Today, we will look at 2 of the most common methods of course evaluation—summative assessment and formative assessment. While the primary goal of both methods of evaluation is to assess students undergoing a particular course, they have different objectives and use data differently. 

Sometimes, the lines between summative and formative evaluation can be blurry. But how do these 2 methods of assessment compare against each other and more importantly, when should you opt for one option over the other? In this article, we will discuss 15 key differences and similarities between formative and summative assessment. 

What is Formative Assessment?

Formative assessment is an on-going method of evaluation that helps teachers to monitor learners’ progress and identify any challenges that students are facing as they learn. It includes a series of quick-fire tests that provide on-time feedback on students’ performance. 

The objective of formative assessment is to find out how much students know as they move from one learning phase to another. There are no high stakes attached to formative evaluation and the students’ performances are not measured against a rubric or standardized benchmark. 


Quizzes, polls, and dipsticks are common examples of formative assessment. Discussion-based assessments like 5-minute unstructured interviews work well for this too. Interviews take you right into the minds of the students and provide relevant contexts for understanding how much they know. 

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What is Summative Assessment?

Summative assessment is a traditional method of evaluation where the teacher measures the student’s performance using a standardized benchmark. It is done at the end of the course or instructional unit and it focuses on the program’s outcomes. 

Unlike formative evaluation, summative assessment has a high point value which is why it is used to determine whether the student gets a promotion, passes a course, or moves to the next level in her learning. A teacher can solely rely on the results of an end-of-term examination to grade the students and promote them. 

Summative assessment methods are not spontaneous; they follow defined processes with controlled conditions that limit inconsistencies. One of the strong points of summative assessment is it produces similar results when it is done in a controlled context. Other examples of summative assessment include chapter tests, portfolios, and final essays. 


Differences Between Formative and Summative Assessment 


Summative assessment is a type of course evaluation that happens at the end of a program while formative assessment is a method of collecting real-time feedback from learners during the course. Summative assessment is all about measuring the student’s performance at the end of the class using some defined criteria. 

On the other hand, formative assessment methods focus on how much the students know. Formative evaluations use different approaches to monitor the students’ progress, gather feedback from them and identify any learning gaps that need to be filled. 


The characteristics of summative assessment include validity, reliability, variety, and practicality. Summative assessment is a standardized method of knowledge-based assessment that is easily-reported. This means it always ends up with a concise summary of the outcomes of the evaluation.  

Unlike summative assessment, the formative evaluation does not measure the student’s progress against a benchmark or rubric, and this means its findings are non-graded. Instead, formative assessments focus on gathering actionable feedback that can improve the learning experience for the students. 


End-of-term examinations, in-class chapter tests, hands-on performance tasks, and oral tests are common summative assessment types. On the other hand, impromptu quizzes, silent polls, and dipsticks are some of the most common methods of formative evaluation. 

Summative assessment methods help the instructor to measure the student’s performance against a standard or rubric. On the flip side, methods of formative evaluation are used to monitor the student’s knowledge as they move from one level to the other in the learning process. 


Examples of summative assessment include organizing an end-of-term recital or presentation for a course, and standardized admission examinations like SAT, IELTS, and A-levels. For formative assessment, the instructor can ask students to create visual sketches or write a summary of a lecture topic or theme. 

Advantages of Formative Assessment

Unlike summative assessment that waits till the end to assess students, formative assessment provides instant feedback on students’ progress by evaluating them as they learn. Another advantage of formative assessment is it allows for changes and modifications to the teaching method as learning progresses. 

Formative assessment supports personalized learning; teachers can use the feedback they get to create unique learning experiences for every student. It also boosts the students’ participation in the training program and makes them actively involved in monitoring their own progress. 

Advantages of Summative Assessment 

One major strong point of summative assessment is that it motivates the students to learn and pay attention in class. Unlike what you get with formative assessment, students know that their grades depend on how well they perform in summative evaluations and this boosts their commitment to the training.  

Summative assessments produce consistent results and this is why it works best for grading. Unlike formative assessment methods that are uniquely tailored to the needs of the students, summative evaluation methods are designed to produce similar results when applied in similar contexts. 

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One of the most important tools used for summative assessment is a rubric or scoring guide which is used to assess the quality of responses given by the students. During formative assessments, the instructor does not need to use a rubric because it is a non-graded evaluation method.


Quizzes, examination software, and online test platforms are other common tools used for summative assessment. Formative evaluation, on the other hand, uses surveys, polls, focus groups, and different types of interviews to monitor students’ experiences and knowledge as they learn. 


The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate the student’s understanding of the course and the course materials within a specific period. On the other hand, the primary purpose of formative assessment is to observe students as they learn and get real-time feedback on their knowledge and experiences. 

Formative assessments use different tools and methods to monitor knowledge and skill-acquisition at different points in the learning curve. Summative assessment, on the flip side, is all about grading the quality of a student’s knowledge based on his or her performance. 


The goal of formative evaluation is improving the teaching and learning process based on the feedback from students while the goal of summative evaluation is to grade a student’s performance with a performance marker like a rubric or other defined benchmarks. 

This means that while formative assessment evaluates learning and knowledge-progression, summative assessment collects evidence as proof of a student’s proficiency in the course. 


Summative assessment pays attention to the outcome as measured by a performance marker while formative assessment focuses on the on-going learning process. Due to its focus on the on-going learning experience, formative assessment encourages changes and modifications to the learning process based on the feedback from the program participants. 


Summative assessments produce quantitative data as results while formative assessment results in qualitative data. Quantitative data has statistical value because it is measured in the form of numbers while qualitative data is the type of data that describes information using groups and categories. 

Summative data produces quantitative results because it grades the students’ performance using a standard benchmark. Summative results are non-graded and are typically presented as descriptions with feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the students. The instructor uses this feedback to improve the teaching method. 

Frame of Reference

Formative assessments use a normative frame of reference during evaluation. A frame of reference is a complex set of assumptions that defines our perceptions and creates meaning. 

A normative frame of reference entails comparing a student’s performance to the performance of other students. For instance, after a reading exercise, a student can rank 12th in a group of 43 other learners. 

Summative assessment, on the other hand, has a criterion frame of reference. A criterion frame of reference means that the students are evaluated using standard criteria. Criterion-referenced interpretations allow us to compare a student’s performance to a well-defined content domain, to show their level of knowledge of a subject matter. 


Formative assessment gives feedback on the students’ progress as they learn and teachers act on this feedback to improve the course, learning materials, and the teaching method. After a formative assessment, the students continue to learn while the teacher makes any changes to improve their learning experience. 

On the other hand, feedback is not an important part of summative evaluation. Although students may receive feedback on their performance, this may not change their grades or trigger a re-evaluation of their performance. Summative assessment is the final evaluation of a student’s performance. 


Summative assessments have a rigid benchmark known as the benchmark of learning while formative assessment uses the benchmark of progress to evaluate students as they learn. The benchmark of progress monitors student progress and provides feedback that improves the teaching method. 

On the other hand, a benchmark of learning measures the students’ performance against institution standards that serve as the standard of evaluation. 


Summative assessment happens at the end of a course, training, or program while formative assessment happens as learning takes place. This means that while there may only be 1 summative assessment for an instructional unit, formative evaluation happens many times within the learning process. 

Read More: Formative Assessment: Meaning, Types & Examples

Similarities Between Summative and Formative Assessment? 

Course Evaluation Methods

Summative assessment and formative assessment are methods of course evaluation. Course evaluation happens when an instructor assesses students based on their performance or participation in training. It helps the teacher to evaluate the effectiveness of the course; whether during the course or at the end. 


Summative and formative assessments are used to gather students’ feedback. However, while feedback is an important part of formative assessment as teachers need to act on it, summative assessment feedback is routine and does not have any immediate influence on the results of the evaluation or how the students are graded. 



Summative and formative assessments can be done using surveys, questionnaires, and quizzes. However, these tools will be used distinctly, and the data will be interpreted differently, depending on the type of assessment. 

When to Use Formative Assessment

You should use formative assessment when you need to monitor students’ knowledge and progress on the learning curve. Formative assessment helps you to discover concepts that students are struggling to understand, skills that are difficult for them to acquire, or learning standards they have not yet achieved. 

When to Use Summative Assessment

You should use summative assessment when it is time to evaluate learning. It works best in cases where you need to evaluate how well the information has been absorbed and retained by the students. Summative assessments help you discover student mastery of the course content. 


Having a clear understanding of summative and formative assessments helps you to monitor the progress towards the learning objectives and to also improve the teaching and learning process. Summative and formative assessments work simultaneously to define the learning and teaching experience. 

A strong classroom assessment program combines formative and summative assessment methods to give a balanced evaluation of the students’ knowledge and skills. With careful thought and planning processes, the instructor will collect useful and important information that speaks to specific learning purposes. 


  • busayo.longe
  • on 9 min read


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