22 January 2017

Testing terminology: Formative and Summative assessment

I've talked before about specialist terminology a few times in the past.

My view (in short) is that terminology should be meaningful to be useful, but far too often teachers forget to explain why a word means what it means.

For example, the terms "formative assessment" and "summative assessment" are very common. I first encountered them when studying with the OU. There was a brief explanation of how they affected us as students and they moved on. When I later started studying teaching, I was given more formal explanations, and it struck me as interesting that there was actually less clarity about the meaning of the terms on the teacher training courses than in general student populations.

But I don't recall any of my teacher trainers ever pointing us towards the words themselves, because actually in this case I believe the simplest explanation for the concept comes from explaining the words. (If the explanations below aren't clear, please feel free to mention it in the comments.)

Formative Assessment

The term "formative" comes from the verb "to form" – i.e. to shape or to develop. Our "formative years" are the years of our youth that shape us, and make us who we are.
Formative assessment is any kind of test or assessment that is designed to give the student feedback or assistance in developing their skills.

Summative Assessment

The first syllable here – "sum" – says it all. It's about adding up and calculating scores.
Any assessed piece of work which is used as part (or all!) of a final course grade is a summative assessment.

A false dichotomy

As well as a lack of clarity in the description of both terms, people are often confused because formative and summative assessment are often presented as though they are mutually exclusive categories. However, if we look at the actual definitions, we find that while some assessments fall into one category or the other, many fall into both.

For example, when I took my first degree, the typical structure of assessment was made up of three elements:
  1. Weekly homework that would be marked in class. Our results would be a reference for ourselves as what to work on during our study out of class, and the tutors would specifically address as many of our problems as they could in the class. No marks would be recorded.
  2. Monthly assignments that would be marked and returned with relatively detailed feedback as to our strengths and weaknesses. Some of the same material might be covered in future assignments or in the final exam, so it was a good idea to read the feedback very carefully. Marks would be kept and would make up 50% of our final mark.
  3. An exam. No feedback would be given, just a numerical score. This was 50% of our final mark.
Looking at them, number 1 is clearly formative (feedback, no grade), and number 3 is clearly summative (grade, no feedback), but number 2 has elements of both. Indeed, number 2 is both formative and summative, and most continuous assessment fulfills both roles.

Conventional use of the terms

In my experience as a student in higher education, the terms are typically used in a much narrower sense.

First of all, the terms are only ever used with students to describe assignments done in our own time for submission. Exams are not described as "summative assessment", even though they technically are. The term "formative assessment" is typically used to describe a sort of "practice assignment" handed in early on in the course to ensure the students understand what's expected of them.

That's all well and good for labelling things in the student handbook, but the teacher needs to be working at a deeper level than that, and not thinking of an assessment as "a formative assessment" or "a summative assessment", but as an assessment that has formative and/or summative functions.

It might seem quite a subtle difference, but I personally think it's an important one.