Grading vs. Assessment (Formative and Summative)

Grading: Summarizes many outcomes for one student.

Grades represent a sum of an individual student’s progress (outcomes) and overall performance. Grades often include other elements of course expectations beyond the learning goals and objectives, such as attendance. Grades tell us a student has learned something, but they don’t tell us what.

Assessment: Summarizes one outcome for many students.

Assessment rooted in learning goals and course objectives will tell us about the actual learning taking place. In order to improve student learning, we need to know specifically what our students understand-- and what our students still struggle with. Assessment gives us summarized information about the level and extent that our students have reached our intended learning outcomes.

Formative Assessment:

Formative assessment provides information that can be used to improve the learning experience while it's still happening. It is often low-stakes, allowing the student to gain the benefit of your expertise in order to improve their work. The best versions offer early and frequent feedback to both student and faculty member to inform study strategies and instructional methods. Students should always be made aware of what they should gain through this process — particularly if it is ungraded — so they can make the best use of the feedback. Ideally, they would come away with concrete steps to improve their work in order to meet the course goals and objectives. Formative assessment can include quizzes, clicker feedback, drafts, scaffolded assignments (abstract, outline, draft to prepare for a final essay), minute papers and daily writing, and journals and more.

Summative Assessment:

The goal of summative assessment to evaluate the sum of the student’s work so far against the learning goals and objectives for the course or unit. Summative assessments are generally higher stakes and often occur later in the semester. This does not mean that faculty should delay all graded, summative assessments until the end of the semester! In fact, TLI recommends that faculty provide early opportunities for summative assessment to gives students a sense of how this works in your particular class and to allow for corrective action on future summative assessments. Summative assessments can include graded quizzes, graded essays, unit exams, mid-term exams, final projects, senior recitals, final exams.


Imagine a course with several learning objectives, two of which are that students:

  1. will demonstrate understanding of the major figures of Hellenistic philosophy and
  2. will be able to write analytical essays, making proper use of academic sources.

The course has three essays, each covering the three different schools of Hellenistic thought. Prior to submitting the final version of each essay, students submit — and receive feedback on — essay abstracts, outlines, and drafts. Students also meet with their SAW mentor and faculty member to discuss draft revisions. Each essay provides a summative assessment of the student’s work, and it has been scaffolded within a series of formative assessments. To encourage students to use comments on each earlier essay — a summative assessment — as formative assessment feedback as well — learning from the feedback to improve work on the next essay — the faculty member has decided that Essay #1 will count for 20%, Essay #2 will count for 25%, and Essay #3 will count for 30%.