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Comparing Summative and Formative Evaluation Approaches

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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What differentiates formative evaluation from summative evaluation is the role of feedback obtained; this feedback enables instructors to modify instructional activities midstream in light of their effectiveness, impact, and value.


The posting below looks at the relative strengths and drawbacks of formative and summative course evaluations. It is from Chapter 4 – Conducting Formative Reviews to Enhance Online Teaching, in the book Evaluating Online Teaching: Implementing Best Practices by Thomas J. Tobin, B. Jean Mandernach, and Ann H. Taylor. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis

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Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Comparing Summative and Formative Evaluation Approaches


Summative evaluations emphasize an overall judgement of one’s effectiveness in teaching online. Conducted at the end of a course or program, the focus of summative evaluations is to measure and document quality indicators for decision-making purposes. Although information gained from summative evaluations may be used to improve future teaching performance, the information is not provided in a timely fashion to provide opportunities for revision or modification of instructional strategies while the teaching and learning is still in progress.

Summative evaluations are designed to measure instructor performance following a sustained period of teaching with the focus on identifying the effectiveness of instruction. Summative evaluations provide a means of accountability in gauging the extent to which an instructor meets the institution’s expectations for online teaching. Because summative evaluations are a central component of gauging instructional effectiveness at most institutions, the high-stakes nature mandates that these evaluations are valid and reliable. Summative evaluations provide the following:

-       Information concerning instructor adherence to teaching expectations

-       A basis for comparing instructor performance to reference groups and external performance criteria

-       A means of determining the effectiveness of instructional activities

-       Objective information for determining course assignments

-       Comparative data to determine employment decisions (continuation, tenure, promotion, etc.)

-       Diagnostic information about strengths and weaknesses in instructor performance

-       Data to determine achievement of departmental or curriculum performance expectations

By contrast, formative evaluations aim to gain quick feedback about the effectiveness of current instructional strategies with the explicit goal of enhancing teaching during the target course. The focus of formative evaluation is on soliciting feedback that enables timely revisions to enhance the learning process. Formative evaluations are designed to provide information to help instructors improve their online instruction. Formative evaluations may be conducted at any time throughout the instructional process to monitor the value and impact of instructional practices or to provide feedback on teaching strengths and challenges.

What differentiates formative evaluation from summative evaluation is the role of feedback obtained; this feedback enables instructors to modify instructional activities midstream in light of their effectiveness, impact, and value. Because formative evaluations are designed to guide the teaching process – and are not used as outcome indicators – they are generally individualized evaluations that are under the control of the instructor and target specific instructional issues or concerns. Unlike the more general summative evaluations, formative evaluations may include any targeted attempt to gain feedback for the purposes of enhancing instruction during the teaching and learning process. Formative evaluations provide the following:

-       Insight on pedagogical strengths and challenges in relation to specific course concepts

-       Guidance to improve teaching strategies

-       A means of monitoring progress or growth in teaching effectiveness

-       Diagnostic information concerning the impact of instructional practices

-       A nonthreatening environment to identify and correct challenges in instruction (Chatterji, 2003)

For formative evaluation to be effective, it must be goal-directed with a clear purpose, provide feedback that enables actionable revisions, and be implemented in a timely manner to enable revisions within the active teaching-learning cycle. Formative evaluations are most effective when they are focused on a specific instructional strategy or concern. Focused formative evaluations produce more specific, targeted feedback that is amenable to actionable change. For example, rather than ask a general question, such as “How can the instructor be more effective in the online classroom?” one might ask about a specific aspect of the online classroom, such as “What can the instructor do in the asynchronous discussion threads to foster more engaged dialogue?” This type of targeted question encourages a richer, deeper response that is more likely to provide insight into how specific instructional strategies can be improved.

See Table 4.1 for more details on the relative strengths and drawbacks of each evaluation approach.






Summative evaluations

Necessary for determining faculty effectiveness teaching online


Promotes instructor, department, and college accountability


Provides a means of evaluating the impact or value of instructional activities


Monitors instructor’s adherence to institutional expectations for online teaching

Tendency for overreliance on summative measures


Does not provide information for correcting errors during the teaching and learning process


Fails to capture improvements or gains in instructional ability


May be inappropriate to apply equally to all instructors because of differences in experience, discipline, or instructional goals

Formative evaluations

Enables the identification and correction of ineffective instructional practices


Promotes active reflection on the effectiveness of instruction


Encourages feedback that enhances quality of online teaching


Low-stakes nature encourages feedback-revision-improvement cycle

May be difficult to motivate voluntary inclusion or use (if not required)


Requires acknowledgement, inclusion, or revision based on feedback


Often dependent on individual faculty for effective inclusion



Chatterji, M. (2003). Designing and using tools for educational assessment. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.