|Set frequently by teachers during units||Set periodically at the end of units, semesters or years|
|Huge variety of types||More limited variety, with exams being the most common|
|Results are used by teachers to give them direction for their classes||Results are used to assess the performance of students, teachers and entire schools|
|Can help with class placements||Can help with class placements|
Formative and summative assessments – summary
Formative and summative assessments both play important roles in Australian and New Zealand education, helping teachers to enhance their learning programs and grade students. We hope that this article has clarified the key differences between the two, giving you a better understanding of how and when to use them in your classroom.
- Jessica Siler, Aaron S. Benjamin, 2019, Long-term inference and memory following retrieval practice, Memory & Cognition