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Assessing and Applying Formative and Summative Assessments

Assessing and Applying Formative and Summative Assessments

August 09, 2023

The goal of this blog is to demystify formative and summative assessments using both tangible and applicable means. I always love a good analogy, and assessment guru and expert Paul Black put it best with this one: "When the cook tastes the soup, that's formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that's summative assessment."  Let's use this analogy to cook up each type of assessment as well as how we can design AND utilize both methods with clarity and fidelity.

  • "Why do we need to do this test?" 
  • "What's the point of this assignment?"
  • "How is this graded?"

These were questions that, as a rookie teacher, caused my hackles to come up in defense because, well - I was the TEACHER and HAD to give them a test, right? The homework NEEDED to be done because it was assigned, right? 

With time, I came to understand that it should have been ME asking those same questions of my OWN assessments because many were simply given to put a grade in the gradebook. With this lightbulb moment, I changed my idea of assessments from a box to check within the unit to a teaching practice that truly represents what I wanted to measure with a clear purpose.  

Overall Benefit of Using Assessments in the Classroom 

Despite the "ick" factor commonly associated with the word assessment, there are significant benefits to using various assessment methods. That said, it is also vital that these assessments be clear to students with a valid purpose. 

"Assessment is considered an integral part of teaching and learning, and the focus is on student achievement, involvement, and authentic, meaningful assessment, leading to the development of various assessment forms" (Falchikov 2005). 

The two most common types of assessments are: 

  • Formative 
  • Summative

When used effectively and with a clear purpose, these assessments provide educators with valuable insight and information about student learning and, more importantly, a way to ensure the materials and methods used to teach meet students' needs. As educators, we must continue to assess our OWN teaching - this includes materials and teaching methods. There is no shame in continuing to improve our craft!  

And that often means going back to the basics while wading through the jargon-filled educational world for the most beneficial bits to improve our teaching. 

Today's goal is to demystify formative and summative assessments using both tangible and applicable means. I always love a good analogy, and assessment guru and expert Paul Black put it best with this one: "When the cook tastes the soup, that's formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that's summative assessment."  Let's use this analogy to cook up each type of assessment as well as how we can design AND utilize both methods with clarity and fidelity.

Ingredients for Assessment AS Learning/Assessment FOR Learning

As the head chef, you are constantly checking in on the soup to adjust the temperature, add ingredients that support the base, and create flavors that appeal to many customers. Formative assessments allow for these micro-adjustments to occur while learning is taking place and are used to identify students who need additional support as well as how teaching can be adjusted to meet the needs of learners.  

Formative assessments have been shown to "motivate students to study, make them aware of what they have learned and where they need to study more" ( These assessments are meant to be an informal method of diagnosis and not evaluative in a formal sense. The soup recipe will vary greatly from class to class, but every good chef embraces those changes.  

Formative assessments are often quick, simple and do not always require a grade. They provide a feedback loop between students and teachers that help to: identify struggling students who may need additional intervention or support, motivate students to take ownership in their learning progression and provide teachers with real-time feedback to make adjustments. This doesn't automatically happen, and there is work to be done upfront for this to become a part of the classroom environment.  

Some common examples include: entry/exit tickets, self-assessment checks, class polls, Kahoot!, Quizlet, discussions, check-for-understanding quizzes, and Think-Pair-Share. Check out THIS article for even more examples. 

Ingredients for Assessments OF Learning

On the flip side of the ladle are summative assessments which occur at the end of learning and as a result of learning. All adjustments have been made to the soup; it's time for the customer, aka student, to taste the soup. 

These assessments are often considered "high stakes" and ask to showcase their student understanding of the content through application. Results are compared to benchmarks, standards, or other large data points that assess large populations of students. The purpose of summative assessments is evaluative and not diagnostic, which does not provide for adjustments as the learning has already occurred.

Some common examples of Summative Assessments include: state assessments, mid-term exams, final exams, unit tests, portfolios, research projects, and essays.  

Recipe for Designing and Using Effective Assessments

There really are only two necessary ingredients for designing and using an effective assessment - a reason and a way to indicate success:

  • A clear purpose
  • Measurement 

A Clear Purpose

Any assessment worth its salt will have, first and foremost, a clear purpose. This helps to answer the question, "What is the point of this test/quiz/homework/etc…?"  

For summative assessments, the purpose is in answering this question: what should students at the end of the instructional unit, lesson, or course be able to KNOW, UNDERSTAND, and DO with the information gathered?  

  • The point of a summative assessment is NOT to be caught up in the design (I see you Mr. Has To Be 100 Points Worth of Multiple Choice and Two Short Answer), but instead in determining what students have learned as a result of the content taught.  
  • Summative assessments use specific criteria, including benchmarks and/or state standards. Does this assessment match the criteria?

For formative assessments, the purpose is feedback for both teachers and students as they progress through the lesson and/or unit.  

  • What are the points at which students and teachers need feedback?
  • What should students be able to do and/or know at this moment with the current information?
  • How can students inform themselves as learners at this particular point of the lesson and/or unit?  
  • What adjustments can be made using the information gathered from this assessment?  
  • A common pitfall with formative assessments is simply using them as another grade in the gradebook. For example, Exit Tickets are excellent tools, but not if they are merely a 5-point assignment in the gradebook. What did the student responses tell you about instruction for tomorrow? Does something need to be retaught or taught differently?

The Measurement

The second key ingredient for effective assessment design and use is in the measurement. This can be called objectives, performance measures, or success criteria - whatever language we use should be identifiable and informative for students and teachers.  

Teacher-designed summative assessments and clear grading criteria like rubrics are the peanut butter to the jelly of assessment success. 

Because these assessments are often "high stakes," defining success for students is essential. Rubrics and other grading criteria should be provided BEFORE the assessment and WITH student input. 

  • We have no control over the state standards and/or benchmarks that define success for state-mandated assessments. As someone who has proctored a few state exams, this information IS presented to students, albeit not quite in a timely manner before the exam.  

Although not always graded, formative assessments still require a measurement for success

  • What does success at this point of the lesson and/or unit look like for students? 
  • What measurement indicates a struggling student? 
  • A whole class issue? 
  • How can students assess their learning and create a means of feedback?

Summing it Up

Using these two types of assessments provides a solid starting point for gauging learning as it is occurring and as a result of what was taught. Creating a classroom environment that uses assessment with purpose helps students (and teachers) to work towards a more informed understanding of their learning and teaching. 

Mistakes might be made or have been made in the past. Don't worry, though; every 5-star chef had to make changes to their cooking, but it was worth it. Bon appetit!

Want to learn more about how Eduplanet21 can help you in this process? Reach out today to speak with an Eduplanet21 representative.




About the Author

Meagan Brockway has been an educator for 17 years at the same rural high school she graduated from in 2001 - Greencastle-Antrim High School. This year will mark her third year as a Curriculum, Instruction, and Literacy Coordinator for grades 6-12 and K-12 Gifted Coordinator. 

Before this shift, Meagan was a high school Social Studies teacher focusing on United States History and Economics. 

A self-proclaimed "history nerd," she also co-chairs the Greencastle-Antrim High School chapter of the Rho Kappa National Social Studies Honor Society called the Blue Devil Scholars.  

Meagan graduated from Shippensburg University with her undergraduate degree in History Education and has obtained a Master of Education in Archival Sciences and History Education, a Master of Reading, and a Master of Arts in World War II Studies.  

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