Skip to main content

Formative Assessment

This policy should be read in conjunction with: 

  • The University's Learning and Teaching Handbook, and in particular the Principles of Assessment. 
  • Our glossary, which provides an explanation of many of the key terms below. 

What is formative assessment? 

In every module, students will be given assignments: tasks that will help them to develop the understanding, skills and dispositions that the module is designed to foster, and that will help them demonstrate that learning to their teachers. 

The assignments set for a module can be of two kinds. 

Summative assignments are the ones that count directly towards a student's final mark for the module. A student's performance in these assignment tasks is assessed to see whether the student has demonstrated their achievement of the learning outcomes set out in the module outline. 

Formative assignments are ones that have been designed to allow students to explore and develop some of the skills or gain some of the experience they will need for their summative assignments, and to get some useful feedback to help guide their learning. 

Strictly speaking, all assignments are formative, in that they all involve tasks that allow students to develop their skills, understanding, and dispositions, and they should all allow some kind of feedback that helps with the learning process. In practice, however, we tend to only to speak of an assignment as formative if it is not summative. So formative assignments are ones that do not count directly towards a student's final mark for the module. 

Formative assessment is the whole process by which formative assignments are set, students pursue them, and receive feedback (perhaps in a variety of forms, from a variety of sources) on their performance.  

What is it for – and what is it not for? 

The primary purpose of formative assessment is to help students develop the skills, dispositions, and understanding that will be tested by their summative assessment. 

One common but not always effective approach is to set students a similar task to one that they will face in their summative assessment, but focused on different subject matter. So if in their summative assessment they will have to write an essay on theologian X, they might be asked in their formative assignment to write a similar length essay on theologian Y. This kind of approach can, however, leave formative assessment less as a means of developing towards summative assessment and more as a means of making students cover a wider syllabus than might be demanded by their summative assessment alone. It can also leave students dissatisfied if their essay on theologian Y happens to do better than their essay on theologian X, and yet the mark for the latter is the only one that counts. 

It is better to think of formative assessment in a more strategic, more targeted way, as allowing students to explore, practice, and receive feedback on skills that are of direct use in their summative assessment. This does not mean that formative assessments have to consist of a 'dry run' version of a summative assessment, or preparation of some component of a summative assessment. Formative assessment can be much more creative than that, as long as it helps students develop in some way that will feed into their summative assessment. 

Formative assessment can also, however, be important in helping students explore some of the ways in which their learning in a particular module relates to their learning more generally, in ways that sit beside the formal learning outcomes of the module and are not intended to be directly assessed by the summative assessment. Formative assessment might, for instance, include reflection on the development of personal dispositions and character in relation to the subject matter of the module. Some dispositions are outlined in the aims of the programme; more extensive descriptions form the background to the different pathways leading to professional ministries, as, for example, the churches’ learning outcomes for ordained ministry. 

Does every module have to include formative assessment? 

Every module should be designed so that students are well prepared to undertake their summative assignments. There should therefore, in every module, normally be tasks set for students and feedback provided in some form on their performance of those tasks, in ways that help them prepare for their summative assignments. 

This does not mean that every module needs to include formal submission and marking of a piece of written work: formative tasks and feedback can be very much more varied than that. The tasks involved might be quite informal and small scale. 


These examples are not by any means exhaustive, and are simply meant to suggest some possibilities: 

  • Students could be asked to submit an outline or plan for a summative piece of work (an essay or oral presentation, perhaps), and be given feedback by their teacher, in order to help them focus on planning and structuring their work. 
  • Students could be asked to mark a short sample essay (not necessarily of a brilliant quality) in the light of the learning outcomes and marking criteria, and then discuss their rationale for their marks with a fellow student; the whole class could then discuss with their teacher questions provoked by the process. 
  • Students could be set a quiz or short test to help build their confidence that they've grasped the main points of the knowledge that they require; the test could be marked by the teacher, or be an automated online test. 
  • Students could be asked to draft one small part of a large summative piece (a dissertation, or a project), and then comment on the clarity of each other’s drafts in a group. The drafts could be submitted to their teacher, who would check briefly to make sure the students weren’t getting into difficulty. 
  • Students could be asked to précis a key text at a variety of lengths: say, in 100 words, and then in a single Tweet, and receive feedback on these from a teacher. 
  • Students could be asked to summarise the content of a lecture in three clear sentences, and their teacher could discuss those summaries with the class at the start of the next session, and use them to produce a shared summary. 
  • Students could be asked at the end of each class to write a note of one thing they learned, one thing they already knew, one thing that confused them, and one thing they want to know; their teacher can use these to shape the next session. 
  • After a key idea has been introduced to students, they could be split into pairs, and one of them asked to explain that key idea briefly to the other; the teacher can then ask for feedback from each pair, and use it to create a shared brief explanation of the idea.