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Summative and formative assessment


Although many instructors think of assessing student learning as synonymous with the process of arriving at a grade for student work, assessment can be used for other purposes and in other ways as well:

  • to evaluate students’ work or their understanding of course concepts
  • to communicate to the student how well their work or understanding compares to stated criteria or to other students’ work
  • to motivate students to work to understand course material
  • to organize a course by providing a transition between major sections

The process of arriving at a grade for a student (either for a test or assignment, or for an entire course) is known as summative assessment. Summative assessments (e.g., exams or term papers) are formal, usually graded, and focused on letting students show a range of skills and knowledge. They require a considerable investment of time, both from students and from instructors, and are consequently often completed outside of class.

To design a good summative assessment, it is important to begin with the course goals. What skills and knowledge should students have gained in the course? (For more on this topic, refer to the CITL resource on Learning Outcomes.) Once this question has been answered, an instructor can create assignments that will allow students to demonstrate that they have reached the course goals. Good summative assessments are authentic, in the sense that they require students to think like practitioners of the discipline (Wiggins, 1998). To learn more about how to make an assignment authentic, see the CITL resource on Authentic Assessment.

In contrast, formative assessment is assessment of student learning that is designed to improve (rather than to evaluate) students’ skills or their understanding of specific course concepts. Formative assessments are typically done in class, can be anonymous, and are usually much more focused on particular skills or information. Formative assessments provide information to students as well as instructors about how well students understand specific course concepts, and are typically low-stakes, in the sense that they are often ungraded.  The table below contrasts the two kinds of assessment.

Formative assessment

Summative assessment


Usually not graded

Usually graded


Improvement: to give feedback to instructor and students about how well students understand specific material

Judgment: to derive a grade, and to allow students to work intensively with course material


Very focused on whether students have acquired specific skills or information

Less focused on specific skills or information; instead, allows students to demonstrate a range of skills and knowledge


Requires little time from instructors or students; simple; done in class

Requires more time from instructors and students; complex; done outside of class

A classic type of formative assessment is Classroom Assessment Techniques, or CATs. CATs are learner-centered, teacher-directed, mutually beneficial formative assessments that can be tailored to specific disciplines and teaching contexts.  

Another widely-used type of formative assessment is the Conceptest (Mazur, 2001). A Conceptest is a multiple-choice question that tests students’ conceptual understanding of material presented in class. For more information, see these videos: 

A well-designed course will have a balance of formative and summative assessments. An instructor might use CATs or other formative assessments while students are learning new material, to check on their understanding of the new concepts. The results of the formative assessments tell both the students and the instructor whether or not students are ready to move on to new material. After the instructor has determined that students have the knowledge and skills they will need, she can assign a summative assessment to allow them to show their new knowledge and skills.


Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Angelo, T.A. and Cross, K.P. (1993) Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This is the original classic (and encyclopedic) volume defining CATs. It describes 50 different CATS and includes examples of how each can be used in the classroom.

This website defines CATS and describes a variety of the most useful techniques.

This website describes the Field-tests Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG), a primer on CATs and examples of many CATs for courses in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math).

Crouch, C. H. and Mazur, E. (2001). Peer instruction: Ten years of experience and results. Am. J. Phys., 69, 970-977.

This article by Catherine Crouch and Erik Mazur summarizes data from 10 years of teaching using Mazur’s Peer Instruction methods (which includes Conceptests), demonstrating that students taught using Peer Instruction more effectively master course concepts.

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