Assessment Types: Diagnostic, Formative and Summative

Formative and Summative Assessments

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.


  • used during the learning process
  • provides feedback on learning-in-process
  • dialogue-based, ungraded


  • used at the end of the learning process
  • evaluates student learning against some standard or benchmark
  • graded

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.