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Formative vs summative assessment

Here Rob East of the University of Glamorgan sets out the differences and indeed the similarities between formative and summative assessment. Rob has also contributed advice on the principles of effective assessment and ideas for the innovative use of group, self and peer assessment to the site.

The difference between formative and summative assessment is often an area of concern for law teachers. The essence of formative assessment is that undertaking the assessment constitutes a learning experience in its own right. Writing an essay or undertaking a class presentation, for example, can be valuable formative activities as a means of enhancing substantive knowledge as well as for developing research, communication, intellectual and organisational skills. Formative assessment is not often included in the formal grading of work, and indeed many believe that it should not be.

In contrast, summative assessment is not traditionally regarded as having any intrinsic learning value. It is usually undertaken at the end of a period of learning in order to generate a grade that reflects the student’s performance. The traditional unseen end of module examination is often presented as a typical form of summative assessment.

Two important points flow from this differentiation. Firstly, there is no reason why only summative assessment should be included in any formal grading of student performance. It is perfectly appropriate to have elements of formative assessment as part, or even all, of the final grade. The second point is that the distinction between formative and summative assessment may be a false one. Whilst some elements of assessment may generate a greater formative learning experience than others, it can be argued that all forms of assessment have some formative element. Students undertaking a degree course where assessment consists only of end of module unseen examinations will over the period of the course improve their examination technique. This is a formative learning experience.

Perhaps instead of becoming overly concerned with whether an assessment is formative or summative in nature it may be better to see various types of assessment as a continuum of the formative learning experience.

Last Modified: 4 June 2010