Formative & Summative Assessment

Center for Teaching & Learning Excellence

Assessment is more than just about assigning grades.  Although assessments can be used to assign a point value to student performance, they can also be used to shape student performance and to inform instructor decisions.  Summative assessment essentially sums up a student’s performance at a point in time, often at the end of a unit, chapter, or semester.  Formative assessment is used to “form” student learning and inform instructor practice. 

An instructor may use formative assessment results to provide feedback during learning when students still have time to adjust their performance.  This may take the form of quizzes, polls, feedback on drafts of writing, or peer review.  Formative assessment is usually low-stakes, less time consuming, and intended to give students the opportunity to grow.  It’s been said that “you can measure a student all you want, but that won’t make them grow.”  Formative assessment supports student growth because learners receive feedback at a point when they can apply it improve their performance.  Formative assessment also provides opportunities for instructors to determine whether they might need to reteach content before a higher-stakes summative assessment is administered.  If students are doing poorly on quizzes, polls, or drafts, perhaps there is more or different teaching to be done. 

Two analogies may help us think about the differences between summative and formative assessments.  Summative assessment is to formative assessment as an autopsy is to a physical.  Robert E. Stake, from the University of Illinois, explains that formative assessment is when the cook tastes the soup;  summative assessment is when the guest tastes the soup.

Both forms of assessment are essential, but their purposes and impact are very different.  Master instructors know the differences and use a variety of assessments effectively to support student learning.  

Final Exams or Epic Finales

Duke University’s Alternative Strategies for Assessment and Grading

TILT 2.0: How to Convey Your Expectations of a Class Assignment Effectively

How to Give Your Students Better Feedback with Technology

What is the Purpose of Final Exams, Anyway?

“They Don’t Read My Feedback!” Strategies to Encourage Reception and Application of Course Feedback

A Century of Grading Research

The University of Queensland Assessment Ideas Factory

The tables below may offer more differences as well as examples of formative and summative assessments.

Formative Assessment
Summative Assessment

  Assessment  for learning

  Assessment of  learning

  Purpose: to provide feedback/information to:  

     a)       improve/adjust instruction, and/or

     b)      provide information to students to foster growth

  Purpose: to evaluate student learning or mastery at    the end of a chapter, unit, or course

  Focus on Process

  Focus on Product

  Monitor Learning

  Assess Learning

  Occurs During Instructional Process

  Occurs at End of Instructional Process

  Informal or Formal


  Low Stakes / Low Point Value

  High Stakes/ High Point Value

  Results used to provide feedback to support

  student growth or inform teacher practice

  Results used to provide grades

  Provides opportunities to improve performance

  No opportunity to change result/grade

Examples of Assessment

Formative Assessments
Summative Assessments


  End of chapter test

  Exit Tickets

  End of unit test

  Polling in class, Surveys

  End of course exam

  1-minute paper

  Midterm exam

  Homework or classwork

  Final project or paper

  Infographics, charts, diagrams


  Summary or bullet pts of reading or lecture

  Certification Exams

  Talking or Discussion


  Reflective Activities


  Socratic seminar




  Peer feedback/review