Teachers use assessments to determine whether students have met their learning objectives. Formative assessments and summative assessments are the two ways that teachers measure what their students are learning. The differences between the assessments are mainly when they take place, what type of assignment they are, and what the teacher is measuring.
Whether a teacher uses formative or summative assessments depends on the information they want to receive. A successful classroom depends on both types of assessments; one is not better than the other.
Here are some basic differences between formative and summative assessments.
Frequency of Use
End of unit/course
Purpose for Assessment
Quick check for understanding
Fully assess knowledge/skills
Specific skills or knowledge
A range of skills or knowledge
Part of Final Grade
Minor (if any)
Allows Teacher To
Reflect on entire unit/course
Allows Student to
Evaluate their own learning
Understand overall performance
Allows Creative Options?
Assessment FOR learning
Assessment OF learning
Formative assessments monitor how students are learning a new concept or skill. In an ideal classroom, formative assessments should happen in every lesson. They allow teachers to check for understanding in low-stakes, flexible ways and “form” their future instruction.
Some examples of formative assessments include:
- Pop quizzes
- Reading checks
- Learning games
- Discussion questions
- Music rehearsals
- Reflection paragraphs
- Exit tickets
- Hands-on activities
A teacher can learn whether their class understands a concept with a simple hand-raise or class discussion. These types of assessments measure progress toward proficiency, not content knowledge or skill acquisition. Formative assessments tell teachers whether they need to re-teach a concept or if they can move on in their curriculum.
Get past reading checks and exit tickets. Try these ideas the next time you need to check progress in an informal way.
- Let students write quizzes for their peers, complete with answer keys.
- Have students keep a journal from the perspective of a minor character in a book. Check entries periodically.
- Create signs with a red light on one side and a green light on the other side. Prompt students to hold up the green light when they understand a concept, and red light if they need more explanation.
- Hand out individual whiteboards and have students draw emojis that demonstrate how they feel about what they’re learning or how much they’re enjoying the lesson.
- Ask students to write down their favorite quote from last night’s reading assignment and to explain what it means.
- Have students write out a text or social media message that explains something they’ve learned that day.
- Play a fun vocabulary or spelling game instead of a quiz.
- Keep a KWL (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart on a classroom easel or bulletin board during your lesson. Pass out sticky notes to students and allow them to add questions or statements at any time.
Summative assessments are formal evaluations of what a student has learned in a unit or course. They “sum up” what the class can now do or now knows as a result of the teacher’s instruction. Here are some examples of summative assessments in the classroom.
- Graded tests
- Research reports
- Structured essays
- Portfolio projects
- Book reports
- Final exams
- Recitals or concerts
- Standardized tests
- Science projects
Unlike formative assessments, the main purpose of a summative assessment is for teachers to measure skill acquisition. Summative assessments typically do not inform a teacher’s instruction going forward, as the summative assessment occurs at the end of a unit or class. However, a teacher may modify their teaching methods in future lessons based on assessment results.
Final assessments don’t have to fill students with dread. See if they prefer these innovative ways that still assess important skills and knowledge.
- Have students create a mini-ecosystem in a terrarium and note observations of all important elements from a life science unit.
- Assign a budget for a character at the end of a novel unit based on any expenses incurred throughout the book.
- Have students create a multimedia poster (or one-pager) that incorporates ideas from the entire unit.
- Design a “day in history” lunch in which students dine in character based on historical and biographical research.
- Encourage students to depict a scientific process, complex plot, historical event, or mathematical concept in graphic novel format.
- Assign a song project in which students change the lyrics of their favorite songs to demonstrate their knowledge of a concept from the unit or course.
- Let students design a board game that depicts a process or event, complete with challenges and creative details.
Both summative and formative assessments are an important part of any curriculum, but there’s more to teaching than assessments. If you’d like to see more ways to enhance your classroom instruction, check out a slideshow that features some helpful tools for teachers.