Assessment Strategies: Formative and Summative

Classroom assessment can include a wide range of options from minute papers, where students write down the important “take home” messages of the lesson, to administering comprehensive final exams. A good way to think of assessment is to consider formative assessment and summative assessment. Shute defines formative feedback (assessment) as the information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his/her thinking or behavior for the purpose of improving learning.13 Formative feedback is intended to increase student knowledge, skills and understanding in some content area or general skill. Formative assessment is as important to the learning process as summative assessment (e.g., a test) – one could argue it is even more important since formative assessment allows students to scaffold learning as they work toward more advanced activities and to engage in more advanced thinking and problem solving than they could without such help.

Additionally, formative assessment provides the opportunity for students to improve on an assignment/project prior to receiving a final (summative) assessment. Research on formative assessment has consistently shown good feedback can significantly improve learning processes and outcomes. Cognitive mechanisms for which formative feedback may be used by a learner include: (1) it can signal a gap between a current level of performance and some desired level of performance or goal, (2) it can effectively reduce the cognitive load of a learner, especially novice or struggling students and (3) it can provide information that may be useful for correcting inappropriate task strategies, procedural errors, or misconceptions. An excellent review of the literature on formative assessment can be found in Shute’s article, Focus on Formative Feedback.

Summative assessment is assessment that looks at an end result rather than the process of getting to the result. Examples of summative assessment would be final examinations, or in a clinical setting in dental education, it would be competency testing.

McKeachie outlines nine assertions about assessing student learning that can provide guidance when considering assessment strategies when designing a course. They are as follows:

  • What students learn depends as much on your tests and methods of assessment as on your teaching, because what is measured is often what ends up being valued (take home message: be sure your measures reflect what you want the students to learn).
  • Don’t think of tests simply as a means for assigning grades – rather tests should facilitate learning for both the faculty member as well as the students.
  • Use some non-graded tests and assessments that provide feedback to students and you on where students are at on the continuum of learning.
  • Check your assessment methods against your course goals – there should be a direct correlation.
  • Some goals (values, motivation, attitudes, some skills) may not be measurable by conventional tests. Look for other evidence of their development. For example, if you are trying to capture ethical behavior, then a service-learning project with subsequent reflection would serve better than a multiple-choice test on ethical principles.
  • Assessment is NOT synonymous with testing. You can assess students’ learning with classroom and out-of-class activities (see example of ethics above).
  • After the course is over, students will not be able to depend on you to assess the quality of their learning; therefore, practice in self-assessment is critical. It has been shown developing accurate student self-assessment requires training and practice. Peer assessment helps develop assessment skills and improves performance.
  • Don’t rely on one or two tests to determine grades. Varied assessments will give you better evidence to determine an appropriate grade.
  • Finally, assessment is not simply an end-of-course exercise to determine student grades. Assessment can be learning experiences for students. Assessment throughout a course communicates your goals to students so they can learn more effectively; it will identify misunderstandings that will help you teach better; it will help you pace the development of the course; and it will help you do a better job of assigning grades.

Research has shown teacher-made tests typically measure lower-level learning, e.g., factual and recall.11 Even while faculty want to see students develop higher-order cognitive skills, the tests that are used rarely measure these competencies. One strategy for good test construction is to develop a Table of Specifications where you list Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy levels along the top of the page and content areas along the side of the page. By developing this table it will become clear whether your test items are truly measuring learning at the level you are trying to achieve with your test (Table 7).

Table 7. Table of Specifications: Example for a Pharmacology Exam.
Remembering Understanding Applying Analyzing Evaluating Creating TOTAL
Drug category (Q #7) 1
Interactions, adverse reactions, contraindications (Q #2) (Q #10) 2
Dental implications (Q #3) (Q #8) (Q #4) 3
OTC/pain medications (Q #9) 1
Med consult or prophylactic antibiotic (Q #1) 1
Potential emergency situations (Q #5) (Q #6) 2
TOTAL 2 2 1 2 2 1 10
Q: Question developed for test.

Other methods of assessment can include such things as authentic and performance assessment. One example of performance assessment is portfolio assessment where evidence and subsequent student reflection provide insight into student learning and achievement. The value of reflection to the learning process has been emphasized by learning theory. Team projects provide another venue for assessment strategies that go beyond quizzes and tests.