Summative Assessment

In contrast to formative assessment, summative assessment evaluates a student’s knowledge of material at a given point in time in relation to previously-determined learning goals. Summative assessment is often more formal and higher-stakes than formative assessment and used to inform judgments about student competency or learning.

Designing Summative Assessments

There are multiple ways to assess students’ learning, and these methods do not necessarily differ between formative and summative assessment. Rather, the distinction between the two mostly depends on how an instructor plans to use the gathered information (Brookhart, 2004).  Common forms of assessment include paper-and-pencil assessments (e.g., multiple-choice tests, short-answer tests), performance assessments (e.g., essays, research projects, laboratory practical exams, oral exams), as well as less-common forms like instructor observations, portfolios, and peer- and self-assessments (Brookhart, 2004; Dixon and Worrell, 2016; Kibble, 2017). The type of assessment an instructor should use depends predominantly on the learning goals the instructor has set for the course, the level of learning the instructor plans to evaluate, and the type of feedback the instructor plans to provide (Brookhart, 2004). Learning taxonomies, such as Bloom’s taxonomy, may be helpful for instructors to review as they design their summative assessments.

There are two main concerns when creating or evaluating a measure of summative assessment: validity and reliability. For a summative assessment tool to have validity, it should effectively measure what an instructor has intended for it to measure. For instance, instructors should make sure that their summative assessments are adequately capturing student learning both in relation to the overall learning objectives and the level of knowledge the student should be demonstrating (e.g., lower- versus higher-order thinking; (Brookhart, 2004; Dolin, Black, Harlen, & Tiberghien, 2017). 

Reliability, on the other hand, relates to how well a student’s learning is being assessed. It is commonly thought of as how reproducible or consistent the outcomes will be from test to test. Instructors must ensure that measures of student learning will not change based on the context of the assessment, e.g., if another rater is used. When decisions made from the test are high-stakes, the reliability of a given assessment should be as high as possible.

After instructors have assessed student learning, they must decide what information to provide back to the students. Common forms of feedback include objective scores (e.g., using an answer key to determine if a response is correct), subjective judgments (e.g., using a rubric to make decisions about the quality of a response), or written feedback (Brookhart, 2004). Instructors should seek to provide feedback that is informative for both themselves and their students. Feedback that informs instructor decisions as well as student learning is not only more useful to all involved but can also be used to create a foundation of mutual respect and transparency in the classroom.

Challenges of Summative Assessment

The decisions a teacher makes based on summative assessment tools such as exams and presentations have real-world consequences on students, instructors, and academic organizations. In addition to more traditional assessment outcomes (e.g., grades), summative assessments can also affect students’ ability to pursue certain coursework (e.g., introductory courses or courses required for advancement into a major) and occupations, as well as affecting their self-perceptions (Kibble, 2017).

Because of its higher-stakes nature and role in judgments of student learning, summative assessment tends to be linked to feelings of fear and anxiety (Harrison, Könings, Schuwirth, Wass, & van der Vleuten, 2015). Students often view summative assessments as opportunities for failure rather than opportunities to demonstrate their skills or competencies. As a result, students who achieve their desired outcome (e.g., a passing grade) have low or no motivation to consider the feedback they receive through these assessments. Separately, students often have difficulty understanding the relationship between summative assessment and real-world applications. Instead, these assessments are seen as hurdles to be overcome in order to progress to the next course or program. By better tying summative assessment and its associated judgments to proficiencies, instructors can make the utility of summative assessment clearer for their students.

Integrating Formative and Summative Assessment

Although formative and summative assessment are often discussed as dichotomous concepts, the two are more appropriately conceived as being on a continuum. Many original conceptualizations of formative assessment include summative assessment as a necessary component before any feedback can be provided (Taras, 2005). More recent thinking about the relationship between the two suggests more of a cyclical relationship. Formative assessments that measure students’ individual progress can be used to set the stage for later more summative, criterion-based assessment (Dolin, Black, Harlen, & Tiberghien, 2017).

Rather than being opposed to one another, formative and summative assessment can often take the same form or can be collected in combination (Brookhart, 2004; Dolin, Black, Harlen, & Tiberghien, 2017). Instructors can combine formative and summative assessments by collecting more formal types of formative assessment during the course and summatively assessing students’ most recent or most demonstrative work after a period of time. Alternatively, instructors can connect their formative and summative assessments by using similar or aligned measures throughout the course. In this case, students are overtly aware of the competencies and skills being taught and are not surprised by the material during more formal testing.

Example of the Assessment Cycle


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Dolin, J., Black, P., Wynne, H., & Tiberghien, A. (2017). Exploring relations between formative and summative assessment. In J. Dolin & R. Evans (Eds.), Transforming assessment: Through an interplay between practice, research, and policy. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, pp. 54-80.

Harrison, C. J., Könings, K. D., Schuwirth, L., Wass, V., & van der Vleuten, C. (2015). Barriers to the uptake and use of feedback in the context of summative assessment. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 20, 229-245. doi: 10.1007/s10459-014-9524-6

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