Assessment can serve many different purposes. Most instructors are familiar with the traditional way of assessing students, such as by mid-term and final exams (usually using multiple-choice questions). There is a reason that this type of assessment is so popular – it is cost efficient (as in the example of multiple choice exams), takes a relatively short amount of time to create and grade, and provides a numerical summary (grade) of how much a student has learned.
The downside of this method is that it does not provide the learner or instructor any feedback on the learning process that has taken place, only a summative result. This lack of opportunity to apply new learning and receive formative feedback hinders student ability to learn.
Another type of assessment, known as formative assessment, has a different purpose from summative assessment. Formative assessments capture learning-in-process in order to identify gaps, misunderstanding, and evolving understanding before summative assessments. Formative assessment may take a variety of forms, such as informal questions, practice quizzes, one-minute papers, and clearest/muddiest point exercises. Formative assessment allows students to practice skills or test knowledge without the pressures associated with grades.
Paul Black (1998), who is often lauded as the forefather of these concepts, described the difference between these terms using the analogy of cooking. As a cook is making her soup, she occasionally tastes it to decide if it needs a bit more spices or ingredients. With each taste she is assessing her soup, and using that feedback to change or improve it - in other words, the cook is engaging in formative assessment. Once the soup is served to the customer, the customer tastes it and makes a final judgment about the quality of the soup – otherwise known as summative assessment.