Formative vs summative

Feedback serves a very important purpose. Good feedback at university is designed to contribute to your academic development and you should think about how you can make best use of feedback on previous work to help you improve the next piece.

Every piece of work you do will fall into one of two categories: formative or summative. Each one has a different purpose.

Formative and summative

Formative assessment

Formative assessment helps you to improve. It doesn’t count towards your final degree, but the lessons you learn through doing this type of assessment will help you to achieve a better final grade. For this reason, the feedback you get on formative assessments is very important. It will tell you where your weak points are, and what you need to do to improve.

Summative assessment

Summative assessment measures how well you’ve done. All summative assessment counts towards your final degree, and is likely to happen at the end of a set period (term, semester, academic year, etc.). The feedback from this work will show you how well you have performed and what your next steps should be.

How to use feedback

Staff member answering a question from a studentBe prepared for your feedback to include criticism of your work – your tutors want to see you develop and progress. Think of feedback as more of a conversation between you and your tutors.  The key thing to remember is that feedback is not just about what you do wrong. Look at where you have excelled, then think about why this worked – is it something you can apply to future assignments?

Even if the feedback initially seems quite negative, all feedback you receive can be helpful. Concentrate on finding out what you did wrong or missed out in a piece of work and use it to help you think about how you can improve.

You will receive feedback that you may not have anticipated and it is useful to think about how you can use this information. For example, if a marker says "I found this argument difficult to follow", you should ask your reader to show you where in your work they got lost. Consider some of the points below when you think about making the most of feedback:

  • Think about what kind of feedback you would like before you hand your work in. You might want advice on how to plan your argument, or whether you’ve understood a particular concept correctly;
  • When you receive feedback, be sure not to focus only on the grade you receive. Reflect on the written comments noted by your tutor in your feedback too.
  • If your tutor leaves any questions on your work, take time to think about how you might answer those - you might find it’s a valuable learning opportunity to see how you would tackle those questions, and will prepare you for future assignments.
  • Self-assess your work before submitting it for marking. It’s good practice to reflect on the quality of your work, and you may identify areas for improvement before submission.
  • Try to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your work yourself. If your analysis matches up to that of the person marking the work, you’ll know that you understand your capabilities;
  • Look up references that lecturers suggest for you – there's always a reason if they have done so;
  • As a study exercise, you could consider re-writing certain elements of assignments, applying your new knowledge to cement the feedback;
  • You might want to ask your tutor for feedback on a draft or plan of an essay. Many students do not want to hand in unfinished work, but getting feedback on a plan or draft can be very helpful;
  • Get to know students on your course in the year above – students who are ahead of you in the course may have helpful insights you can learn from.
  • Listen to peer feedback. There may be times in class when your fellow students are asked to comment on something you have done - make sure you note down and take on board any constructive comments.