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Formative vs Summative Assessment in the Classroom: A Guide

Verity is a Physics with Teaching (Bsc Hons) graduate with years of experience in the classroom and a passion for delivering education.

Formative vs Summative Assessment in the Classroom, an analysis

Formative vs Summative Assessment in the Classroom, an analysis

Assessments: Background

The Oxford English Dictionary (c.2017) defines assess as to “Evaluate or estimate the nature, ability, or quality of.” This definition is especially important regarding assessing a student’s in-school performance for a number of reasons. Assessment can be either a brief estimation used to monitor student learning (known as formative assessment) or a comprehensive evaluation wherein a student’s performance is measured against a benchmark (known as summative assessment) (cmuedu, c.2015). Assessments must also determine not just a student’s ability but the quality of their ability; that is, getting the correct answer might be useless if the student gets it without knowing or understanding how.

Summative Assessment

Summative assessment receives much less attention in literature and research than formative assessment. Black and Wiliam (1998) found that summative assessments had a much less powerful positive effect on student learning than formative assessments. In a literature review of the available research at the time; Crooks, Crooks & Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (1988) consistently found that formative assessment had a much stronger research base supporting its impact on learning than summative assessment did.

Summative assessment takes the form most commonly of exams, NABs, end of topic tests and marked homework. In an investigation by Riley & Rustique-Forrester (2002) in which panels of students were interviewed on different aspects of school life, and their contributions to students becoming disaffected with school, summative assessment appears to be a large contributing factor to disengagement.

In the study, it was found that despite students repeatedly listing in their hopes and aspirations that they wanted to hit targets, get good marks and have a fresh start, they also listed that their main causes of anxieties were caused by worrying about examinations and worrying about their homework. This lead the students to state that their day-to-day experience of school resulted in boredom and feeling as if they were learning nothing. Sambell, McDowell & Montgomery (2013) found that this trend also continues in older students, with students immediately switching off and ceasing to engage or take notes after being told that the subject matter would not be in the exam.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment can, however, be ambiguous with Black and Wiliam (1998) stating that “Formative assessment does not have a tightly defined and widely accepted meaning”. (pp.7). The most commonly accepted definition is simply any activity within the classroom which can be used to provide feedback allowing for the modification to student learning (Black and Wiliam, 1998, pp7-8). This freedom in definition allows formative assessment to take a wide variety of forms, e.g. from a more formal Kahoot Quiz to a less formal classroom discussion (Marzano, 2006).

A tool which may be considered summative assessment can be used as formative assessment in the correct circumstances. For example; in the run-up to an exam or an end of topic test, a ‘mock’ test can be completed, then rather than simply handing back marks the teacher can give personal or class feedback and ask the students to make notes of areas of possible self-improvement that need not be shared with the class. In some circumstances, the questions from the mock test can be completed as a fun game perhaps without the students realising that they are doing test questions. This allows both teachers and students to identify weak areas without students being made to feel as if their grade reflects negatively on them. Students have reported preferring this method of assessment as it feels fairer and offers them all the same standards and expectations regardless of test scores (Riley & Rustique-Forrester, 2002). Dunn, Morgan, O’Reilly & Parry (2003) write that practice tests done by students in this format leads to improvements in summative assessments. Dunn et al suggest that the reason for this is the invaluable feedback that students gain from being able to complete the test questions without the pressure of grading.

However, McColl and Brady (2013) argue that all formative tests should be removed completely from teaching. They posit that tests, such as mid-unit and end of chapter tests, cannot be used correctly, as the relentless pacing of lessons (especially towards the end of term when time is ’running out’ to complete units) means that by the time feedback can be returned to the students the class has to move on to the next part in the unit. This results in students unnecessarily undergoing stress to complete tests for which marks may not even be returned. Kaycheng (2016) disagrees and states that to make formative tests useful the teacher simply needs to ensure that student responses are tabulated and that simple statistics, e.g. the percentage of correct and incorrect answers given, can be used to track progress and identify problem areas. Wiliam (2011) also states that formative assessment as a whole does not need to change a course of action and can simply be used to prove to the teacher that the chosen methods of teaching have worked. This can be extremely useful to student teachers who are finding their way with new material and new experiences.

Kahoot is one of many formative assessment tools that can give instantaneous feedback and improve engagement with learners

Kahoot is one of many formative assessment tools that can give instantaneous feedback and improve engagement with learners


This is where online quizzes such as Kahoot can come in useful. Kahoot is a Student Response System (SRS) on which students answer quiz questions on their phones with the questions and feedback being displayed on a smartboard, participation can be individual or in teams. The benefits of Kahoot, and similar SRS’ such as Socrative, include that feedback is immediately available to both students and teachers; with the correct answers being displayed and the names of the students to get the correct answers showing on the smartboard. The students are awarded points for correct and fast answers, and the top five scoring individuals are displayed on the board at the end of the quiz. The responses are also recorded and the teacher can download an excel sheet, detailing the percentage of correct and incorrect answers. This allows the teacher to immediately identify weak areas and can possibly even incorporate this into the starter for the following lesson (Loukey & Ware, 2016).

Starter Activities

Starter activities at the beginning of every lesson can introduce the groundwork for formative assessment immediately at the onset of the lesson. Starter activities usually incorporate themes from the previous lesson to provide an organic flow-through from lesson to lesson. It is also a useful tool for getting students settled into the lesson and to introduce the topic for the day. Bartlett (2015) suggests that open starter activities in which students can work together provide immediate formative assessment as it shows whether students are ready to move on or whether the students need to spend more time on the topic. It also allows students to share ideas as a class and critique each other’s work in the form of peer assessment. Redfern (2015) expands on this idea further and explains that linking a starter activity to a plenary allows both the students and the teachers a clear point at which to measure progress over the course of the one lesson. It also allows an assessment of student knowledge prior to learning and can allow for the lesson to be adjusted (at short notice) to account for larger or smaller gaps in student knowledge than the teacher may have anticipated.


The plenary at the end of the lesson is itself an opportunity for formative assessment to occur, it allows for students to reflect on their learning and to form personal learning targets, ready for the next lesson. An effective plenary also allows for the teacher to evaluate the success of the lesson and identify the extent of learning for individual students, this will help the teacher plan for the next lesson (Tanner & Jones, 2006). However, Bourdillon & Storey (2013) note that some students lack the confidence to perform self-assessment effectively due to limited opportunities to develop the necessary skills and that it tends to be students at the high performing end of the scale who perform best at these activities. For this reason, it may be useful to make plenaries a group activity in which co-operative and collaborative learning can take place e.g. a peer-marked quiz game.

A plenary shouldn't take too much of your lesson's time and can be as simple as a thumbs up/thumbs down, or an exit pass carried out using Post-It notes

A plenary shouldn't take too much of your lesson's time and can be as simple as a thumbs up/thumbs down, or an exit pass carried out using Post-It notes

Peer Assessment

Peer assessment, as already mentioned, is commonly used as a method of formative assessment; however, literature on peer assessment can be divided. Peer marking is a method in which students can swap work from the lesson with one another, and have their peers produce feedback and constructive criticism. For peer marking to work effectively it is essential that students are taught how to communicate effectively in groups, i.e. how to listen, give constructive feedback and be respectful (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2005). Sutton (1995) argues that students shy away from peer tasks as taking what they see as a ‘teacher’s responsibility’ can make them anxious. Sutton also states that some students may prefer to simply blame a teacher for issues that they struggle with, rather than endure what they may feel as the embarrassment of having weak areas in the curriculum in front of their peers. Hughes (2014) also states that teachers are concerned about discrepancies in standards between students and teachers, with some students over-estimating on under-estimating their own abilities or the abilities of their peers.

However, Hughes also states that if done with careful planning, e.g. preparing students for peer assessing and explicitly stating what is expected of them via perhaps a ‘two stars and a wish’ policy (in which students give two positive pieces of feedback and one criticism), then peer assessment can be a reliable source of quality feedback. Clarke (2014) agrees and writes that if the students give feedback pertaining to clear success criteria then peer assessment cannot just be beneficial to learning but can allow for students to take control of their learning and allows them to feel empowered. Black and Harrison (2004) also suggest that regularly engaging in peer assessment results in students developing their self-assessment skills subconsciously. By using the skills that students have learned via peer assessment and applying them to their own practices, Black and Harrison argue that this helps embed better learning behaviours and can raise overall attainment and achievement. This can contribute to the closing of the achievement gap.

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The Achievement Gap

The achievement gap is the gap which exists between a learner’s current state of achievement and their targeted achievements and goals. The aim of formative assessment can be tailored to indicate to a teacher which method of learning intervention that they can carry out in order to assist in closing the achievement gap (Andrade & Cizek, 2010). This can be done by using various methods of formative assessment, such as the methods previously discussed, to; identify where achievement gaps exist, provide guidance for interpreting these gaps and to suggest which methods of teaching can be used to assist the individual student in closing the gap (Black & Wiliam, 1998).

The Formative Assessment Advantage

In conclusion, when considering summative and formative assessment it can be seen that, while both have important uses, formative assessment is preferred by students and more useful to teachers in the long run. It has been demonstrated that summative assessment makes students anxious and contributes to student disengagement and disaffection. However, formative assessment is diverse and versatile, and can even incorporate summative assessment as a tool for formative assessment. The many forms of formative assessment can help students develop important skills in social and self-reflection and critique. It can also help teachers identify student achievement gaps and be able to refine their own practices in order to close those gaps. It can be concluded that formative assessment is a valuable tool which must be used to maximise a student’s potential for the unavoidable summative assessment that they will face throughout their academic careers.


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