What are summative assessments?

Summative assessments are implemented at the end of a unit, set of units, or entire course to assess and evaluate the extent to which students have achieved the learning objectives (knowledge, skills, and behaviors) for that period of instruction. Summative assessments are typically higher stakes (higher point value) than formative assessments and tend to constitute a relatively larger proportion of a student’s grade. Whereas formative assessments provide feedback on student learning while learning is in progress, summative assessments primarily evaluate how much learning has occurred by the end of an instructional period. 

What makes a summative assessment equity-minded?

Equity-minded summative assessments are: 

  1. Relevant: Well-aligned with the learning objectives for that period of instruction. Some definitions also consider relevant assessments as those that reflect the goals, interests, or experiences of students (Artze-Vega et al., 2023).
  2. Authentic: Provide students with meaningful ways to demonstrate the knowledge or skills they have acquired. For example, this could involve applying course concepts to real-world problems, topics, or careers (Wiggins, 1990). Although all authentic assessments are also relevant, authentic assessments additionally aim to simulate tasks that students will encounter in their academic, professional, or personal lives. 
  3. Rigorous: Set high expectations and encourage students to engage in cognitively demanding tasks. Designing rigorous assessments communicates the belief that all students, regardless of their background, have the potential to succeed on challenging tasks if given sufficient support. This actively counteracts the harmful practice of giving less instruction and fewer challenging tasks to minoritized students under the assumption that these students have limited capabilities (Artze-Vega et al., 2023). 
  4. Transparent: Explicitly communicate both the purpose of the assessment and the criteria for success (e.g. using rubrics). Additionally, sample assignments or questions should be made available to students where possible. Furthermore, it is important to be transparent about policies related to grading, use of technology (Generative AI, Search Tools), and collaboration. Transparency helps students achieve the high expectations set by equity-minded assessments. It has also been shown to promote student motivation, sense of belonging, and increased retention rates, particularly among first generation, BIPOC, and international students (Winkelmes, 2023).
  5. Inclusive: Designed to mitigate cultural and other biases through the use of language and examples that are relevant to the diverse lived experiences of students in the classroom (Montenegro & Jankowski, 2020). Inclusive assessments also avoid the use of jargon and ambiguous language that could make the test difficult for students to understand (thereby also undermining transparency). Additionally, inclusive assessments can involve giving students options and flexibility to choose from varied formats and types of assessments to demonstrate their learning.  

Best practices when designing summative assessments

Although high-stakes summative assessments can be useful for encouraging students to synthesize knowledge over relatively broad periods of instruction, they are also more anxiety-inducing for students in comparison with lower-stakes assessments (Hembree, 1988; Wood et al., 2016; Silaj et al., 2021). Further, high-stakes summative assessments in most courses tend to take place later during the semester which can place multiple demands on students. In such situations, students may tend to procrastinate or manage time poorly resulting in bad performance on such high stakes exams. With this in mind, there are ways to design and implement summative assessments to reduce anxiety and prepare students to succeed, while still ensuring these assessments are rigorous and promote just and equitable learning outcomes. Some examples include:

  1. Breaking down summative assessments, such as major projects and papers, into smaller, more manageable steps. Being explicit in how students can seek feedback, can particularly benefit international and first-generation students who are getting acquainted with a new academic culture. 
  2. Providing opportunities for revisions based on self, peer, or instructor feedback.
  3. Having students complete multiple low-stakes formative assessments (e.g., short quizzes) prior to a high-stakes summative assessment (e.g., exam).
  4.  Scaffolding assignments to provide more guidance early on but progressively increase the level of independence later on in the assignment.
  5. Implementing course policies to allow students to drop their lowest grade or retake an exam.
  6. Invest time in class to teach students how to use AI tools like Chat-GPT or Co-pilot, reference managers, or search engines that can aid their performance through practice. This can reduce student anxiety around tackling summative assessments and also reduce the tendency to plagiarize or inappropriately use content produced by generative AI. 

All these strategies allow summative assessments to set high expectations while simultaneously lowering the stakes and providing students with ample opportunities to practice, improve, and ultimately achieve those high expectations (Schrank 2016).


Artze-Vega, I., Darby, F., Dewsbury, B., & Imad, M. (2023). The Norton Guide to Equity-Minded Teaching, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Instructional scaffolding to improve learning. Northern Illinois University.

Hembree, R. (1988). Correlates, causes, effects, and treatment of test anxiety. Review of Educational Research, 58(1), 47–77.

Montenegro, E., & Jankowski, N. A. (2020, January). A new decade for assessment: Embedding equity into assessment praxis (Occasional Paper No. 42). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).

Shapiro, S., Farrelly, R., & Tomaš, Z. (2023). Chapter 4: Effective and Equitable Assignments and Assessments. Fostering International Student Success in higher education (pp, 61-87, second edition). TESOL Press.

Schrank, Z. (2016). An assessment of student perceptions and responses to frequent low-stakes testing in Introductory Sociology classes. Teaching Sociology, 44(2), 118–127.

Silaj, K. M., Schwartz, S. T., Siegel, A. L. M., Castel, A.D.(2021). Test anxiety and metacognitive performance in the classroom. Educational Psychology Review, 33, 1809–1834.

Wiggins, G. (1990). The case for authentic assessment. Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation, 2, 1–3.

Winkelmes, M. (2023). Introduction to Transparency in Learning and Teaching. Perspectives In Learning, 20(1). Columbus, GA: CSUE Press.

Wood, S. G., Hart, S. A., Little, C. W., & Phillips, B. M. (2016). Test anxiety and a high-stakes standardized reading comprehension test: A behavioral genetics perspective. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 62(3), 233–251.

Further readings and resources:

Office of Instructional Consultation. Low + High-stakes assessments. University of California, Santa Barbara.

Fournier, K. A., Couret, J., Ramsay, J. B., & Caulkins, J. L. (2017). Using collaborative two-stage examinations to address test anxiety in a large enrollment gateway course. Anatomical Sciences Education, 10(5), 409–422. 

Morrison R., University of Tasmania. (2020, February 11). Don’t “just Google it”: 3 ways students can get the most from searching online. The Conversation. 

Writing Across the Curriculum. (2019, July 23). Using citation management tools in writing assignments. University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 Mollick, E., Mollick, L. (2023, August 9). Practical AI for instructors and students: Part 5. Wharton School of Business: Interactive.