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Summative Feedback: Giving Feedback on a Project or Exam

What is summative feedback?

Summative feedback is what students receive at the end of a class, for instance on a final exam or project. Summative feedback is therefore typically aimed at helping students understand how well they have done in mastering the full range of skills and knowledge taught in an entire class.

Why is it important?

Summative feedback is essential for students to understand how far they have come in mastering the material of the class, what they need further work on, and what they should study next. This can all have huge implications for the life choices that students makes, particularly in contemplating and pursuing their major fields of study. Beyond a major, summative feedback can influence how students regard themselves and academic disciplines for years after graduation.

Summative feedback is likely to be especially critical in this time of remote instruction. Online education can often feel fragmented and amorphous, making it harder for students to develop an overall sense of what they have gained from taking a class. Clear information from you can help them see how much they have learned over the term, what gaps remain, and what their next steps should be in planning their university career.

What does good summative feedback look like?

Above all, summative feedback should grow naturally out of the learning goals and the formative feedback of the class. If, for instance, an explicit learning goal of the class is writing effective thesis statements, and if multiple assignments over the quarter have evaluated the student in terms of writing effective thesis statements, then the summative feedback will prominently feature this skill as well. No metric, then, in summative feedback should come as a surprise to the students.

To ensure this consistency of evaluation, many instructors use rubrics for both formative and summative feedback. Rubrics provide stated, consistent metrics on how well students are meeting learning goals. A virtue of using rubrics in formative assessments is that their language can be repurposed for crafting summative assessments. In addition, rubrics are faster to use in grading, and help to create consistency between multiple graders and across assignments.

A good resource on rubrics is this website from Carnegie Mellon University.

How does academic integrity work with online summative exams?

There are special considerations for academic integrity in online classes, and we cover them as a special topic in our post “The Honor Code and academic integrity in online learning.” Other important references are this post from the Office of Community Standards and these FAQs from the Stanford Teach Anywhere site.

In general, key practices to avoid cheating on final exams are:

  • Chunk grading out into many assignments and exams over the term, so that the final exam does not carry undue weight.
  • Set clear expectations about what is expected of students and yourself according to the Honor Code.
  • Write exams that emphasize process over simple content. These are both harder to cheat on and emphasize more sophisticated learning. For instance, a math exam in which students get credit for showing work is better than one in which they only get credit for correct answers; a literature exam in which students analyze course texts using genre terms is better than an exam in which they simply define those terms.

Other than exams, what type of assignments can be used for summative assessments?

A summative assessment need not be an exam, and in recent years a number of alternatives have been gaining in popularity. Three of the most popular are presentations, projects, and portfolios. Presentations emphasize a high level of content mastery (the ability to teach others what one has learned) and community building (students sharing their learning with one another). Projects and portfolios both have the advantage of allowing students to work over a sustained period of time, getting feedback from you along the way. These options can also feature more in-depth application of learning than is typically possible in an exam.

In all of these options, the aim is for the summative assessment to feature the range of key learning that you are hoping students acquire in the class. Projects can be done either by an individual student or a group. Portfolios are usually done by individual students, and are often now done using ePortfolios. In a portfolio, students curate and reflect on their work over the term, which allows this summative project to build in the formative assessments that have contributed to students' learning.