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Lesson Plans 05: Formative and Summative Assessment

Assessment is a significant focus for educators. Yet, the vast majority of massage therapy educators have not had any formalized training in educational theory to adequately understand both the role of assessment and the different types of assessment activities built into a curriculum. Two words that you may hear often discussed around assessment are formative and summative assessment. A great starting point when learning about assessment is understanding the difference between these two.

Formative assessment:
Formative assessment includes tests, quizzes, or any classroom learning activity designed to help evaluate how well the student is learning the content of the class. The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning progress. It is helpful to think of formative assessments more as a learning tool for students rather than an evaluation tool for instructors to measure that learning.

Formative assessments are referred to as low stakes evaluations because they are often scored but not counted toward a final grade. The primary purpose of scoring is to help students recognize where they are in the process of mastery of that learning content. Scoring is much more about providing instructional feedback to the students.

A significant advantage of formative assessment is that it can help faculty members recognize when students (as a group) have not mastered a key concept. Too often, instructors don’t get to realize that students didn’t get a fundamental idea that was conveyed in the class until large numbers of them don’t score well for that concept on an exam after the instructional period is already over. Formative assessment activities throughout the learning process would help the instructor catch those items earlier on so they could be reinforced before the scored exams at the end of the learning module.

In Lesson Plans 02 I discussed the vital process of retrieval learning. One of the great advantages of many formative assessment activities is that they reinforce retrieval learning in an environment where there is not a penalty for incorrect answers, so test anxiety is reduced. Here are some examples of formative assessment activities

Examples of Formative Assessment

  • Constructing a written summary of a lesson or lecture content
  • Online quiz module that provides immediate feedback. It may be scored, but the score doesn’t count towards a final grade
  • Writing sample test questions. Writing good test questions is challenging and will help students evaluate their level of understanding of presented content.
  • A graphic representation of content such as an infographic, chart, or relational diagram.

Summative Assessment

Summative assessment also uses quizzes, tests, or other evaluation tools, but the intended purpose is different. In summative assessment the primary goal is to determine how much the student has learned. It is generally given at the end of an instructional topic to measure retention of that content.

Summative assessment is considered to be a high stakes evaluation because the scores have a direct bearing on some outcome, such as a grade or acquiring a specific credential. High stakes exams frequently have a greater degree of test anxiety for the student, as we might expect. If you are a student that doesn’t perform well on exams, the summative assessment becomes even more intimidating. One of the great benefits of more frequent formative assessments throughout the curriculum is it can help students build confidence and decrease anxiety around summative assessments.

Summative assessments can be a valuable tool for measuring how much of an instructional module or program students have retained. Unfortunately, there are some other potential problems with the emphasis on summative assessment scoring. One need only look at the U.S. educational system in the K-12 grades during the first part of this century to see these effects. The No Child Left Behind initiative drove many educators to focus disproportionate attention on final grade scores. There were numerous claims that many teachers ended up ‘teaching to the test’ to maintain target scores for their classroom or institution, even though that wasn’t the best academic strategy for their students.

Another common problem with summative assessments relates to the type of questions that end up populating many summative assessments. In Lesson Plans 04 we talked about using Bloom’s taxonomy for constructing test questions. Writing quality test questions across the multiple domains in this taxonomy is difficult. As a result, a disproportionate number of items are written in the lowest levels of the taxonomy because that’s what’s easiest to write. As a result, many summative assessments end up focusing on rote memorization of facts and information without evaluating the student’s ability to put that information into practice.

Examples of Summative Assessment

  • Mid-term or final exams
  • Licensing exams
  • Professional certification exams
  • End of unit exams in short courses or continuing education courses

In Practice

Recognizing the difference between formative and summative assessments is essential. Each should be designed to focus on their strengths, and as educators we should be sure to construct assessment tools that will appropriately measure or evaluate what we are really after. Formative and summative assessments work best when they are used together. I see this cooperative use of formative and summative assessments as one of the significant advantages of digital blended curricula. Digital strategies are particularly helpful for integrating formative assessments in a low anxiety method to help reinforce critical concepts.

Using digital strategies for formative assessment is of the things we do extensively in our online program. For example, students have numerous quizzes and lesson assignments that ask them to apply concepts from the instructional modules and answer questions. If an item is answered correctly, feedback pops up that reinforces why this is a correct answer (in case the student really didn’t know and just guessed). If it is answered incorrectly, feedback immediately pops up to explain why the answer was incorrect. Providing immediate feedback in these formative learning activities is invaluable for strengthening their understanding of the key concepts presented.

I believe in many of our educational programs there is too much emphasis placed on summative assessment and not enough on formative assessment. We have summative assessments at the end of our lessons, but may only then realize when the whole lesson is over that students didn’t really solidify their understanding of certain concepts. By then it is too late to go back over them for remediation. Learn to use formative assessments more extensively, and you’ll likely see your students improve significantly in their scores and eventual achievement goals. 

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