Formative assessment is one of the most powerful tools for promoting student achievement by providing an understanding about how each student is progressing in their learning continuously, as it happens (Stiggins & DuFour, 2009). Summative assessment is focused on determining the outputs of the learning process in order to assign grades or for evaluation of the course, keeping in mind that it can be used for both evaluating output and evaluating the process used to create the output (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).
Summative assessment may be seen by some learners, especially those with a performance-focused orientation, as a way of comparing oneself to others, which can lead to less effective learning since the focus is on the display of mastery rather than on the actual learning process (Roll et al., 2011; Azevedo et al., 2008; Aleven et al., 2003; Butler, 1998). On the other hand, when formative assessments are used appropriately, they provide an opportunity to promote learning, self-improvement, and progress (Butler, 1998; Roll et al., 2011).
In order to allow learners to progress at their own pace, a combination of formative and summative assessment can be effective in helping learners understand what they need to focus on while learning and how to show they have attained competency in order to complete the course. This is especially important in an adult education environment, where each learner will come in with different levels of knowledge and experience, so effective assessment can help keep individuals progressing in those areas where they need assistance and complete the course when they can show they can perform at the appropriate level.
I'm always surprised, although I suppose I shouldn't be, how many students (yes, I'm purposely changing what I was calling learners previously to students, who may or may not be true learners) want to rush to the summative assessment and just "get it over with" instead of taking the time to use formative tools that are built into a course and provided in a very obvious way to guide their learning toward success. In some classes, a summative paper or objective exam may be actually used in a formative way as it is graded, feedback is given, and if the student is not happy with their result may revise and resubmit. It's a great way to approach things in theory, taking a bit of the edge off a high stakes summative assessment. But it also can lead to students throwing things at the wall to see what sticks even though they know they are not ready. I frequently make the point that when students say they don't know what they should be studying, then they know exactly what they should be studying, i.e. everything.
That is a key metacognitive error (White & Frederiksen, 2005), to know one is not prepared but not know what they are missing, so instead of taking the time to use provided course materials and formative assessments and guidance from a faculty member to figure out what they are missing, they jump immediately to whatever the summative assessment activity is and try repeatedly to ram it through even though they are not at the right level of cognitive preparedness (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001) for it. It is thus important not only to provide appropriately designed scaffolding leading up to a summative assessment but also help learners understand why they are built that way so they are willing to use it.
Aleven, V., Stahl, E., Schworm, S., Fischer, F., & Wallace, R. (2003). Help seeking and help design in interactive learning environments. Review of Educational Research, 73(3).
Anderson, L.W. & Krathwohl, D.R. (2001). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. New York: Longman.
Azevedo, R., Moos, D.C., Greene, J.A., Winters, F.I., & Cromley, J.G. (2008). Why is externally-facilitated regulated learning more effective than self-regulated learning with hypermedia? Educational Technology Research and Development, 56(1).
Butler, R. (1998). Determinants of help seeking: Relations between perceived reasons for classroom help-avoidance and help-seeking behaviors in an experimental context. Journal of Educational Psychology 90(4).
Roll, I., Aleven, V., McLaren, B.M., & Koedinger, K.R. (2011). Improving students’ help-seeking skills using metacognitive feedback in an intelligent tutoring system. Learning and Instruction, 21(2).
Stiggins, R. & DuFour, R. (2009). Maximizing the Power of Formative Assessments. Phi Delta Kappan 90(9). Retrieved January 31, 2013 from http://alaskacc.org/sites/alaskacc.org/files/Stiggins%20article.pdf.
White, B., Frederiksen, J. (2005). A theoretical framework and approach for fostering metacognitive development. Educational Psychologist, 40(4).