Kennesaw State University

Summative Assessments

Writing by Aaron Burden Unsplash

by Josie Baudier

Offering varied types of assessments allows learners to express expertise and mastery in different ways.

Summative assessments shift the focus of learning from practice, in formative assessments, to mastery of the course goals. These types of assessments usually follow numerous opportunities for students to practice what they have learned in class through low-to mid-stakes assignments (formative assessments) supported by instructor feedback. In summative assessment, students should be ready to show proof of learning of the course goals. Examples of summative assessment include exams, papers, projects, or portfolios.

Although summative assessments are a critical component in a course, it is also important to support student learning through formative assessments and frequent feedback. For example, Weimer (2013) points out that providing feedback through the semester on writing will prepare students better for expectations on final papers or projects. By giving ungraded feedback on parts or drafts of a final summative event, students are more likely to meet the thresholds of the course goal established by the instructor. Formative assessments give students feedback which, in turn, supports their ability to show proof of learning on a summative assessment. Weimer’s (2013) focus on learner-centered experiences reminds instructors that a balance needs to be established between grades and assessments. The focus should be on learning processes and assessments should measure “critical thinking, logical reasoning, and the ability to synthesize and evaluate” (Weimer, 2013, p. 169). In order to demonstrate these skills, consider some of the following types of summative assessments and how to use them effectively in a course.


Davis (2009) provides a few general strategies for using examinations. Some of these are listed here with explanations:

1. Begin constructing an exam by focusing on learning outcomes

Align the type of exam and/or type of question to the learning outcomes and learning objectives (McKeachie, 2011).

2. View testing as an opportunity to understand students’ intellectual progress

For new learners in their first or second year, consider frequent testing events. As student develop skills, tests can become less systematic and more about “integration and analysis” of concepts (McKeachie, 2011, p. 84). Tests should begin about three or four weeks into a semester and should represent the type learning expected for the semester. Tests administered earlier in the semester may be used more for “motivational and diagnostic than evaluative” purposes (McKeachie, 2011, p. 83).

3. Create questions that test skills other than recall

Many exams are constructed with multiple choice questions as the main mechanism to prove learning. While these tests can be useful, it can be difficult to write multiple choice questions that measure the upper levels of cognition. The upper levels in the cognitive domain in Bloom’s Taxonomy include: analyzing, evaluating, creating (Anderson, L. W. & Krathwohl, D. R., et al, 2001. Adding short answer or essay questions may help to satisfy the need to test for more sophisticated knowledge acquisition or critical thinking skills.

4. Take precautions to avoid cheating

One way to reduce academic dishonesty is to lessen the anxiety of graded exams.  Offering multiple and varied types of assessments allows students to prove mastery of content in different expressions. This approach reduces student anxiety when they only have a limited number of grading opportunities (McKeachie, 2011). Another way to reduce cheating is to create a safe space for students to ask questions and clarify misconceptions. Developing trust and rapport with students will create a welcoming environment (McKeachie, 2011) and, therefore, students feel like they can get feedback on their learning progress.

5. Encourage reflection

If students are struggling, the instructor can talk with them about how they are studying. Introduce exam wrappers or metacognitive reflection activities to help students diagnose why they may or may not have been successful (Ambrose et al., 2010). By reflecting on their learning processes, exam preparation, and establishing ways of studying that should improve their learning, students will begin to feel in control of their learning.

Alternative summative assessments

Students can benefit from expressing their learning through papers, projects, or portfolios. Offering varied types of assessments allows learners to express expertise and mastery in different ways. McKeachie (2011) suggests a few different activities or assignments:

1. Graphic representation of concepts

Through concept maps or graphic organizers, student can learn to organize their thoughts and the content of course. Having students create the schema or connections by using a mapping tool helps to move the information from short-term to long-term memory. Building these connections is key to success in developing “flexible and effective knowledge organization” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p.65). These representations can be used as a summative evaluation or to create a project or paper.

2. Annotated bibliographies         

Annotated bibliographies can be used for students to frame a research paper or they can be used by an entire class to improve their writing on particular topics (McKeachie, 2011). Adding an annotated bibliography to a group project or presentation helps students divide up the focus of group projects and also ground their thoughts in research.

3. Portfolios

A portfolio is used to collect and highlight work from a student over a specific period of time. Students compose papers, exams, documents, or favorite content from a course throughout the semester in order to show evidence of learning. Students can use this to show their progress of learning, to solicit feedback during the process, or to simply explain their own development with certain content. In this way, a portfolio approach can be helpful to the students as well as instructors (McKeachie, 2011; Davis, 2009).

Consider offering students a range of summative assessments which provide different ways for students to demonstrate their mastery of the course objectives. Students will benefit from variety in their assessments by being motivated to show evidence of learning beyond the traditional midterm and final exam format. Alternative assessments may allow for student to process and make connections to the content. When using a traditional exam for assessment be sure to consider the strategies for aligning questions and varying the types of questions. There are several ways for students to prove their learning and show evidence of it. These options will enhance the learner-centeredness and student motivation in a course.



Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M., Norman, M. (2010). How learning

works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Anderson, L.W. (Ed.), Krathwohl, D.R. (Ed.), Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer,

R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M.C. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, an assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (Complete edition). New York: Longman.

Davis, B. G. (2009). Tools for teaching (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Svinicki, M. & McKeachie, W. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research,

and theory for college and university teachers (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice (2nd ed.).

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.