Formative and Summative assessments: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

How can we use formative and summative assessments to drive student understanding forward? A classroom guide for teachers.

What is the difference between formative and summative assessment?

Many people consider ‘assessment’ as a test. But, this term is wider than that. There are two main categories of assessment: formative assessment and summative assessment. These types of assessment are sometimes called A 'for' L and A 'of' L, respectively.

At some level, both types of appraisal are conducted in the classroom but they have two different purposes. To maximise the effectiveness of each type of classroom practice, it is essential to understand the basic functions of these appraisals and how each of these assessment types contributes to the student motivation and learning process.  Providing comprehensive feedback for students is a fundamental part of lessons. In this article, we will demonstrate some engaging ways of going beyond the standard multiple-choice questions. Although plenary questions are a good way of gauging what students have understood, there are more interactive strategies that get to the essence of what pupil understanding.

What are the Formative assessments?

Formative activities are taken more frequently and during regular classes for insightful purposes, allowing educators and students to assess pupil progress and attainment levels more often. Formative appraisals can start from diagnostic questions, demonstrating what gaps may exist in knowledge and what a student already knows. Knowing what has been learned to date, makes it easier for both the student and the teacher to plan the next stages of learning. As the learning proceeds, further appraisals specify whether instructional methods need to be modified to extend or reinforce students' current theoretical knowledge.

Formative tasks may be carried out through strategies such as key questions, exit tickets, quizzes, tasks, and many other types of formative review activities. Most of the formative appraisal activities are not recorded by the teachers, except possibly in the lesson plan drawn up to identify the next steps implied.

For formative tasks, the main functions of assessment include the monitoring of student theoretical knowledge and offering ongoing feedback to students and staff. Productive appraisal activities are the ongoing check of knowledge and skills. If designed properly, an ongoing assessment helps learners identify their weaknesses and strengths, and it can help students improve their self-regulating skills so that they gain their education properly. Constructive checks of understanding also provide information to the teachers about the lesson planning and subject matter learners are struggling with so that enough support can be provided through individual lessons.

Checks of understanding can be teacher-led, self or peer-assessment. These are usually low stakes assessments and mostly carry no grade, which may discourage the learners from completing or getting each of the individual pupils fully engaged with the task.

identifying the similarities and differences between the two assessment methods
identifying the similarities and differences between the two assessment methods

What are Summative Assessments?

Summative exams can be used to assess pupil progress more formally, academic achievement and skill acquisition at the end of a specified instructional period—usually after completing a key stage, course, unit, project, program, semester or educational year.

External tests are usually used for summative purposes, to sum up what a student has learned at the end of a specific time, relative to the relevant national curriculum and learning objectives. The period of time allocated for exams or SATs will vary, depending upon what the education system wants to assess.

A summative task can be an observation, a cold written task, or a discussion. It can be recorded in a written format, in the form of photographs, through audio recording or any other visual media. Whichever way it is used, the insights can be used to indicate what has been learnt. Exams perform summative functions by providing a summary of what a student has attained at a specific point in time and may furnish cohort and individual data for informing stakeholders (such as parents or school leaders etc.) and tracking pupil progress against benchmark data or standardized tests.

These exams frequently have high stakes and learners tend to give priority to external tests over A4L activities. According to key figures in the world of education, feedback from both forms of appraisal should be used by the teachers and children to guide their activities and efforts in the upcoming courses.

Education experts claim that an over-dependence on testing at the end of an element of study may help in achieving good grades, but offers very little response to students for improving performance before reaching the end of the programme/module. Thus maintaining a balance between summative and formative assessments is necessary.

Different student assessment methods
Different student assessment methods

What are the benefits of formative assessment?

To really advance school attainment, we need to build upon what a child already knows. When school leaders are engaged in national curriculum planning we are attempting to sequence a form of knowledge acquisition and skills progression. If a child has gaps in their understanding, this may hinder their progression. Using critical questions and other mixed-assessment approaches helps us build a picture of the classes current understanding. These types of activities help us inform curriculum planning and ensure that we have achieved maximum coverage of the curriculum. The following are some of the most significant benefits of formative assessments:

  1. Formative activities are carried out in a very positive and risk-free environment, where students can learn as well as experiment.
  2. Formative tasks also prepare students for summative evaluation, as long as the teacher provides insightful feedback.

What are the benefits of summative assessment?

Research-based evidence about student achievement shows that summative judgments play an important role in developing memory, including:

  1. Refreshing the memories of what students have learned previously.
  2. Reinforcing the overall learning objectives of the class.
  3. Standardised tests also provide education authorities with the 'big-picture'.

Using graphic organisers to monitor student learning
Using graphic organisers to monitor student learning

Engaging students in a formative evaluation

It is possible to engage students in formative assessments by:

  1. Clearly explaining the rationale of the formative functions: Students show more engagement with the formative assessments when it is made clear to them that through formative tasks they can gain experience and they can build much stronger skills to achieve better attainment levels in the summative assessments.
  2. Creating a link between formative functions and summative judgements: Students seem to show more engagement with the formative evaluation when the formative assessments are designed to contribute to the summative tasks. This reduces the burden of learning on the students and offers students the necessary feedback to enhance their final performance. Some examples of formative assessments include generating a structure of a literature review, exit tickets, creating an essay plan, a part of the essay or a list of references.
  3. Increasing the number of formative evaluations and reducing the number of summative tests: Still, it is recommended not to allow a summative individual assessment to have too much weight in the last grade. Accountability measures that schools have to adhere to can often dilute the authentic learning experiences we all strive for.

The process of designing and developing classroom-based checks can be a creative endeavour: what must be assessed, using summative or/ and formative assessment? What are the appropriate measures and functions of the assessment? And, are the assessments aligned with the course outline and learning outcomes? Research-based evidence about student achievement shows that the assessment design and quality the quality of its outcomes, and ultimately, whether those outcomes are suited to make significant decisions. Classroom-based assessments serve as the key components of the national curriculum. At Structural Learning, we have seen many primary schools use the block building methodology to find out what children understand (build what you know). Using the toolkit creatively in interactive lessons allows educators to embed learning reviews into teaching methods.

Using creative activities such as the block building method to gauge students knowledge


Final points about student assessment

Any form of evaluation, carried out through formal or informal procedures, helps secondary and primary school students learn. Performing a classroom assessment provides an opportunity for students to see how they are performing in a class. Both formative and summative strategies are usually carried out at an individual level but there is no reason why group work cannot be used to monitor progress. Hearing a student articulating their ideas and demonstrating situation-specific skills can give us a lot of information.

A teacher can assess students attainment levels by performing a straightforward test and use the results to inform learning and teaching methods (thus also having formative advantages). To summarise, many interactive lessons provide us with opportunities to gauge a pupils understanding. Whether you are asking critical questions or using a graphic organiser to help students communicate their understanding, you are figuring out the next steps a pupil has to take. It is also worth acknowledging how powerful feedback is as a classroom tool, the EEF toolkit which unpicks the best ways to advance school attainment consistently places this pedagogy high up the performance tables.