Breaking down formative v. summative

Our university has been reviewing its academic regulations on assessment practice recently, as part of a wider project of reform in academic governance. A draft of the relevant document was circulated, containing many areas for development of existing practice, including one part that suggested that assessment could only be one of two forms: formative or summative.

This prompted a heated discussion one lunchtime in my School about several existing pieces of work that we ask of students, which we feel fall into both types simultaneously. Most obviously, our final year undergrads have just submitted a chapter outline, abstract and literature review for their dissertation, the body of which is due in May. The students will get a grade for these pieces, together with a face-to-face meeting in early January, to discuss in depth how this will feed into the main submission.

Under the proposed new regulations, this would be considered a summative exercise, since it has a grade attached to it. From our point of view, it does have some summative value – in evaluating research design – but it is primarily a formative exercise – to help ensure that students have a full cycle of interaction with supervisors at a point in the year when they can still do something with it.

But beyond this, an artificial distinction between formative and summative imposes limitations on our understanding of all assessment. My reflective portfolio for Negotiating Politics demonstrates this clearly: it’s submitted at the end of the module, and asks students to demonstrate self-reflection and -criticality in relation to their practice, so is primarily summative. But it also sets up conditions to allow students to take those lessons into future practice, either inside the classroom or out, so it also has a formative function.

Indeed, all assessment is formative, since we provide feedback to students not only about the specific piece of work they submit, but also more generically, so that they can use it in a range of future assessment tasks.

Partly, the regulations are an exercise in semantics, but it’s a discussion that we will continue to have with the University, so that we can all move towards regulations that capture the best possible experience for students and their learning.