• Daniel Ednie-Lockett

Formative vs Summative Assessments

All courses seek to have some formative and some summative assessments. What is the difference between the two, and how can courses get the most from each type of assessment.

Formative assessments are low stakes. Marks don’t necessarily need to be recorded, and if they are they are not considered to be critical determinants of a student’s overall achievement. Often formative marks are more general grades, such as A, B or C, rather than being a numerical score such as 16/20 or 80%.

Summative assessments are low stakes. Marks (or averages) are often conveyed on their graduation certificate or in their pathway recommendation. Often Summative Assessments happen at irregular intervals, once every month or five weeks is common. Students work toward summative assessments and they are seen as an end in themselves primarily. There is a greater sense of test security in the delivery of the assessments.


The rationale of formative assessments is that they are easy to administer, not taking too long to complete or mark, and can help teachers “keep a finger on the pulse”. Students that are at risk of not making satisfactory progress, can be identified quickly and easily. By a large, formative assessments take place on a weekly basis in a way which becomes a dependable routine for both teachers and students alike. As an example, the second period on Wednesdays is reserved for writing skills followed by a short writing task which will get a score of A,B or C. Students are aware that they will be doing writing on Wednesdays, and teachers are able to block out one period of their week as dedicated to writing without needing to fit it in ad hoc.

In contrast, summative assessments are more time consuming to take and mark. For example, students in an IELTS course, may take a full IELTS mock test once a month. This experience gives students practice in the test-taking skills such as time management, sustaining concentration and determination. A full mock test provides a very accurate overall impression of where students are at, but it is a huge burden for teachers, so once a month or every five weeks is appropriate.

Types of Formative Assessment

Formative assessments can take a number of forms, here are some examples:

  • Weekly grammar test from the workbook, teacher’s book or an external source

  • A short writing task completed in class

  • A reading or listening from the workbook, teacher’s book or an external source

  • A speed reading activity

  • Observation of speaking performance over the course of a week

It is recommended that courses don’t use any material from the core textbook. The grammar tests, readings and listening that are in the core textbook are accessible by the students before hand, advantaging students that have read ahead. Often, these students that read material reserved for future classes are nervous about their ability to perform and may be the very at risk students that the formative assessments are seeking to highlight.

Observations are most appropriate for speaking. Teachers can get a sense of a students speaking during the course of the class. This could come from question and answer with the teacher where there are direct questions for the student to answer, it could come from an open class context, or pair/group interactions. Teachers are able to give a low grade to students that are clearly struggling without needing to force them into an oral presentation. Identifying the students speaking issues through observation can justify giving them extra homework, extra classes or even academic intervention when appropriate.

Examples of Summative Assessments

Formative assessments can take a number of forms, here are some examples:

  • A researched essay

  • A oral presentation

  • A comprehensive test of grammar, vocabulary, listening and reading relating to that week’s textbook

  • A mock test

The types of summative assessments vary from course to course. For English for Academic Purposes, research and drafting are critical skills that lend themselves to a single essay developed over a number of weeks. However,a General English course’s students are more likely to enter on a rolling basis, and apt to level up or finish suddenly. As a result, for GE students, weekly summative tests on the last day of the week are also appropriate.

Formative assessments are low stakes, and Summative assessments are high stakes

For more information about learning outcomes and how to apply them to English language courses (ELICOS), please email