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Formative and Summative Assessment

"When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative."  (Robert Stakes)

Richard Mezeske, chair of education at Hope College, and Barbara A. Mezeske, an associate professor of English at Hope, stated:

"It is not that tests have failings, but that tests are limited. Conventional paper and pencil tests should not be the sole means for assessing student learning because tests are by their very nature single snapshots in time of student learning, often limited to "what do they remember" under pressure. Tests, alongside other assessment tools, can inform teaching by providing multiple lenses for considering what it is that students know and can do. If, at a given point in the semester the teacher discovers (through timely assessment) that students are not getting it, and either do not know the material, or cannot do anything with what they know (i.e., they can't apply their knowledge), then instruction can be shifted on the spot to rectify the situation. Multiple assessment tools are always preferable to the single test."

In the early days of online teaching, assessment generally consisted of tests and quizzes.  These summative forms of assessment were problematic in that concerns quickly arose regarding the heightened potential for cheating, and snapshots at the end of a module rarely gave insight into the learning that was (or was not) happening in the course of study.  Faculty members looked for better ways to assess student progress in online courses.

Janet Fulk, a professor with Bakersfield College, noted that good assessment requires faculty with expertise and resources:

  • to measure and report learning
  • in a variety of courses
  • under diverse conditions
  • about students with varied abilities
  • and disparate levels of academic engagement. 

Angelo and Cross in Classroom Assessment Techniques (1993) noted that formative assessment focused on improving the quality of learning as opposed to gathering evidence for evaluating and grading students.  They suggested that faculty need to:

  • Make goals and objectives explicit
  • Gather feedback from students on the extent to which these goals and objectives were being met
  • Provide feedback early and often to students, and
  • Help students learn to self-assess their progress

Black and Williams (1998) referred to formative assessment as assessment for learning, as opposed to assessment of learning.  They stated that the key elements of formative assessment include:

  • The identification by faculty and learners of learning goals, intentions or outcomes and criteria for achieving these.
  • Rich conversations between faculty and students that continually build and go deeper.
  • The provision of effective, timely feedback to enable students to advance their learning.
  • The active involvement of students in their own learning.
  • Faculty responding to identified learning needs and strengths by modifying their teaching approach(es).

Formative assessment is integral to a good online learning experience.  Weekly lessons can have their learning goals and outcomes explicitly stated.  The discussions boards, chat rooms and blogs allow for rich and reflective conversations (synchronously or asynchronously).  Online quizzes can give instant feedback.  Groups can be set up for peer-review and feedback.  Through monitoring, faculty members can adjust their approach as necessary.  Because you are not seeing students weekly, having some form of continual assessment is very important.

Of course, there are learning benefits from formative assessment.  In a recent study (Pavan Mallikarjun -School of Community Health Sciences, UK, 2009):

The students who had taken the online formative assessment had a mean score of 39.6 (61.8%, sd 5.02), and students who had not accessed the formative assessment had a mean score of 28.0 (43.75%, sd 4.96) on the summative assessment. This study found that students who had accessed the online formative assessment had scored 18 percent higher on the summative assessment compared to students who had not.

Several researchers (Amal Oraifige (2009),  Zakrzewski and Bull (1999), Buchanan (2000)) have noted that online formative assessment have many advantages over traditional classroom assessment. Students can take the assessment at any time, they can take it repeatedly and it can provide instant feedback that helps remedy weaknesses in their learning abilities. Student anxiety could be reduced if they take the formative assessment before summative tests. A web-based formative assessment strategy can improve student learning interest and student scores. Formative assessment allowed students to assess their own progress and understanding. Formative assessment designs should be able to engage student attention, engender student commitment to self-evaluation and enhance learning effectiveness.

An excellent review of literature on formative assessment is Valerie Shute's (2007) Focus on Formative Feedback.

We have focused on formative assessment because we believe that formative assessment is even more critical in online classes.  Student progress needs a systematic series of checks and balances to ensure successful completion.
This is not to suggest that summative assessment be ignored.  Grades are still required at the end of the course, and a variety of methods exist to summatively assess learning. 

In the pages that follow, we will examine both formative and summative assessment techniques that can be applied to online teaching and learning.
For more background information on assessment, check out:

In the pages that follow, we will examine both formative and summative assessment techniques that can be applied to online teaching and learning.
We begin with Formative Assessment:

Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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