Using Formative and Summative Assessments to Maximize Grading Efficiency

Teachers are the busiest people I know. Between lesson preparation and grading, we have a tendency to get buried in the “work to be done” and end up doing more work than is needed.

During my consultations with teachers, we often dive into creating assignments and figuring out how to give more impactful feedback to students. I preach the importance of feedback on a daily basis, but I’ve learned that feedback is not always my primary action. By taking a step back and asking ourselves whether the assignment’s goal is to improve skills or to assess skills, we can greatly reduce our workload.  

The assignments we give students can be categorized as either formative or summative. The actions we take with each are very different, so recognizing the difference between can be a huge time-saver. 

It’s important to point out that formative and summative assessment are two overlapping, complementary ways of assessing student progress. While the common goal is to establish the development, strengths, and weaknesses of each student, each assessment provides different insights and actions for educators. Knowing what you want out of the assignment will help you to choose the correct action, as well as predict how much time will be involved.

What is Formative Assessment?

In a nutshell, formative assessment is the act of monitoring student learning and providing ongoing feedback for students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments help faculty recognize where students are struggling and give them the information to address problems immediately. Think of formative assessments as frequent adjustments in response to what’s recently been taught. The key words and action items are: frequent and feedback.

Formative assessments can be extremely beneficial for instructors. I know whether or not the lesson and methods used are good, based on my student’s performance. If many students struggled with a certain concept, I know I need to adjust how I taught it and teach it again. Students benefit from direct feedback on skills, and teachers benefit from seeing where teaching methods need adjusting. The key word and action items here are: adjust, clarify, and reteach.

Examples of formative assessments include:

  • Impromptu quizzes or anonymous voting (Kahoot and the like)
  • Short comparative assessments to see how pupils are performing against their peers
  • One-minute papers/videos on a specific subject matter
  • Lesson exit tickets to check what students have learned
  • Anonymous classroom polls
  • Creating a visualization or doodle map of what they learned
  • Showing use of vocabulary and signed concepts in videos, either individually or in a group (interactive assignment)

What is Summative Assessment?

The goal of summative assessments is to “summarize” learning by evaluating student learning and achievement at the end of a term, year, or semester by comparing it against a standard benchmark.  Summative assessments often have a high point value, take place under controlled conditions, and have more visibility. The emphasis is on measuring to what degree the student has achieved a base-level of skill.  The key word and action items here are: measure, evaluate, and summarize.

Examples of summative assessments include:

  • End-of-unit or chapter tests
  • End-of-term or midterm exams
  • Cumulative work over an extended period such as a final project or creative portfolio

Achieving a Good Balance

You’ll notice that during the course of a semester, students need plenty of opportunities (assignments or quizzes) to receive feedback on how they’re performing against the overall course goals and objectives. Because of this, the amount of time spent on assignments or quizzes is greater and more beneficial to students.  

Summative tests are not the time to provide skill improvement feedback.  Instead, focus on measuring if they’re meeting the skill requirements. To save time and accurately measure student abilities, it’s essential to develop a good rubric. You could provide a short summary of how the student is doing, in addition to the test score.  

Formative and Summative Assessment

Now that you have identified what your goals and action items are, you should be able to streamline your actions for each assignment. I personally enjoy short stories to help me visualize the overall message or concept.  Here are two stories to help solidify the concepts taught in this article.

Think back to your most recent trip to the grocery store. During the trip, you watched for other drivers, stopped at traffic signs, and made adjustments to your route, depending on the traffic or time of day. You make it to your destination, and over time, you became familiar with the best route. The constant continual adjustments along the way are examples of formative assessments. Arriving at your destination intact and alive with an undamaged vehicle is an example of summative assessment.

An even simpler example:

“When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative. When the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.” 

Remember to be aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing and you’ll be more efficient with grading time.

Formative and Summative Assessment
Promethean. “Types of summative assessment and formative assessment.”