Balancing formative and summative assessment

You may find the following pointers useful when thinking about the extent to which you use formative and summative assessment:

Students need formative assessment, but are motivated by summative assessment

Students need feedback in order to learn effectively (see the Engage in Feedback site for more), but more often than not it's the prospect of grades that will motivate them. As such, finding a balance between formative and summative assessment is essential. Making use of progressive weighting, whereby largely formative assessments contribute a percentage towards the final mark can help to mitigate these issues and can help your students appropriately focus their efforts throughout the module.

Feedback should be timely

Summative assessment will typically take place towards the end of a course of study, and its nature often requires an extended marking process to enable moderation. As such, the feedback from summative assessment often comes too late to be implemented in time for the next assessment.

Students need to have the opportunity to practice

If students, particularly first years, do not have experience of a particular types of assessment before it takes place then the fear of failure can lead to 'sudden death'1, which can be a significant contributor to students leaving university. Providing the opportunity to take part in 'low stakes' formative assessment at an earlier stage can reduce this2.

Peer and self-assessment provide a means of introducing formative assessment with less marking overhead

Getting students involved with the assessment process and having them provide feedback on their own work or that of their peers has multiple benefits. See the Peer and self-assessment section for more information.

Formative and summative assessment are not mutually exclusive

It can be argued that all assessment is formative, in that summative assessment will almost always provide some form of feedback (such as a grade), while formative assessment will provide feedback that makes use of judgemental terms3.


  1. Race, P. (2009). Designing Assessment To Improve Physical Sciences Learning: A Physical Sciences Practice Guide. Hull. Higher Education Physical Sciences Subject Centre.
  2. Lines, D. & Mason, C. (2005). Enhancing Practice: Assessment. Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. Mansfield. Linney Direct.
  3. Brown, S. & Glasner, A. (2003). In: Assessment Matters in Higher Education: Choosing and Using Diverse Approaches. Buckingham. The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

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