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Online Summative and Formative assessment [Myths and Strategies]

Nhi Nguyen
October 26, 2020

Now that education is rapidly transitioning towards the virtual platforms in response to COVID-19, teachers find themselves again struggling with the formative or summative assessment dilemma:

‘Which assessment type, summative or formative assessment, best measures the learning that happens remotely and online?’

This article will unravel two major misconceptions regarding online summative (SA) and formative assessment (FA), as well as provide useful strategies to help you utilize these two evaluative strategies in eLearning.

Before diving into the myths of formative and summative assessment, it is best to reactivate what we already know about these two testing tools.

Summative assessment vs Formative assessment

Summative assessment evaluates students’ progress upon completion of a learning segment by assigning grades according to a set of criteria. Formative assessment, on the other hand, is associated with the ongoing, continuous feedback that facilitates the teaching and learning experience [3].  

The difference between these two can be further illustrated through this infographic:

Does such clear difference in terms of purpose and formats between summative and formative assessment mean that summative assessment is only for grading and formative assessment is only for feedback?

This then leads us to the first myth regarding summative and formative assessment.

Myth 1 - Summative assessment is for grading and formative assessment is for giving feedback

Truth: No matter what form your test takes, it is the purpose of testing that determines whether the exam is formative or summative

The separate nature of SA and FA often drives educators to the assumption that these two evaluative forms are at odds, and that certain assessment types only serve fixed functions. For example, final exams or papers are associated with assigning grades while discussion is particularly the platform for feedback. In fact, the case can be the other way round.

Bloom was among the first to unravel such confusion, arguing that the same evaluative tool can be utilized for either summative or formative purposes [1]. In other words, the way that teachers handle the test results would determine whether the assessment is for or of learning. Further support later came from William [10], who stated that as long as the assessment helps facilitate the students’ learning, it is considered formative assessment. The interchangeability between these two assessment forms was once again confirmed by Dunn and Mulvenon [4, p. 3]:

Formative or summative assessment data may be evaluated and used for formative or summative purposes

In short, a test might take the form of formative or summative, but it is the way teachers use the generated data that actually determines whether that assessment tool is formative or summative.

Myth 2 - Formative assessment is the only hero in online classroom

Truth: Both assessment methods should be used

Researchers have always acknowledged the critical role of feedback in online classrooms. Good feedback helps identify the gap between current and desired performance, enhance students’ engagement and motivation, as well as facilitating teacher-student dialogue [2]. Formative assessment; therefore, is considered to be the most suitable evaluative tool to generate effective feedback, given its ability to assess higher levels of thinking – analysis and evaluation. Summative assessment, on the contrary, has gained a reputation as an undesirable testing approach that encourages surface, result-driven learning [5]. Given the superiority of formative assessment, shall we infer that summative assessment is obsolete in online classrooms, which requires a high level of engagement and interactivity?

Such a statement is considered to be “false dichotomy” [7, p. 2]. Though formative and summative testing are distinguished by the type of information they produce, both evaluative forms contribute to teaching-learning feedback. While formative assessment produces rich input for improving in class interaction, summative assessment generates graded information that informs related parties other than teachers and students [5]. In other words, summative assessment is still necessary as a means of assuring social recognition of students' accomplishments both in school and outside.

To sum up, integrating both forms of assessment should be the ultimate goal in online course design.

Combine the strengths of both formative and summative assessment

Contrary to the belief that summative and formative assessment are incompatible, literature has pointed to the great potential of adopting a mixed-assessment approach [6] [7].

In this section, we will share with you 5 great strategies to smoothly integrate both SA and FA in your online classes, and generate valuable input for decision making.

1 - Let your students review and grade each other's summative tasks

Instead of doing all the grading and feedback on your own, why not involve your students in actively giving comments, and even assigning marks to their peers' final work?

Perhaps you are no stranger to this method, which is also known as peer grading. Peer grading refers to the practice of letting learners to evaluate and rate the performance of other learners according to teacher-established criteria [8] [9]. Literature and studies have shed light on the great many benefits of peer grading, which include reducing teachers' workload, enhancing students' autonomy and motivation, as well as cultivating higher-order cognitive skills (analysis, application, evaluation) [8] [9]. Considering these advantages, peer grading is undoubtedly an effective method to harness the benefits of both formative and summative assessment.

So how exactly can you conduct peer grading in an online classroom?

By arranging for your students to either grade or leave comments on each other's final assignments (term papers, essays, portfolios, journals) based on a clear, specific marking rubric. You can also combine both peer grading and feedback if you want to maximize the effectiveness of peer grading methods [8]. Such grading and feedback are of course implemented through online learning platforms.

Our Peer Review tool can assist you with this integration, by allowing students to submit their final work, then anonymously review peers’ papers based on a set of criteria. Of course, remember to establish a clear, specific marking rubric to make sure your students know what they should be focusing on.

2 - Grade the quizzes

Short, quick quizzes during class are commonly used as formative assessment to make sure that students keep up with the lessons. You can also utilize these quizzes for summative purposes by assigning grades for each of them. The grades are then averaged to produce the final mark by the end of the course. Doing this does not only allow you to monitor both students’ progress and overall performance throughout the entire course, but also increase a sense of equality and motivation within the classroom. For example, using our Interactive Document tool, teachers can easily assign quick check questions about a document, while assigning grades to students' answers.

3 - Include peer feedback throughout the assignment process

When it comes to performance-based tests such as a term paper, essay, portfolio, or group project, students are usually provided with some instructions, then expected to hand in their end products after a certain amount of time. This method has been heavily criticised for failing to provide timely feedback to help students improve and change their work [7]. Quite often, learners misunderstood the assignment guideline and ended up with a below-average assignment, due to lack of interaction and mutual feedback with their teachers.

Therefore, a creative solution to initiate the formative purpose for your final assignment, is to integrate peer feedback throughout the whole process of assignment completion. That is, you divide the assignment into smaller phases in which students submit certain assignment parts for review and comments. The feedback generated will inform students on what they need to improve, thus allowing teachers to provide support if necessary.

Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences presents a successful case of implementing this mixed-assessment approach. In this case, students worked in a group to create a written essay, submitted it for peer reviews, then applied that feedback to produce the final group product.

4 - Tweak the traditional exams

Final examinations give teachers insights into how well their students are doing; however, these testing formats are criticised for being too late to initiate timely action [3].

Instead of giving back the tests after you finish grading, consider having an exam review, or a Q&A session with your students. In this session, you can elaborate on the answers, explain common mistakes, and clarify students' questions about their exam results. Providing platforms for revision and discussion on performance-based tests can significantly improve teacher-student interaction, thus allowing for understanding of areas that they did not pay attention to.

5 - Make grading communicative

The biggest complaint regarding summative assessment is associated with the lack of feedback on students' performance. Grades can be useful to indicate a student's position and level of achievement as compared to standards; however, it provides no information on how students should improve [7].

You can turn those result-oriented exams into constructive testing items, simply by adding detailed comments alongside grading. A well-developed rubric will significantly assist you in explaining your grading decision, as well as deliver clear feedback to students. In addition, allowing students to reflect on teachers' remarks on their finals would further initiate the desirable formative learning experience.

FeedbackFruits managed to make performance-based assignments more learning-oriented, with our Assignment Review tool. This LMS-integrated function creates an interactive e-platform, where teachers can customize grading rubric to include detailed feedback of students' final work, as well as to initiate students' reflection upon their received comments.


Despite the common notion concerning the inherent tension between summative and formative assessment, these two evaluative forms are actually compatible and interdependent. In fact, regardless of the design format, a test can serve either formative or summative purposes.

By clarifying such misconceptions and the importance of a mixed-assessment approach, we hope to help you master both summative and formative assessment in your online course.

Assessment is at the heart of education, being a driving force behind effective learning.


[1] Bloom, B. S. (1969). Some theoretical issues relating to educational evaluation. In R. W. Tyler (Ed.), Educational evaluation: New roles, new means. National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook, 68(2), 26–50. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Buchholtz, N. F., Krosanke, N., Orschulik, A. B., & Vorhölter, K. (2018). Combining and integrating formative and summative assessment in mathematics teacher education. ZDM, 50(4), 715-728. Source

[3] Conrad, D., & Openo, J. (2018). Assessment strategies for online learning: Engagement and authenticity. Athabasca University Press.

[4] Dunn, K. E., & Mulvenon, S. E. (2009). A critical review of research of formative assessment: The limited scientific evidence of the impact of formative assessment in education. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 14(7), 2–11.

[5] Gikandi, J., Morrow, D., & Davis, N. (2011). Online formative assessment in higher education: A review of the literature. Computers & Education, 57(4), 2333-2351. Source

[6] Houston, Don and Thompson, James N., Blending Formative and Summative Assessment in a Capstone Subject: ‘It’s not your tools, it’s how you use them’, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 14(3), 2017. Source

[7] Lau, Alice. (2015). ‘Formative good, summative bad?’ – A review of the dichotomy in assessment literature. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 40. 1-17. 10.1080/0309877X.2014.984600.

[8] Luo, H., Robinson, A. C., & Park, J. (2014). Peer grading in a MOOC: Reliability, validity, and perceived effects. Online Learning, 18(2).Source

[9] Sadler, P., & Good, E. (2006). The impact of self- and peer-grading on student learning. Educational Assessment, 11(1), 1-31. Source

[10] Wiliam, D. (2006). Formative assessment: Getting the focus right. Educational Assessment, 11(3–4), 283–289.

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