Formative and Summative Assessment

Formative and Summative Assessment

Assessment helps instructors and students monitor progress towards achieving learning objectives. Formative assessment is used throughout an instructional period to treat misconceptions, struggles, and learning gaps. Summative assessments evaluate learning, knowledge, proficiency, or success at the conclusion of an instructional period.

Below you will find formative and summative descriptions along with a diagram, examples, recommendations, and strategies/tools for the next steps.


Formative assessment (Image 1, left) refers to tools that identify misconceptions, struggles, and learning gaps along the way and assess how to close those gaps. It includes practical tools for helping to shape learning. It can even bolster students’ ability to take ownership of their education when they understand that the goal is to improve learning and not apply final marks (Trumbull and Lash, 2013). It can include students assessing themselves, peers, or even the instructor, through writing, quizzes, conversation, and more. Formative assessment occurs throughout a class or course and seeks to improve student achievement of learning objectives through approaches that can support specific student needs (Theal and Franklin, 2010, p. 151). In the classroom, formative assessment centers on practice and is often low-stakes. Students may or may not receive a grade.

In contrast, summative assessments (Image 1, right) evaluate student learning, knowledge, proficiency, or success after an instructional period, as a unit, course, or program. Summative assessments are almost always formally graded and often heavily weighted (though they do not need to be). Summative assessment can be used to significant effect in conjunction and in alignment with formative assessment, and instructors can consider a variety of ways to combine these approaches. 

Two diagrams showing the when, why, and how of formative and summative assessment. Formative: Help students to learn and practice, when - throughout the course, why - identify gaps and improve learning, how - via approaches that support specific student needs. Whereas, summative asses student performance, when at the end of an instructional period, why - collect evidence of student knowledge, skills or proficiency, how - via exit learning or a cumulative assessment.
Image 1. Formative helps student to learn and practice (left), and summative assesses student performance (right).

Examples of Formative and Summative Assessments

Formative: Learn and practice

  • In-class discussions
  • Clicker questions (e.g., Top Hat)
  • Video quiz
  • 1-minute reflection writing assignments
  • Peer review
  • Homework assignments
  • Surveys

Summative: Assess performance

  • Instructor-created exams
  • Standardized tests
  • Final projects
  • Final essays
  • Final presentations
  • Final reports
  • Final grades

Formative Assessment Recommendations

Ideally, formative assessment strategies improve teaching and learning simultaneously. Instructors can help students grow as learners by actively encouraging them to self-assess their skills and knowledge retention, and by giving clear instructions and feedback. Seven principles (adapted from Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2007 with additions) can guide instructor strategies:

Instructors can explain criteria for A-F graded papers and encourage student discussion and reflection about these criteria (accomplish this through office hours, rubrics, post-grade peer review, or exam/assignment wrappers. Instructors may also hold class-wide conversations on performance criteria at strategic moments throughout the term.


Instructors can ask students to utilize course criteria to evaluate their own or peers’ work and share what kinds of feedback they find most valuable. Also, instructors can ask students to describe their best work qualities, either through writing or group discussion.


Instructors can consistently provide specific feedback tied to predefined criteria, with opportunities to revise or apply feedback before final submission. Feedback may be corrective and forward-looking, rather than just evaluative. Examples include comments on multiple paper drafts, criterion discussions during 1-on-1 conferences, and regular online quizzes.


Instructors can invite students to discuss the formative learning process. This practice primarily revolves around midterm evaluations (use the Plus/Delta assessment technique) and small group feedback sessions, where students reflect on the course, and instructors respond to student concerns. Students can also identify examples of feedback comments they found useful and explain how they helped. A particularly helpful strategy, instructors can invite students to discuss learning goals and assignment criteria, and weave student hopes into the syllabus.

Students will be more motivated and engaged when assured that an instructor cares for their development. Instructors can design assignments to allow for rewrites/resubmissions in assignments to promote learning development. These rewrites might utilize low-stakes assessments, or even automated online testing that is anonymous, and (if appropriate) allows for unlimited resubmissions.

Related to the above; instructors can improve student motivation and engagement by making visible any opportunities to close gaps between current and desired performance. Examples include opportunities for resubmission, specific action points for writing or task-based assignments, and sharing study or process strategies that an instructor would use to succeed.

Instructors can feel free to collect useful information from students to provide targeted feedback and instruction. Students can identify where they are having difficulties, either on an assignment or test or in written submissions. This approach also promotes metacognition, as students reflect upon their learning. 

Instructors may find various other formative assessment techniques through CELT’s Classroom Assessment Techniques.

Summative Assessment Recommendations

Because summative assessments are usually higher-stakes than formative assessments, it is especially important to ensure that the assessment aligns with the instruction’s goals and expected outcomes. 

Instructors can use a rubric to provide expected performance criteria for a range of grades. Rubrics will describe what an ideal assignment looks like, and “summarize” expected performance at the beginning of the term, providing students with a trajectory and sense of completion. 

If designing essay questions, instructors can ensure that questions meet criteria while allowing students the freedom to express their knowledge creatively and in ways that honor how they digested, constructed, or mastered meaning.

Effective summative assessments allow students to consider the totality of a course’s content, make deep connections, demonstrate synthesized skills, and explore more profound concepts that drive or find a course’s ideas and content. 

When approaching a final assessment, instructors can ensure that parameters are well defined (length of assessment, depth of response, time and date, grading standards). Also, knowledge assessed relates clearly to the content covered in course; and provides students with disabilities required space and support.

Instructors may wish to know whose work they grade, to provide feedback that speaks to a student’s term-long trajectory. If instructors want to give a genuinely unbiased summative assessment, they can also consider a variety of anonymous grading techniques (see hide student names in SpeedGrader Canvas guide).


Explore Assessment Strategies and Tools

CELT’s online resources are organized to help an instructor sequentially work through the teaching process.

A listing with applications that have been proven to meet the ISU’s security, accessibility, and purchasing standards.

Explore the following approaches and methods which emphasize prevention and education.

  • Nicol, D.J. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education 31(2): 2-19.
  • Theall, M. and Franklin J.L. (2010). Assessing Teaching Practices and Effectiveness for Formative Purposes. In: A Guide to Faculty Development. KJ Gillespie and DL Robertson (Eds). Jossey Bass: San Francisco, CA.
  • Trumbull, E., & Lash, A. (2013). Understanding formative assessment: Insights from learning theory and measurement theory. San Francisco: WestEd.

Formative and Summative Assessment, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Formative and Summative Assessment, is a derivative of Formative and Summative Assessment developed by the Yale University Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning(retrieved on June 23, 2020) from