Assessments are the most important step in the learning process. They help determine if the learning objectives of a course have been met. Assessment affects many facets of learning, including learning progress, student grades, placement, advancement, curriculum, instructional needs and the educational institutions’ growth and funding.

Assessments can be categorized as diagnostic (assessment for learning), formative (assessment as learning), and summative (assessment of learning). Although these have been in practice for a long time, many people struggle to comprehend the difference between formative and summative evaluation.

We will discuss the difference between formative and summative evaluation across various dimensions in this article and understand how they can help improve learning.


  1. Difference Between Formative and Summative Assessment With Examples

  2. Formative Vs. Summative Assessment

  3. The Dimensions Of Formative Vs. Summative Assessment

  4. Monitoring And Feedback

  5. Learning Progression

  6. Assessment Design

  7. Assessment In Practice


Difference Between Formative and Summative Assessment With Examples

Summative assessments are used to assess the learning, skill acquisition and achievement at the end of a learning period, typically at the close of the unit, semester, or course.

Three primary criteria define summative assessments:


  • Determining whether the learner has learned the study material and to what degree
  • Determining learning progress and achievement, the course’s effectiveness, and measuring progress toward improvement goals
  • Recording the scores/grades for the permanent academic record


Generally, summative scores are used in learning advancements such as admissions to higher learning institutions.

Formative assessments are used to assess learner comprehension, learning needs and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course. Examples include seminars, discussions, homework and projects. Formative assessment helps identify concepts that students struggle with, skills they have difficulty acquiring, or learning standards they have not achieved.

Formative Vs. Summative Assessment

An assessment is not ‘formative’ or ‘summative’ due to its design, but because of its intent. It  identifies in-process teaching and learning modifications or final learning outcomes through scores/grades. So, to distinguish between formative and summative evaluation, it is intent of the evaluation and the expected outcome that is relevant.

The primary differences between formative and summative evaluation are listed in the table:

Formative AssessmentSummative Assessment
The goal is to monitor learning to provide ongoing feedback that can improve teaching and learning.The goal is to evaluate learning at the end of a unit/semester by comparing a learner’s scores against a standard or benchmark.
Formative assessment is an ongoing activity. The assessment takes place during the learning process, not just once but several times.A summative assessment is a one-time activity. The assessment takes place not during the learning process but at the end.
Continuous testing/grading helps teachers monitor the learning process. They can figure out whether a learner is doing well or needs assistance in certain areas.Grades/scores are assigned in summative assessments. The grades show whether or not the learner has achieved the learning goal.
The purpose is to monitor and evaluate the learner’s progress.The purpose is to evaluate the learner’s achievements.
Usually, it includes smaller content areas—for example, three formative evaluations for one lesson.Assesses understanding of complete chapters or content areas—for example, a unit test at the end of Unit 1.


The Dimensions Of Formative Vs. Summative Assessment

To distinguish between formative and summative evaluation, let us explore how they vary across different dimensions. These, as per Elise Trumbull and Andrea Lash (‘Understanding Formative Assessment: Insights from Learning Theory and Measurement Theory’, 2013), to provide are:


  1. Informal vs. formal
  2. Immediate feedback vs. delayed feedback
  3. Curriculum-embedded vs. standalone
  4. Spontaneous vs. planned
  5. Individual vs. group
  6. Verbal vs. non-verbal
  7. Oral vs. written
  8. Scored/graded vs. unscored/ungraded
  9. Open-ended vs. constrained/closed response


The main purpose of a formative assessment is providing feedback to the teacher and learner. Summative assessments, which determine a learner’s success, may not be suitable for formative purposes because they do not provide helpful feedback. The frequency and the point of feedback is a key difference between formative and summative evaluation.

Monitoring And Feedback

Monitoring the learning process and providing feedback at an early stage is vital in any learning strategy. The primary purpose of any form of assessment is to assess learning outcomes from the results.

These results provide information about the gap between a learner’s current understanding and the expected level of understanding. Furthermore, this information at the right time helps the learner identify ways to close the gap.

At times this information gives insight into the learner’s way of thinking about the subject matter. Formative assessments that give more information about learners are ideal to devise outcome-based personalized learning strategies.

To distinguish between formative and summative evaluation, it is useful to consider how actionable the insights are. Compared to summative assessment, formative assessment provides actionable information for teachers and learners. Ideally, the formative assessment gives information about a learner’s progress towards learning goals, thought processes and learning gaps.

Another difference between formative and summative assessment is that formative assessment is continuous. While it helps identify the learner’s weakness, it also helps identify the areas of improvement for the learning material and strategies.

When a standardized test in summative assessment happens at the end of the course, scores may not be available to teachers for some time. So, the results cannot be used to modify lessons or teaching strategies. And these assessments may not give specific information to teachers and learners for their improvement.

Any instructional or assessment activity that helps uncover the way learners think about the topic can serve a formative purpose.

Learning Progression

To understand the difference between formative and summative evaluation, let’s take a look at learning progression. Learning progression implies that learning is a process of increasing complexity rather than just a body of content to be covered. Teachers need to know how learning develops to understand a learner’s current status and decide on how to move learning forward.

Learning progressions are stages most learners go through as they progress toward mastering a competency. Understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating or innovating are some of these stages.

Learning progressions help teachers organize the curricular topics.

Assessment Design

The design of an assessment helps understand the difference between formative and summative evaluation. Designing an assessment is an essential competence for teachers. There are three elements in any assessment: a model of learner cognition, observations and interpretation.

In summative assessment, these interpretations help decide the subsequent learning path. Effective translation of assessment performance leads to personalized learning, instructional decisions, and actions.


Assessment In Practice

To sum up formative assessment vs. summative assessment, formative assessment methods such as self-assessment and peer-assessment contribute to higher learner achievement. Formative assessments make students take a more serious approach to learn and work harder.

Because of the practical and early feedback mechanism, formative assessment has received growing attention from schools and colleges as well as in corporate training. Formative assessments become integral components of personalized learning.

Thus, teachers and management need to understand the difference between formative and summative assessment to better leverage them depending on their intent and desired outcome.

Combining formative assessment and summative assessment enhances the learning process and helps monitor and measure learning outcomes. Instructors need to consider various ways to combine these approaches for effective delivery.

Check out Harappa’s Inspiring Faculty Program to be part of the learning process.

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