Formative vs. Summative Assessments

Assessments are essential to teaching and learning. They provide insights into what skills and content students have mastered and where additional instruction may be necessary. Assessments help both students and teachers better understand ways they learn best. But like so much in education, types of assessment vary depending on the content or skill being covered, the teacher, the makeup of the class, and the ultimate objective of the assessment.

Assessments are generally classified into two categories – formative or summative. Each of these has a place in every classroom, but knowing when to use both is vital to the success of any unit of study.

What’s the difference?

Formative assessments are generally less formal, quick, and low stakes. They are meant to capture a snapshot of what students know at any given point in a unit of study, not a comprehensive test of everything in that particular unit. Formative assessments often happen daily and provide teachers and students with instant feedback about which concepts need further clarification.

According to Carnegie Melon University, “the goal of formative assessments is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning.” Formative assessments should not be particularly stressful but rather a tool to help inform teachers and students where adjustments may need to be made.

Summative assessments, on the other hand, are meant to be more of a cumulative measure of what students have learned. The Poorvu Center of Teaching and Learning at Yale defines summative assessments as those that “evaluate student learning, knowledge, proficiency, or success at the conclusion of an instructional period, like a unit, course, or program.” These assessments are generally longer, more formal, and have higher stakes than formative assessments.

Although summative assessments are often given in the form of traditional exams, with multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, or written answer questions, they may not always take this form. Both formative and summative assessments can vary in terms of how they are administered and graded. For example, they can both be oral or written, individual or group, open-ended or closed response, or any other variation. The important distinction is that formative assessments are intended to monitor progress that is being made while summative assessments evaluate progress that has been made.

Types of Formative Assessments

Formative assessments can take almost any form, be administered at any time, and do not necessarily need to be teacher-driven. It’s important for students to understand these checks for understanding are intended to improve learning and teaching, not make a statement about final mastery or grades.

Some common types of formative assessments include class discussions, weekly quizzes, homework assignments, surveys, short reflections, or any activity that helps the teacher monitor what content and concepts students are grasping and where there may be gaps, misconceptions, or learning struggles.

The teacher then uses that information to inform their teaching. Sometimes this happens spontaneously in the course of a lesson, while other times it might mean the teacher reflects on the assessments and makes adjustments in the following days.

Students can use the information gleaned from formative assessments to monitor their own behavior and learning styles. For example, if they understand they are better visual learners, they can try to find ways to incorporate visuals even when the lesson is mostly oral.

Types of Summative Assessments

Because summative assessments are used to evaluate student understanding and mastery of skills and content, they carry higher stakes. They almost always come at the end of a unit and generally look like a more traditional test or exam. Summative assessments are often, instructor-created exams, standardized tests, end of unit exams, or final papers or projects.

Teachers can use summative exams to inform their instruction for the following unit or year, but since they are given at the end of a unit, they are not as effective for making spontaneous instructional changes within a unit of study.

The most successful classes use a combination of formative and summative assessments which create a continuous improvement cycle for both students and teachers. The formative assessments help to prepare students for summative assessments. These then further inform teachers about the success of their instructional strategies and future formative assessments. The Poorvu Center states, “summative assessment can be used to great effect in conjunction and alignment with formative assessment, and instructors can consider a variety of ways to combine these approaches.”

How to Create Effective Formative Assessments

Formative assessments are quite fluid and flexible, but they should follow certain principles. There are hundreds of different kinds of formative assessments to choose from, but when creating these checks for understanding, keep the following strategies in mind.

  • – Ensure students understand goals and criteria.
  • – Make sure feedback is clear and actionable.
  • – Get students involved in discussions about the purpose of formative assessments and types they find useful. Give them periodic opportunities to help create them.
  • – Let students know their growth, development, and self-esteem is paramount by giving them opportunities to correct assignments or resubmit.
  • – Provide opportunities for self-assessment and/or require students keep a record of their own progress.


Because formative assessments are meant to inform both learning and instruction, it’s important for students to be a part of the process. There is also room to experiment with different types of formative assessments. Since they are low stakes and guide both students and teachers, there is time to adjust and readjust as necessary.
Effective formative assessments not only help teachers and students understand where they are at any given moment in their learning journey, but they also provide a road map to move closer to expected outcomes at the end of each unit.

How to Create Effective Summative Assessments

Summative assessments occur less frequently but carry more weight than their formative counterparts. Though there is no set format or template for summative assessments, they should be designed to evaluate student learning.
In order to effectively do so, there are several criteria all summative assessments should have.

  • – They must align with the goals and expectations the instructor set at the beginning of the unit.
  • – They must use some kind of rubric, so students understand how they are being graded, including how detailed answers should be and how much time the assessment will take.
  • – Questions should be clear. For example, essay questions and free-response questions should state how many examples to use but allow students some flexibility to respond. Multiple choice questions should avoid confusing language (not or except) in the questions and responses. The purpose of the questions should not be to “trick” students but rather to help them demonstrate what they learned.
  • – Questions should be relevant. Remember your goals and objectives for the unit. Don’t ask questions steeped in minutiae or on tangential information that is unimportant to your specified goals. This is frustrating for students and does not further inform instruction.


The Bottom Line

Formative and summative assessments are essential in all classrooms. They are necessary to help monitor and evaluate student learning. Assessments should not be something students dread taking and teachers dread grading. They should be viewed as tools to help both students and teachers reach their goals. There is no reason that they can’t be fun, engaging, and effective when designed purposefully.