One of the primary purposes of assessment is to be summative. In its summative role, the purpose of assessment is to judge the quality and characteristics of the student and summarise these in a clear and widely acceptable format. Traditionally, the principal mechanism for summative assessment is the end-of-module examination. Summative assessment is assumed to help employers by providing ‘costless’ information on the productive potential of job applicants. It is also a mechanism for selecting students for post-compulsory education, and may be a factor in the reputation and financial security of institutions in higher education. Students care most about the results of summative assessment, as these impact on their employability and prospective earnings. Box 2 summarises the role and purpose of summative assessment.5
Assessment also has a formative function (Box 3). In this role, assessment is intimately linked with students’ learning processes, helping to guide them in their studies, motivating them, providing feedback on areas of learning requiring further work, and generally promoting the desired learning outcome. Whilst most assessment is both summative and formative, it is argued that the summative function increasingly predominates in a way that adversely affects student learning.
Assessment also contributes to evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of modules and improving the quality of learning delivery (Box 4).