Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Formative and Summative Assessments

Assessment allows both the instructor and students to monitor progress towards achieving learning objectives. Formative assessment refers to a variety of assessment tools all pursuing the same education-driven goal: to “help form, or shape a student’s learning” (Trumbull and Lash, 2013, p. 2). Formative assessment seeks ultimately to improve classroom results–“the teacher’s skills and ability, and the student’s achievement of instructional objectives”–by improving the tools–“instructional strategies, teaching techniques, and measurement of learning” (Theal and Franklin, 2010, p. 151). If assessment in general finds what learning gaps exist, formative assessment focuses on how to close those gaps.   Formative assessment can help bolster students’ ability to take ownership of their learning but this occurs only when students fully understand that the goal of the assessment is to improve learning (Trumbull and Lash, 2013). Formative assessment may also include students assessing 1) instructors, 2) peers, and 3) themselves. In contrast to formative assessments, summative assessments are used to evaluate student learning, knowledge, proficiency, or success at the conclusion of an instructional period.  Typically summative assessments are given at the end of a unit, course, or program.  Summative assessments are almost always formally graded and often heavily weighted (though they do not need to be). Formative and summative assessment can and should be used in conjunction with each other. 

Examples of Formative and Summative Assessments

Examples of Formative and Summative Assessments
Formative Summative
In-class discussions Instructor-created exams
Clicker questions Standardized tests
Low-stakes group work Final projects
Weekly quizzes Final essays
1-minute reflection writing assignments Final presentations
Homework assignments Final reports

Formative assessment can vary across several dimensions as described by Trumbull and Lash, (2013, page 4). It can be: 

  1. Informal vs. formal
  2. Immediate feedback vs. delayed feedback
  3. Curriculum embedded vs. stand-alone
  4. Spontaneous vs. planned
  5. Individual vs. group
  6. Verbal vs. nonverbal
  7. Oral vs. written
  8. Graded/scored vs. ungraded/unscored
  9. Open-ended response vs. closed/constrained response
  10. Teacher initiated/controlled vs. student initiated/controlled
  11. Teacher and student(s) vs. peers
  12. Process-oriented vs. task/product-oriented
  13. Brief vs. extended
  14. Scaffolded (teacher supported) vs. independently performed 

(Trumbull and Lash, 2013, p.4)

Recommended Strategies

Formative Assessment   Ideally formative assessment strategies should improve teaching and learning simultaneously. One way instructors can help students grow as learners is by actively encouraging students to self-assess their own skills and knowledge retention, and by giving clear instructions and feedback. The following are summaries of Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick’s (2007) Seven Principles, with some additions and adaptations. 

  1. Keep clear criteria for what defines good performance
    • Explain criteria for a grade-A paper, grade-B+ paper, etc.
    • Encourage student discussion and reflection about criteria in class 
    • Have students assess each other’s drafts or practice assignments using the criteria
  2. Encourage students’ self-reflection
    • Ask student what kind of feedback they would like when they submit an assignment
    • Have students evaluate their own work in relation to criteria 
    • Ask students to select their best work so far and explain why they succeeded 
  3. Give students detailed, actionable feedback
    • Provide specific feedback, especially in relation to predefined criteria, before final submission
    • Offer corrective advice, not just evaluations 
    • Use online quizzes which give instant feedback and can be taken unlimited times
  4. Encourage teacher and peer dialogue around learning
    • Ask students to find one or two examples of feedback comments that they found useful and to explain how they helped
    • Use midterm evaluations and small group feedback sessions to get student feedback on classroom dynamics
    • Have students discuss learning goals and assignment criteria in groups and share any questions/concerns with the class
  5. Promote positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem
    • Allow for rewrites/resubmissions to convince students of the learning-value associated with doing assignments well, and to instill the belief that they can and will improve if they keep at their work
    • Use low-stakes assessment with feedback focused on progress and achievement (rather than success or failure and grade-comparison against peers)
    • Utilize automated online testing that is anonymous and has unlimited resubmissions
  6. Provide opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance
    • Increase opportunities for resubmission
    • Model strategies that the instructor, would use (if you were a student) to succeed in the class
    • Give specific action points along with normal feedback 
  7. Collect information which can be used to help shape teaching
    • Have students identify where they are having difficulties when they hand in assessed work
    • Ask students in groups to identify “a question worth asking” based on prior study, that they would like to explore for a short time at the beginning of the next class
    • Have a CTL staff member do a classroom observation and conduct a small group feedback session

Summative Assessment   Since summative assessments are usually higher-stakes than formative assessments, it is especially important to ensure that the assessment aligns with the goals and expected outcomes of the instruction.  The use of a table of specifications or rubric will assist in the design of an effective assessment.  Follow these links for suggestions on increasing the reliability and validity of the scores.


Nicol, D.J. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education 31(2):. Studies In Higher Education Vol. 31 , Iss. 2,2006   Theall, M. and Franklin J.L. (2010). Assessing Teaching Practices and Effectiveness for Formative Purposes. In: A Guide to Faculty Development. KJ Gillespie and DL Robertson (Eds). Jossey Bass: San Francisco, CA.   Trumbull, E., & Lash, A. (2013). Understanding formative assessment: Insights from learning theory and measurement theory. San Francisco: WestEd.