NOW READING: Formative vs. Summative Assessment: Which is Better?

Formative vs. Summative Assessment: Which is Better?

In the debate of formative vs. summative assessment, educators have been divided for many years. So the ultimate question is, which is better? The following text is from the book Mindful Assessment: The 6 Essential Fluencies of Innovative Learning by Lee Watanabe-Crockett and Andrew Churches. It discusses the differences between formative and summative assessments, what each accomplishes, and how they specifically relate to student outcomes. 


 

Often we refer to teaching and learning as though they consist of simply applying teaching to learners, with learning happening as a direct result. Our thinking about what it means to teach must be framed as a response to learning, with assessment as the method through which the learner understands how to improve. We should not see learning as the outcome of teaching but rather allow teaching to become a mindful response to learning.

Teachers do not create learning; only learners create learning. Teachers should respond to student performance to guide the learning process. This happens through mindful assessment, being conscious and in the moment, seeing the situation clearly, and using assessment to confirm or create this clarity. In short, what we are advocating for is a formative approach to feedback rather than the summative approach that is so pervasive in the standardized testing culture in our schools.

Assessment Best Practices

A number or percentage means little and accomplishes even less. This type of summative feedback in the classroom only serves to give the student a sense of finality, as if to say, “This number is the best measure of your capabilities—this is all you’ve got in you.” A percentage does not define the specific areas in which the student needs to improve, and it fails to acknowledge what the student has done well, providing little constructive feedback or meaning.

Most assessment that occurs in schools, though, is summative. This is how success (or failure) in the school system is judged—the school judges whether the student is ready for the next grade, universities judge whether the student is eligible for admission, and governments and citizens judge the school and even the teacher.  These summative exams are, in fact, many schools’ primary assessment. If it has marks or grades that cannot be altered through further learning, it is summative—regardless of when it appears in the term. 

Summative assessment is what parents are familiar with, it is what politicians know, and it is what employers understand. It is a summation of how “effective” and “successful” students are during a specific period in time. It is for this reason that there has been intense focus on standardized summative assessment in many countries.

A number or percentage means little and accomplishes even less.

There is nothing wrong with this type of assessment as long as we take it in the context of a snapshot—a brief moment frozen in time. It is, however, a poor reflection of a student’s total learning experience. How can you condense a student’s learning career into one three-hour examination? How can we reduce the human experience to a number? Is it really possible for this approach to clearly and accurately determine how well a student truly learns, absorbs, and uses knowledge? 

And yet, this is a traditional, standard approach to assessment that schools employ globally. Policymakers consider it in many cases the proof and rationale they need to take severe actions on major issues including performance-based pay, job retention, and school funding. Summative assessment provides no opportunity or responsibility for the learner’s improvement. It is a judgment, and it is final.

Changing Methods for a Changing World

Students are living in a world where the only constant is change. It is a world of adaptation, continuous adjustments, and incremental improvements. It follows that the ways in which we teach and assess them should mirror this reality.

When teachers are mindful of a student’s state, they can identify what learning needs to shift throughout the process in order to improve rather than assigning a summative value to the student’s learning after it has completed. Just as with the old software-development method, such summative assessment runs the risk of realizing that key factors are missing after it is too late to address them.

How can we reduce the human experience to a number?

For the modern learner, or for any learner, summative assessment is not ideal. Formative assessment fits much better with student needs, and also with the teaching and learning outcomes schools have in place. Happily, there is a wonderful transformation happening inside education to make the shift to the same mindful assessment that is already present in all other natural learning experiences in our lives.

assessment best practices NSW

While in many education systems, formative assessment has not yet caught on to reflect evolving curricula and standards, it is mandated in others. For instance, New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education and Training (2008b) in Australia states in its publication Principles of Assessment and Reporting in NSW Public Schools:

  • Assessment should be integrated into the teaching and learning cycle.
  • Assessment needs to be an ongoing, integral part of the teaching and learning cycle. It must allow teachers and students themselves to monitor learning
  • From the teacher perspective, it provides the evidence to guide the next steps in teaching and learning.
  • From the student perspective, it provides the opportunity to reflect on and review progress, and can provide the motivation and direction or further learning.


Formative assessment can be formal or informal, spontaneous or scheduled. It can be as simple as an impromptu question and answer between student and teacher as the teacher moves around the classroom, or it can be a more structured and formalized event. For example, students could offer examples of their work for critique to both teachers and peers to provide evaluation and feedback, which they could maintain within a portfolio. Similarly, teachers can implement it as an assessment against a criterion, with the teacher providing indications of how to improve against this descriptor. 

No matter how teachers implement formative assessment, it provides the learner with an opportunity to engage with feedback and make corrections as learning progresses. While teachers often facilitate formative assessment opportunities, feedback is not exclusively their domain. The learners themselves and their peers often provide the most frequent formative feedback.

More on Feedback

Feedback is a crucial component of mindful assessment and is the heart of formative assessment. For an assessment to be formative, students must be receptive to the feedback and use it to adjust their learning. In order to ensure this receptiveness, there must be a relationship between the recipient and the assessor based on trust, mutual goals and objectives, and shared purpose.

feedback best practices

Feedback, whether from the teacher or instructor or from peers, must be all the following:

  • Timely: Students cannot learn, change, and develop if the unit has ended when they receive their feedback. We must provide feedback often and in detail during the process.
  • Appropriate and reflective: Different learners mature at different rates, so feedback should be an individualized process based on each student’s social and intellectual maturity.
  • Honest and supportive: We must provide feedback that is both honest and supportive. The feedback must provide encouragement to continue and guidance on how to achieve the desired goals.
  • Focused on learning and linked to the task’s purpose: The feedback needs to be descriptive. It should also link to the big picture as well as the specific aspects being assessed. 
  • Enabling: Students must be able to learn from the formative assessments and apply the feedback and corrections.


Mindfulness should be at the root of assessment that addresses each stage of learning, from higher-order skills to lower-order skills. This means the inclusion of diagnostic assessments that provide teachers with information about students’ prior knowledge and starting points and formative assessments that simultaneously reflect what students are learning and provide opportunities to extend that learning are essential for teaching and assessing the skills students need for success in the 21st century.

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