Formative, summative or diagnostic assessment? A guide

An introduction to three of the key forms of assessment along with how they can be applied in the classroom

30 Jan 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
bookmark plus
Forms of assessment and how to use them in university classes

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Technologico de Monterrey

You may also like

Digital methods of formative assessment that boost learning
Advice on digital methods of formative assessment which aid deep learning

When it comes to evaluating students’ learning, teachers have a wide range of activities and methods at their disposal, although they must be sure to select the type of assessment that fits best with their instructional needs. Here, we present information about three key modes of assessment: diagnostic, formative and summative.

Diagnostic assessment

Diagnostic evaluations are typically short tests given at the beginning and/or end of a course that allow a teacher to gauge what students know about a topic. This information can be particularly useful at the start of a course because the teacher can then plan accordingly and make instructional changes or adjustments to the upcoming course.

Diagnostic assessments do not typically count towards the final grade, and it can also be used as a metacognitive method so that students can become aware of their own knowledge level.

Diagnostic assessments can come in many shapes and sizes. The most common is a standard quiz or test, and it is crucial to carefully select questions that provide a general overview of the course or topic. Alternatively, students could be required to design a mind map about a topic or participate in a one-on-one interview or group discussion.

Diagnostic assessment can also take the form of problem-solving, although this is a more difficult method to apply, since ascertaining students’ level can be harder when they have been asked to solve a specific problem or situation. When using problem-solving, the teacher should focus on what the students are doing well as they attempt to solve the problem while also identifying areas in which they are lacking.

Formative assessment

Formative assessment sees the teacher carrying out small evaluations frequently during the course to collect evidence of progress or areas of difficulty for each student. The types of assessment used here are typically low-stakes items of work such as quizzes, one-minute reflective writing assignments or group work.

Based on the information gathered, the teacher can provide feedback, try to improve performance, motivate and assist students, as well as make adjustments to teaching strategies if needed.

To give feedback, the teacher can use synchronous sessions in Zoom, Teams or Socrative, or they might record videos or audio with specific recommendations. They can also promote reflection through self and/or peer assessment using Teammates, Google Forms or Survey Monkey.

Some benefits of formative assessment are that it can encourage students to play an active role in their learning process and involve them in metacognition activities. It also promotes self-regulation and strengthens student autonomy at the same time as encouraging interaction between teacher and student.

Summative assessment

Summative assessment is typically carried out at the end of a teaching and learning process and is thus usually seen as the means to measure “how much” a student has learned on the course or module. In many cases, summative assessment takes the form of an original, written piece such as a narrative or analytical essay. Other options include: a performance-based assessment, in which learners are required to carry out an activity or task; oral assessment, where learners create and present an oral piece, such as a speech or presentation; or a standardised assessment, where learners take an exam based on the course or subject.

Benefits of summative assessment are that it provides a final grade for a learner, which is often required by the institution, and also gives learners something to aim for, which can keep them motivated. It can also help teachers identify weaker areas in the learning process and thus understand which topics need more attention based on student outcomes.

Across all three types of assessment a variety of online applications can be used. These include Genially, Wooclap, Google Forms, Quizlet and Socrative; with these apps you can easily create interactive activities, from multiple-choice quizzes to crossword puzzles and much more. 

The three different types of assessment are often useful and/or necessary at different points in the learning process to help teachers understand their students’ previous level, the knowledge they have at any given moment or what they have learned by the end of a course. These days, educators can take advantage of a variety of tools such as real-time polls, drag-and-drop interactions, branching dialogue simulations and more.

Finally, remember that it is important to let students know the types of assessment being used, the strategies and instruments through which their learning will be evaluated and how they can/will receive feedback or advice.

Alejandra Govea Garza, Adriana González Nava and Paulo Mendoza Rivera are instructional designers at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, Mexico.

If you found this interesting and want advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site