Web Content Display (Global)

The Institute of Educational Assessors (IEA) has been rebranded to Prescient. Head to our new website at www.prescient.edu.au.

Web Content Display

Formative vs summative assessment

Author: Kiara Macartney-Clark, Knowledge Management Officer, SACE Board of SA
Published: December 2018
This is a ‘Terminology in brief’ article, delving into a term's background, meaning, and use in the educational space. Shorter definitions can be found in our wordlist.

Formative and summative assessment are two functions of assessment (Wiliam 1996 & 2013) that work together to monitor and evaluate a student's progression along their learning path, to provide constructive feedback and for judgment against local and/or national standards.

According to Wiliam (2011 p16) there are three key processes in learning:

  1. Where the learner is right now
  2. Where the learner needs to be
  3. How to get there

In this there are three key players – teachers, students and peers – each of whom play a part in a student's progression along their learning path.

The purpose of formative assessment is to determine whether or not there is a gap in the learning of each student within a particular class at a particular point in time based on the learning provided, and adapt the learning plan to facilitate any additional learning needs. Therefore, the assessment must be based on the learning that has been provided to that class and designed to elicit information which will assist the teacher in determining which step to take next.

Traditional assessment practice sees summative assessments as being delivered at the end-of-unit, term, semester and/or year and used to determine what a student knows, understands and can do.

However, summative assessment should be reconceptualised as a powerful formative tool rather than a 'dead-end' event. High-quality assessment practice enables a student to take feedback on their 'summative' work against the standard and feed that forward to the development of their next piece of work. In this way, no assessment piece is ever ultimately summative.

Formative assessment is heavily reliant on effective feedback. As per Wiliam & Black (2011 p 543), 'to qualify as feedback, as well as alerting us to the existence of a gap, the information must actually be useful in closing the gap between actual and desired levels of performance' (Wiliam & Black 2011, p 543).

Without effective feedback, formative assessment is unable to serve its purpose. A grade or a simple comment such as 'good work' provides the student with no information on how to improve their work, which can be detrimental to their student agency and self-regulated learning efforts. For students to improve their learning, they need to be engaged in it. Feedback that doesn't help them to understand how to improve is unhelpful and likely to be demotivating. The reactions of each student to the feedback needs to be taken into account as what for one student is motivating, may be discouraging to another (Wiliam 2013).

Feedback should not only help guide the student to the next step in their learning but to motivate them, whether it be to improve upon the learning with the view to meeting the standards or surpassing them if the student is already meeting them.

Consideration of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development in relation to each student can assist in providing effective feedback.

In addition, it is important that students understand the purpose of formative assessments – to determine the next step in their learning and what goals/criteria are being assessed - and know that from the those assessments, they will be provided with additional opportunities to use the feedback provided to improve their learning (Tomlinson 2014, Wiliam 2013). Mistakes are okay in formative assessment, as they are indication that there is room for learning, to become smarter at something.

Once students have an understanding of what is expected of them, they are then able to provide valuable feedback to their peers through peer assessment of their work. Through guidance provided by the teacher(s) on criteria and what constitutes useful feedback, peer assessment can help improve and solidify understanding of the goals/criteria for students from both sides – those assessing and those being assessed. However, it is important to ensure that students understand that the aim is to help improve them to improve their learning, and that it is not meant as a grading exercise (Tomlinson 2014, Wiliam 2013).

For an informative guide to the student role in formative assessment, check out the Getting Smart website.

The crux of formative assessment is the action which is taken to improve student learning as a result of the assessment, even if the action is to continue as planned as the data gleaned reinforced the proposed action (Wiliam 2011, p44).

Formative assessments can be frequent, regular, longer term or on-the-fly. They can be formal or informal, written, or verbal, simple or complex. From written tests to a quick quiz before the end of class, as long as their purpose is to benefit student learning by improving upon the instruction decisions that are made by teachers, learners, or their peers (Wiliam 2013).

Tomlinson (2014) describes a great teacher as one who conducts formative assessments 'continually – formally and informally, with individuals and with the group, to understand academic progress and to understand the human beings' being taught (Tomlinson 2014).

The results of a formative assessment piece may vary widely and may, at first, seem daunting and unmanageable. Looking for patterns, 'or clusters of student need [will assist in planning] ways to help each group of students move ahead' (Tomlinson 2014). Plan for what to do next, including to continue as previously planned, before setting the assessment task. Have different strategies ready for the potential outcomes of the assessment.

If we accept assessment as a powerful learning tool to support students in their learning, then as assessors we must reconceptualise our understanding of the traditional formative/summative debate as a false dichotomy. All assessment serves formative purposes and works to to help students reach their learning potential.


Bloom, BS, Hastings, JT, & Madaus, GF 1971, Handbook on the formative and summative evaluation of student learning, McGraw Hill, New York

Ryerse, M 2018, 'The student role in formative assessment: How I know practitioner guide', Getting smart, viewed 11 December 2018

Tomlinson, CA 2014, 'The bridge between today's lesson and tomorrow's learning', Educational leadership, vol. 71, no. 6, p 10-14

William, D 2011, Embedded formative assessment, Solution Tree Press, Indiana

Wiliam, D (2013), 'Assessment: The bridge between teaching and learning', Voices from the middle, vol. 21, no. 2, p15-20

Wiliam, D & Black, P 1996, 'Meanings and consequences: a basis for distinguishing formative and summative functions of assessment?', British Educational Research Journal, vol. 22, no. 5, p537-548

Further reading

Black, P & Wiliam, D 2006, 'Assessment and classroom learning', Assessment in education: Principles, policy & practice, vol. 5, no. 1, p 7-74

Newton, PE 2007, 'Clarifying the purposes of educational assessment', Assessment in education: Principles, policy & practice, vol. 14, no. 2, p 149-170

Wiliam, D 2000, 'Integrating formative and summative functions of assessment', King's College London