Go go gadget mnemonics…

FORMing, getting inFORMation, figuring out the FORMula

These handy phrases will help you remember that FORMative assessments are all about the process: the way in which a particular unit or piece of content is taking shape for your students. Are they understanding the concept? Is the knowledge taking hold? Are they able to do something with it? Are they approaching some level of mastery?

These are all questions you may ask yourself as you and your class work your way through King Lear or Newton’s Laws of Motion. And the small things you do to see how your class is progressing are formative assessments. These can be things such as…

  • Class surveys or polls
  • Discussions
  • Shows of hands
  • Mini-conferences and check-ins
  • Pop quizzes purely for the purpose of seeing who’s comprehending the information and who isn’t (not sure you believe in pop quizzes? Click on into the debate.)

The comments you provide on first drafts of essays, artwork, or projects could also be considered formative assessments. That’s because they help to redirect or refocus a student, encouraging them to refine their work, address an area that needs improvement, or continue along the same (correct) track as they work toward completion.

Any bit of assessment that helps to shape the direction of instruction—in other words, that helps you to FORM a picture of where your students are and what needs to happen in order to achieve your and their educational goals—is formative. Got that definition all formed in your head? Good.

In SUMMary, to SUMMarize, the SUM(M) total

Just as the sum is the number that appears at the bottom of the column in an addition problem—i.e., the final word, what it all adds up to—summative assessment typically comes at the end of a unit, assignment, or project in the form of a final grade or a pass/fail designation.

You can think of a summative assessment as a summary of a student’s performance. Unlike formative assessments, summative assessments aren’t used to determine the direction of instruction. Instead, they come at the end of the process to offer a final evaluation of what’s been learned or achieved. Commonly used summative assessments include…

  • Final drafts of essays
  • Standardized tests
  • Exams and quizzes
  • SAT®, ACT®, CLEP and the like
  • AP® Exams
  • Culminating projects or presentations

Typically—and we say typically because there is some debate about this one—summative assessments are graded and formative assessments are ungraded.

But not always.

You could, for instance, use a series of summative assessments—like graded pop-quizzes if you’re into that—to assess a student’s progress. Continued improvement (or a steady decline) in such grades could help point to a student’s increased mastery of a subject and a need to step up the pace of instruction (or decreased understanding and a need for remediation). Either way, it does the trick.

In this case, the summative assessments—i.e., the graded pop quizzes—are being used as formative assessments. And sometimes all the formative assessments along the way to a finished product wind up being included in the assessment, such as when an ELA teacher has students turn in all drafts of an essay and uses the whole packet—notes, outlines, previous drafts, and final copy—to determine a final grade.

See what we mean? The graded-ungraded thing can muddy the waters a little bit, but the difference between formative and cumulative assessments really doesn’t need to be confusing.

Still unsure? We’ll give you a quick analogy to solidify it in your mind. Why? Because we love analogies. Deal with it.

A Quick Analogy

Think of the process an author goes through to write and publish a book.

All the steps along the way to the final product—reading group feedback, editorial reviews, publishers’ recommendations, input from focus groups, proofs of galleys, test market results of various titles and cover designs, yadda yadda yadda—are formative assessments. Each step in the process helps the author (and the folks marketing the book) determine how things are going and what tweaks still need to be made. So each step in the writing and publishing process serves as a formative assessment.

When the book is published and presented for sale, that’s when the summative assessments start rolling in: in the form of critical reviews, sales numbers, and the book’s overall reception by readers.

The formative assessments help to form the final product. The summative assessments summarize how well it all turned out. Got that all mnemonicized out in your head? Good.

Next step: coming up with the assessments themselves. And that’s why we have plenty of articles about specific types of assessments you can use in your very own classroom. So form (and sum) away.