Purposes of Assessment

Purposes of Assessment

Assessment methods, such as quizzing, comes in two basic varieties: summative and formative.  We are all well acquainted with summative forms of assessment having endured cumulative end-of-semester exams and term papers. These assessment types provide an evaluation of our learning in a particular course. They are administrative in function, generally high-stakes, and are rarely returned with feedback beyond a letter or number grade.

Formative exams occur throughout the semester and provides assessment for learning. Formative assessment is iterative, provides students constant and timely feedback as to their understanding of core learning objectives and encourages them to think more on the learning process. In addition they provide constant checks by which students can measure their progress, while the continuous feedback demystifies instructor expectations.

Formative assessment offers instructors clear benefits as well. It provides means by which educators gain a clear picture as to what areas of the course students are having difficulty. Instructors can then use this information to reach out with detailed feedback to individual students and they can adapt course instruction to reinforce areas in which the whole class is struggling. Furthermore, instructors can use formative methods of assessment to gauge the value of new teaching methods with quantitative data.

General Aspects of Summative and Formative Assessment[1]


Summative Assessment Formative Assessment
Relationship to Learning Assessment of Learning

Assessment for Learning

Purpose for faculty

Assign course grades

Validate and accredit programs

Diagnose student learning issues

Inform changes to teaching

Purpose for students

Evaluate learning

Enter programs

Graduate from programs

Achieve professional licensing

Modify study behavior
Graded Usually Sometimes
Timing Periodic Frequent
Feedback Delayed feedback, usually as a score or grade on an assessment Immediate feedback, usually within explanation and opportunity for reflection

Usually high stakes

One opportunity to do well

Usually low stakes

Multiple opportunities to improve

Common examples




Written reports

Group problem-solving


In-class clicker questions

Minute papers

Draft versions of presentations or reports

Overall, formative assessment that is iterative and wedded to robust feedback provides opportunities for meaningful and active learning. It places the focus on improved student learning, not “grades,” and provides students just-in-time feedback on their comprehension of course materials. Furthermore, formative low-stakes exams provide a learning opportunity in their own right by reinforcing to students the importance of the material on the quiz.

Summative assessment, such as end of term comprehensive exams, are not necessarily bad. However, it is essential to recognize their problems. High stakes exams can easily take the focus off of meaningful learning and instead implicitly encourage students to memorize facts.  Furthermore, students frequently ‘cram’ for high-stakes exams and research in educational science suggests this type of study results in poor long-term retention of that information.

If you would like additional material on the pedagogy of quizzing please refer to the resources listed at the end of this module.

  1. Dirks, Clarissa, Mary Pat Wenderoth, and Michelle Withers. Assessment in the College Science Classroom. W.H. Freeman Scientific Teaching. W. H. Freeman, 2014.


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