A Detailed Comparison Between Formative and Summative Assessment

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Comparison Between Formative and Summative Assessment

In a comparison between formative vs. summative assessment, the main difference is the reason why the assessment is being carried out. EduZenith gives some examples, advantages and disadvantages, of both, formative and summative assessments.


Did You Know?

Test anxiety is so common in US schools that the booklet of the ‘Stanford 9’ tests (for schoolchildren assessment) carries instructions on what a teacher should do if a nervous student vomits on it.

Educational assessment helps instructors gather data about how well educational programs work. This data can be used to improve both, the teaching and learning process. Normally, when one hears of the term ‘assessment’, the first thing that comes to mind is a test. But, few know that this can be as simple as an instructor asking a well-crafted question. The most common assessment techniques are formative and summative assessments. While one of these types is so subtle that students barely realize that they are being assessed, another involves formal exams. In the upcoming sections, we will understand the difference between formative vs. summative assessment in some more detail.


Teacher helping student in assignment

Formative assessment is used to monitor the effectiveness of a teaching module during its ‘formative’ stages, i.e., while it is being delivered in class. Thus, it can be called an ‘assessment for learning’.

Summative assessment is used to judge how well a student has learned, i.e., to provide a ‘summary’ of the student’s performance. It is an ‘assessment of learning’.

Improvement in Teaching

Schoolgirl with teacher

The data obtained by formative assessment can be used to modify the instruction, to make it more effective.

Summative assessment occurs too late in the curriculum to help rectify the instruction, though such changes can be made in future courses.


Schoolgirl using tablet

Formative assessment is improvement-oriented, i.e., it helps students assess their own learning, and helps instructors identify students facing problems, and modify the instruction accordingly.

Summative assessment is outcome-oriented, i.e., it compares a student’s results with a standard or benchmark, and no changes are made in the same course as a result of this assessment.


Formative assessment occurs throughout the course, on a day-to-day basis, as a part of the instruction itself.

Summative assessment occurs at the end of the course, unit, semester, or year. They are held separately from the instruction.


A+ grade mark

Formative assessment is a low-stakes assessment, as its outcome does not play a role in judging the final performance of a student, i.e., students are not graded.

Summative assessment is a high-stakes assessment, which means that the students receive the results of their performance in the form of marking or grades. Their progress or inclusion in the next class or program is determined, and the effectiveness of the teaching program is judged.

Student Motivation

Teacher congratulating his student

Formative assessment promotes the learning aspects of a subject, rather than performance, i.e., it provides students with intrinsic motivation for improvement.

Summative assessment provides students with extrinsic motivation for improvement, i.e., improvement with an aim of achieving a good performance in a test.


School teacher feedback

Formative assessment is based on qualitative feedback, as students are individually informed of areas where they should improve, and tutors receive feedback on what steps they need to take next. Research has identified this descriptive feedback as being very important in student improvement.

Summative assessment is based on quantitative, rather than qualitative feedback, as students are assigned grades or numeric marking, and individual students do not realize where they need improvement.

Student Involvement

Student making science models for chemistry

In formative assessment, students actively take a part in assessing their own and their peers’ performance, so as to understand their own strengths and weaknesses, which help them improve.

In summative assessment, students are passively involved, as they only receive information about their performance when they can’t do anything about it.


Formative assessment can be of various types.

  • Informal observations
  • Discussions
  • Quizzes
  • Homework

Summative assessment can be of the following types.

  • Senior recitals
  • Statewide tests
  • End-of-term tests
  • Performances


The pros and cons of formative assessment are:

✔ Continuous process
✔ Helps decide effectiveness of teaching and learning
✔ Helps modify instruction accordingly
✔ Identifies struggling students
✔ Students can assess their own performance
✗ Loses effectiveness when students are not involved
✗ May not be taken seriously
✗ Individual students have complex needs

The pros and cons of summative assessment are:

✔ Grades provide motivation for hard work
✔ Evaluates teaching techniques
✔ Helps in deciding progress of students
✗ Held few times
✗ Test anxiety
✗ No role in improving instruction
✗ Makes teaching exam-oriented

Formative and summative assessments are the most basic of all types of assessments. From the above comparison, it is clear why the former is more preferable. However, most educational experts agree that a balanced combination of both these types is the key to academic success, rather than strictly adhering to a single technique alone.

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