Summative vs Formative Assessments | What’s The Difference At University?

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When you come to study at university, you will encounter all different kinds of work: essays, group projects, presentations, mock exams, and final exams. All of these things test different skills, and help you improve and develop in different ways. You may have heard them being categorised as either “summative” or “formative” assessments – but what do these categories mean, and what’s the difference between them?

Summative assessments at university are exams in controlled conditions that are an evaluation of your learning – exams you sit in your first, second, or final year are all classed as summative assessments. Formative assessments at university, on the other hand, are unweighted (and sometimes ungraded) assessments that are designed as supplements for your learning – this can include (but is not limited to) essays, presentations, and research projects. Formative assessments are feedback focused, whereas summative assessments are grade focused.

This article is here to tell you all you need to know about summative and formative assessments at university, including their pros and cons and other important details.

What is a summative assessment?

Summative assessments are assessments that are typically carried out at the end of a unit or course and graded against a mark scheme.

Common types of summative assessments include midterm exams, an end-of-unit project, or a final exam paper.

As stated on the University of Greenwich website, linked here, “The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark”.

This essentially means that summative assessments are designed to gauge how much knowledge a student has in a particular area of their course through a standardised test.

You will definitely have encountered summative assessments before university: think about end of term and end of year exams, your GCSEs, and A-Levels (if you sat them).

A good way to tell if something is a summative assessment is if the assessment is taking place under controlled conditions, e.g., a timed exam, or an exam on a unit of your work that you have been studying for the duration of the term.

Summative assessments are all about testing a student’s knowledge or grasp of a particular subject area.

Pros and cons: summative assessments

There are several ‘pros’ to summative assessments.

Firstly, a summative assessment is a good chance to demonstrate all the knowledge you’ve acquired up until that point and prove that you have a good handle on your subject.

Secondly, summative assessments are a good way of revealing which specific areas of subject knowledge you are stronger, and alternatively, weaker in. This means you can address these gaps in your knowledge.

Thirdly, summative assessments allow both students and teachers to reflect on the overall growth and performance of a student over time. This is a good way to keep students motivated and predict how a student may develop in future.

These are only a few examples – you can read more about the pros of summative assessments on this page of the Indeed website.

However, there may also be some cons to summative assessments.

For example, summative assessments are usually always in controlled conditions, such as being a timed exam, on a particular day, etc. Therefore, summative assessments only really reflect a student’s ability to retain knowledge on that particular day.

What is a formative assessment?

Formative assessments are assessments that are designed to monitor learning and provide continuous feedback while a student completes a unit or course.

Common types of formative assessments include essay feedback.

As stated on the University of Liverpool website, linked here, “Formative assessment refers to a range of both formal and informal assessment procedures conducted during the learning process.”

“They enable and support modification to both teaching and learning activities and to improve student attainment”.

This essentially means that while formative assessments don’t necessarily “count” for anything, it helps students to identify strengths and weaknesses during a period of learning rather than an summative assessment at the end of it.

Formative assessments can encompass assessments carried out by your tutor, by your peers, or self-assessment. In some cases, formative assessments may not be graded.

You will also definitely have encountered formative assessments before university: think about times you completed a piece of work that did not count toward your final grade.

Formative assessments are all about supporting a student’s knowledge or grasp of a particular subject area as they progress along their course.

Pros and cons: formative assessments

There are several ‘pros’ to formative assessments.

Firstly, formative assessments provides students with feedback to help them improve and develop their understanding before a summative assessment at the end of a unit or course.

This means students are able to learn and grow from their mistakes unlike in summative assessments, where they may not understand where they went wrong.

Secondly, formative assessments mean students are able to learn and experiment with ideas in a ‘risk-free’ environment, i.e., they won’t be punished for making mistakes, like losing marks on a summative assessment.

Thirdly, formative assessments have been shown to help students with academic motivation, their attitudes towards learning, anxiety when it came to summative assessments, and self-regulation.

To read about how formative assessments help students in these areas, check out this study by the National Institute of Health.

However, there may also be some cons to formative assessments.

For example, formative assessments are typically ‘low stakes’ i.e., they do not count towards an overall grade. For this reason, students may not engage properly with the work or try as hard as they would if it were a summative assessment.

What are summative and formative assessments at university level?

Now that I’ve explained what summative and formative assessments are, and their pros and cons, let’s look at how these are applied at university level.

Formative assessments are more common at university than summative assessments.

You will most likely have to complete several formative assessments in one term: the types of formative assessments you will have to complete at university range from essays, to presentations, to mock exams.

Any piece of work that you receive feedback on, but that does not count towards your overall/final grade, can be classed as a formative assessment.

Summative assessments are less common than formative assessments at university, but you will definitely still sit summative assessments.

Summative assessments at university mostly encompass your final exams. These are the exams that will determine which degree classification you receive – they are sat in controlled conditions, and are graded.

If you have exams at the end of your first or second year of university, these will most likely also be summative assessments. These exams are graded and count towards your continuation on the course.

Is summative or formative assessment more important?

The question of which type of assessments is more important than the other is complicated. Both formative and summative assessments are important in their own ways.

Formative assessments are important because it gives students time to develop their skills and improve their understanding for their course.

Without formative assessments, you might not know how to progress from your current level or what areas you might need improvement in before your exams.

Summative assessments are important because they count toward an official evaluation of a student’s understanding, whether for one unit of a course or the course overall.

Summative assessments determine important grades such as GCSEs, A-Levels, and degree classifications.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that summative assessments are more important than formative assessments, or vice versa.

It is best to achieve a good balance of both, so that students receive feedback throughout their course as well as a final assessment of their overall achievements.

As stated on the Northern Illinois University website linked here, “Instead of trying to differentiate between formative and summative assessments it may be more beneficial to begin planning assessment strategies to match instructional goals and objectives”.

Why do students do summative and formative assessments?

Students will sit both summative and formative assessments throughout their time at university.

The main reason for this is so that students are not only supported during their course but have final ‘evidence’ of their mastery of a topic after they complete their course.

Students sit summative assessments to not only measure their growth up to that point but to project their future growth as they work towards their final summative assessments.

Summative assessments are helpful for students, because they provide students with benchmarks to work towards, as well as an evaluation of their performance to keep them motivated.

If you’ve ever sat an exam, received a good grade, and felt it boosted your confidence for other upcoming exams, then you can see why summative assessments are helpful for students!

Students sit formative assessments to not only assess which areas of their subject knowledge they have already polished, but to help them develop their talents further.

If you’ve ever received essay feedback suggesting an idea you hadn’t thought of, or improvements on your work you didn’t consider, this is why students complete formative assessments!

Why do universities use summative and formative assessments?

Summative and formative assessments are as useful for universities as they are for students!

As stated in this guide provided by the University of Reading, “By building meaningful and timely formative [assessments] into your teaching, students can remain engaged, and the burden of summative preparation can be lightened.”

This means that universities can use formative assessments to support their students to achieve better in their summative assessments.

Formative assessment is also used by universities to help tutors adapt their teaching styles. For example, if students perform better in presentations than essays, tutors might explore how they can adapt aspects of presentation projects to essays.

Summative assessment is used by universities so that tutors are able to use the data from summative assessments to tailor their teaching to the specific needs of students, and support them further.

As stated on the website of the University of Illinois Chicago, linked here, summative assessments “provide the instructor with data to make pedagogical decisions on future teaching and instruction.”

Summative assessment is also used by universities to collect data on how their students perform, which can affect the reputation of the university.

Do all universities use both summative and formative assessments?

All universities will definitely use both summative and formative assessments.

Regardless of your university or degree, you will definitely complete formative assessments during your time at university.

However, whether or not you will complete summative assessments may vary by your degree.

For example, in the English course offered by Queen Mary University of London, students are assessed through a combination of coursework, including essays, projects, and presentations – i.e., formative assessments.

You can read more about studying English at Queen Mary University of London here.

If a university does not include summative assessments as part of their course, then formative assessments like essays, presentations and portfolios will be used to produce a final grade.

In a sense, formative assessments almost become summative assessments if there is no official summative assessment at the end of your degree.

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