Formative versus Summative Assessment

When developing assessment measures for different strategies, staff members should be mindful of two categories of assessment: formative and summative. Formative assessment typically occurs during the learning process and allows for modification of teaching and activities to improve student learning in the moment. Checking for student understanding, and reviewing material already covered, allows the teaching facilitator to ensure that learning is occurring and review educational content as necessary. Summative assessment is utilized at the conclusion of a strategy or learning activity to gauge student success in achieving identified learning outcomes. The data from summative assessment can be used to improve the activity for the future. Furthermore, it may cause one to re-examine the identified learning outcomes themselves in order to gauge if the outcomes may need to be modified. This approach is known as “double loop assessment” (Kennedy, 2016).

Student Self Report vs. Student Demonstrated Learning

Under curricular approaches, it is important to note that student learning is the core activity that needs to be assessed. This means that student satisfaction and feedback about educational activities, while still important, is not enough. Furthermore, asking for student self-reports, such as, “Do you feel you understand…” or “Did you learn…”, are also not enough. Instead, student assessments of learning need to be constructed to test for actual acquisition of knowledge or the ability to apply, analyze, or synthesize new information.

For this reason, many professionals utilizing a curricular approach turn to techniques utilized in the classroom. Utilizing one-minute papers, quick quizzes, or tickets-out-the-door can help in measuring whether student learning is occurring and what modifications to the learning activity may need to be made during the learning activity or in subsequent years or months when the activity may be repeated. If you’re looking for examples of these types of assessments, you may want to read Angelo and Cross’ Classroom Assessment Techniques, or Barkley and Major’s Learning Assessment Techniques.

Certifying Student Learning

When one begins to collect summative assessment data on student learning, it becomes possible for educators to certify that learning. By achieving strategy-level outcomes, students are also advancing towards the achievement of overall curricular goals and outcomes. While this is useful to departments and divisions to demonstrate success in achieving student learning, it also presents an opportunity to develop programs and certificates in co-curricular competencies. Student leadership programs have already been doing this for years. Imagine what could be accomplished if these programs could be applied institution-wide. They could also be broadened to represent a diverse array of competencies, beyond leadership skills, that students could include in transcripts, resumes, and other documentation provided to future employers. In this sense, the curricular approach is one that has far more potential than just organizing a department or division’s learning program. It provides an opportunity for students to receive certified credentials in a broad array of skill areas.

Key Questions

  • What types of strategy-level assessments will you use in your educational programs and activities?
  • How can you ensure that you’re measuring actual student learning and not just student self-reports or satisfaction?
  • How might you be able to use this assessment data to certify student learning?


Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd Edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Berkeley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2016). Learning assessment techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kennedy, K. (2106). Making a difference: Improving residence life assessment practices. Columbus, OH: ACUHO-I.