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Summative assessment is defined by Advance HE as ‘the process of evaluating learning at the conclusion of a programme of study’. Summative assessment is usually compared against a common standard or benchmark. Summative assessments include, but are not limited to, quality-assured assessments delivered by examination, essays and coursework. 

To be effective, quality summative assessments should be aligned with the module and programme’s intended learning outcomes. They should be designed to indicate a student’s progress at the end of a period of learning, for example a unit of work or a module, although this may not be the only measure of a student’s progress. 

Summative assessments should be aligned to and complemented by the formative assessments that precede it. They should include opportunities for students, their peers or staff to review their work before the assessment, so they can familiarise themselves with the type of assessment set and identify areas where their understanding can be improved. 

The criteria for summative assessments should be clearly defined so that students know what is required of them to achieve the highest possible grade. This ensures there is clarity in the marking criteria and little is left to opinion. Summative assessment should not be marked by only one person, and it should be externally validated. 

One of the most enduring frameworks to define what makes a good assessment is van der Vleuten’s notion of assessment utility, which he defined as the product of:

  • reliability
  • validity
  • feasibility
  • cost effectiveness
  • acceptance
  • educational impact (Kibble, 2017)

Best Practice Tips

To design effective summative assessments, we need to have clear Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs). These describe the levels of understanding we want from our students in what topics, and what performances of understanding would evidence this. Remember that from the students’ point of view the assessment is the curriculum (Ramsden, 1992), therefore the assessment must mirror the ILOs of the module. This is called Constructive Alignment (Biggs, 2003). 

The assessment needs to be designed with accessibility and inclusivity in mind. Things that you can do to enable this include: 

  • Provide an outline of the assessment type and clear and transparent marking criteria. This will allow students to understand how they are being assessed. 
  • Have a diverse mix of assessment types (in-class tests, multiple choice questions, group presentations, creation of audio-visual material, performance, reflective diaries or laboratory work). This will ensure that specific students are not disadvantaged by specific assessment type. 
  • Assess students at the appropriate level using Blooms’ Taxonomy (see Effective Assessment), e.g. it’s probably not appropriate for a final year exam to be testing a students’ ability to memorise a definition; it should be asking them to apply their understanding to a much higher order of reasoning. 

Summative assessment should ideally examine real-world applications. It’s one thing for students to memorise a fact or answer; it’s another for them to comprehend the material, and communicate this comprehension, in ways that will be helpful later in life. 

Further Reading

Brown, S and Race, P. Using effective assessment and feedback to promote learning University teaching in focus a learning-centred approach. Second edition. Hunt L, Chalmers D, editors. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge; 2021.

Kibble, J. (2017). Best practices in summative assessment. Advances in Physiology Education, 41(1), pp.110-119. 

Sambell K. Assessment for learning in higher education. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge; 2013.