Mary McGee Wood - Assessment and Feedback - Training and Consultancy

Types of assessment

By "types" of assessment, I mean assessments typically found at specific times in the progression of a formal programme of learning, each with a typical associated primary function.

  • Diagnostic: at the beginning, to identify the level of students' background and any particular needs for remedial support.
  • Formative: throughout a course, to focus and reinforce learning and teaching.
  • Summative: at the end, to evaluate each student's level of achievement.
  • Re-validation: later, to ensure that knowledge and skills have not been lost over time.

Note 1: The terminology used in the literature for types of assessment shows great diversity. My usage is not, I hope, contentious; but should be made clear.

Note 2: Of course these are not pure types - almost any assessment can have aspects of more than one. However it is helpful to start with a clear picture before looking at how it blurs.

Diagnostic assessment

Greatly under-used in UK Higher Education, diagnostic assessment at the beginning of a course can establish students' level of understanding of essential background, and enable teachers to pitch at the right level. You don't have to assume that every student who has passed someone else's first-year physics course is - or isn't - ready for your second-year physics course. Diagnostic testing of international students' English language proficiency is becoming common.

The cost if you get it wrong: students may be put in the wrong place. Put someone in a course which is too advanced, without support in catching up, and they will struggle and probably fail. Put someone in a course which is too simple, without support in exploring beyond the syllabus, and they will lose interest. Either is a needless waste of resource and potential.

Formative assessment

Formative assessment is primarily a vehicle for feedback, to identify students' strengths and weaknesses and to focus and reinforce learning and teaching. It is common for mid-course tests to carry some marks, but this is often a bribe for the students to take them, rather than a significant summative element. Conversely, the growing trend for universities to give students feedback on formal end-of-course exams gives these a formative aspect, although their primary function remains summative.

The cost if you get it wrong: lost students who could have been rescued may stay lost. This can apply to whole cohorts: interim testing gives feedback to teachers as much as to students. I have often changed a course on the fly when a mid-semester test showed me that some particular point had generally not been understood.

Summative assessment

Summative assessment is primarily a vehicle for final evaluation, and typically leads to some sort of score indicating each student's level of achievement. This can act as a gateway to a further level of learning, such as progression to the next year of a degree course (where there may be a secondary formative aspect). A final degree result may be a license to practice a profession.

The cost if you get it wrong: misjudging a student - for better or for worse - could be life-changing. Thus accuracy, consistency, accountability and transparency are all essential in summative assessment.


Uncommon in UK Higher Education, but an important point on the scale, re-validation is later testing to ensure that knowledge and skills have not been lost over time, and often determines whether a license to practice remains valid (thus the name). For example, holders of a Private Pilot's License must be re-tested every two years in order to keep their license. It is reasonable to expect that a similar condition on automobile drivers would dramatically reduce the death rate on Britain's roads.

The cost if you get it wrong: people will be out there licensed to do things they don't actually remember how to do. In the case of a doctor or a car driver, they could kill people.