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Formative vs. Summative Assessments: What's the Difference?

December 22nd, 2021 | 7 min. read

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Whether you’re an administrator, supervisor, or teacher, you’ve heard of formative assessments and summative assessments. They're both essential parts of any curriculum map. But what do these terms actually mean?

In a nutshell, formative assessments are quizzes and tests that evaluate how someone is learning material throughout a course.

Summative assessments are quizzes and tests that evaluate how much someone has learned throughout a course.

In the classroom, that means formative assessments take place during a course, while summative assessments are the final evaluations at the course’s end. 

That's the simple answer, but there's actually a lot more that makes formative and summative assessments different. To fully understand formative vs. summative assessments, you'll need to understand the details of these two important forms of assessment.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at formative and summative quizzing and assessing. When you've finished reading, you'll understand how to better test student knowledge in your classroom.

What Are Formative Assessments?

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Formative assessments are evaluations of someone’s learning progress in a classroom.

Common formative assessments include:

  • Quizzes
  • Games
  • Projects
  • Presentations
  • Group activities

Formative assessments work great when they’re used on a regular basis. That regularity could be based on a calendar (every Monday, every Thursday, etc.) or your lesson plans (every unit).

They’re also more flexible than summative assessments. You don’t always have to use pencil and paper to get a feel for your students’ progress. Instead, you can use in-class games, group presentations, and hands-on activities to evaluate student progress.

Ultimately, the formative assessments you use are up to you. After all, no one knows your classes better than you. So if you’d prefer to get an overview of how well your students are learning, you can use a group-style assessment like a game. If you want to know where each student struggles, you can use an individual assessment like a quiz.

This flexibility is perfect for keeping students engaged in your class. It lets you stick to a syllabus while mixing up the exact task each student has to perform. That way, you don’t fall into a predictable routine of teach-test-teach-test. Instead, you have a varied routine of teach-game-quiz-teach-presentation-project or another interesting format.

By the time your course ends, you’ll have a full understanding of how students are learning as you teach a subject. Then, you can keep all of your grades to look for patterns among different class sections.

Is there an area where students seem to do worse than others? Could you adjust a lesson and shoot for better results?

Naturally, you’ll never get a class that’s straight A’s from top to bottom. But you can still design your classroom assessments to work for as many students as possible!

Top 3 Formative Assessment Examples

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Formative assessments are excellent opportunities to let your students flex their creative muscles.

Even if a student isn’t much of a writer or artist, they can still have a little fun with these assessments.

1. Make an ad

Have your students create an advertisement for a concept they just learned. Use visuals and text to really sell an idea.

This makes students apply what they’ve learned into a creative exercise, which helps with long-term retention.

2. Idea comparisons

Instruct students to lay out the main ideas of a new concept they learned. Then, have them compare that concept to another to see where they agree and disagree.

In addition to helping students remember these concepts, this exercise makes them apply previous knowledge to a new format so they can remember it better in the future.

3. Misconceptions

After you introduce a concept to students, introduce a popular misconception about it. Have students discuss why the misconception is false and where it may have started.

This exercise makes students think critically about what they’ve just learned while showing them how to debunk misinformation.  

How Do You Track Formative Assessments?

You can track formative assessments in one of three ways.

First, you can track them by grade. This gives you a specific, concentrated view of how a student (or group of students) learns. However, graded assessments are sources of stress for many students. So if you want to make a unit fun or loose, graded assessments may not work well for you. 

Second, you can track them by feel. This is more based on your teacher instinct, allowing you to pick which students need additional support based on your observation. On the downside, you can’t “show” this information to your administrators. If you have certain standards to meet throughout a marking period, you won’t be able to prove you’ve fulfilled those standards without grades.

Finally, you can track formative assessments with student data. This is non-graded information that may reflect how your students are learning, such as questions they've frequently answered incorrectly or subject areas where they've had trouble. After all, not everything has to be a grade!

With all of that said and done, let’s jump into summative assessments.

What Are Summative Assessments?

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Summative assessments are evaluations of what someone has learned throughout a course. 

Common summative assessments include:

  • Tests
  • Final exams
  • Reports
  • Papers
  • End-of-class projects

Summative assessments almost always take place at the end of a course unless a teacher decides to break a course into more manageable chunks. They’re often cumulative, and they’re used to evaluate a student’s long-term information retention.

In summative assessments like final exams, you can include questions from the first week or two of a course to ensure students retained introductory information. In other assessments like papers, your students can pull from a full marking period of learning to apply to a topic.

Either way, your students have to do some serious reflecting and critical thinking to bring together the information from an entire course.

This is a great way to ensure students retain essential information from one course to another. So if you teach introductory courses, summative assessments are perfect to set students up for success in their next classes.

That’s important because a student’s success in your classroom is just one step for them. When you prepare them for the next step, you make it easier for them to succeed in the future as well.

In that way, summative assessments serve two purposes:

First, they evaluate what someone learned while they’ve been in your class.

Second, they evaluate how prepared someone is to go to the next academic level.

Combined with the rest of a student’s performance in class, summative quizzing and assessments are excellent ways to gauge progress while ensuring long-term information retention.

Top 3 Summative Assessment Examples

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Summative assessments are traditionally more structured and standardized than formative assessments.

Still, you have a few options to shake things up that go beyond a pen-and-paper test.

1. In-depth reports

Instruct students to choose a topic that resonated with them in class and report in-depth on it. This is a great opportunity for students to take an idea and run with it under your supervision.

These reports often showcase a student’s interest, and you’ll be able to evaluate a student’s engagement level in the class by how they approach the report.

The goal is a passionate, intelligent, and comprehensive examination of a concept that matters to a student. 

2. Cumulative, individual projects

Have your students pick a project to complete. This project should somehow reflect what they’ve learned throughout the course.

Projects are great for any practical application class from health science to physics. Creating a cross-section of the human heart, designing a diet, or creating a protective egg-drop vessel are all fun ways students can show off their knowledge of a topic.

3. Personal evaluation papers

Require students to apply principles from your class to their personal lives. These papers are excellent fits for psychology, nutrition, finance, business, and other theory-based classes.

In a nutshell, personal evaluations let students look at themselves through a different lens while exploring the nuances of the principles they learned in class.  Plus, it lets students do something everyone loves — talk about themselves!

Now that you have a few ideas on summative assessments, how can you track their success?

How Do You Track Summative Assessments?

While everyone has their own ideas on this topic, grades are the best way to evaluate someone’s success with a summative assessment.

How you grade is ultimately up to you. Presentations are great ways to grade someone based on a number of factors, including soft skills like public speaking. Written exams or project-based assessments are ideal to see a student’s full-scope understand of your class after a marking period.

Whatever you choose, stick to a consistent grading scale so you can identify your own strengths and weaknesses in the classroom as students complete your course. 

What’s More Important: Formative or Summative Assessments?

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Many new teachers have this question — are formative or summative assessments more important?

In a perfect world, they’re equally important. Formative assessments let students show that they’re learning, and summative assessments let them show what they’ve learned.

But American public education values summative assessments over formative assessments. Standardized tests — like the SATs — are great examples of high-value summative assessments.

It’s rare to find the same emphasis on formative quizzing and assessments. That’s because formative assessments act like milestones while summative assessments show the bottom line.

We encourage teachers to look at these assessments as two sides of the same coin. Formative and summative assessments work together flawlessly when implemented properly.

With all of that in mind, you only have one question left to answer. How are you going to add these assessments to your curriculum?

Use Formative and Summative Assessments and Meet Your Challenges

As a teacher, you’ll likely need to employ both summative and formative assessments in your curriculum. An effective balance of these assessments will help you understand your students’ needs while meeting your standards.

However, CTE teachers face challenges in the classroom each day that sometimes get in the way of connecting with students and preparing them for these assessments.

If you want to feel less overwhelmed and spend more time helping your students succeed, download your free guide. You’ll learn about five of the most significant challenges teachers face and how you can overcome them.

Overcome Your Teaching Challenges