Part of the educational process is helping students grow in their mastery of the knowledge and skills of our courses.  In the past, the way a professor would let students know how they were doing was through grades, either on specific assignments or at the end of a course.  While grades are an important part of letting students know how they are doing in a course, they are not the only resource we have. Assessment of student progress can be done both formative and summative ways.  

Formative and Summative Assessments

Formative assessment of student learning occurs when we give students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through an assignment and then offer constructive feedback that will help the student the next time they try to demonstrate their mastery. Although we may assign a grade for credit on a formative assessment, the goal of such an assessment is not the grade as much as it is the opportunity to practice and receive feedback. 

Summative assessment generally occurs at the end of a lesson, unit, or course.  In summative assessment, students have had the opportunity to practice their knowledge and skills as well as receive feedback before completing an assignment for credit. While we may provide feedback on a summative assessment, for example, through comments on a term paper, feedback is not usually the goal. It is through these two types of assessment that we can help students grow.  

Some Aspects to Consider

How do we use grading and assessment as a process for learning rather than just of learning? Here are four lessons about classroom assessment from the literature:

  • Will this be on the test?
    Some types of assessment directs students’ time and energy – take advantage of it. Measure what you value most. Use your grading practices to tell student not only what content they should focus on, but what type of learning (cognitive skills) you want them to be developing during your course.
  • Avoid the “gotcha” game
    Clarity of assignments is important and does not in itself dumb down learning. The goal of an assignment is usually to improve students’ knowledge or skills, not to test their ability to read directions. Keep students’ time and energy focused on learning by telling them what you want them to do and how well you want them to do it.  One way to accomplish this is through clear rubrics.
  • Emphasize depth over breadth
    The ‘coverage’ problem is hard to overcome. Studies from neuroscience and about novices and experts show depth is better than breadth for deeper levels of learning. Knowing one concept in depth is considered better for long term retention than shallow memorization of many unrelated facts. Through your assignments and exams, explicitly ask students to spend time developing the necessary mental structures in your content area.
  • Align learning goals, assignments and assessments
    Assessment methods make sense and are less frustrating for instructors and students when they clearly support the learning goals and what students “practice doing” during the course. This satirical video of teaching a dance class through lecture shows an extreme version, but the message is simple. Not only should we grade what we want students to learn, but also give them time to practice these skills during the course.
  • Assess using multiple methods, continual feedback, over time
    Break up your summative assessments into smaller pieces, and use formative assessment as much as you can. Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) are useful for formative assessment. Consider these lessons from the literature:

What makes formative assessment successful? (Black & Wiliam, 1998, Assessment Reform Group, 1999)
o Frequent and timely feedback
o Precise feedback
o Students having a chance to use the feedback given to them
o The instructor changing course content or teaching methods based on student feedback

What makes summative assessment successful? [Thomas Angelo’s (1996) framework of AAHE’s 9 Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning (1992) Principle #2]
o Use multiple methods of assessment (this is also strong Universal Design for Learning practice!)
o Assess multiple dimensions of learning
o Use multiple assessors
o Assess over time

Essentially, assessing learning throughout a course, in different ways, and with timely, specific feedback is more conducive to learning than requiring one or two high stakes assessments and providing general feedback after the quarter is over. Try to make each assessment a learning opportunity for students.

As always, if you would like help creating either formative or summative assessments, please reach out the Office of Teaching and Learning,, or schedule an appointment with any of our staff members.

Additional Resources