The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

1.3 The purpose of assessment - a generic review

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

Box 2 Purpose of summative assessment

  • To pass or fail a student.
  • To grade or rank a student.
  • To allow progress to further study.
  • To assure suitability for work.
  • To predict success in future study and work.
  • To signal employability and selection for employment.

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.

Box 3 Purpose of formative assessment

  • To provide feedback to students.
  • To motivate students.
  • To diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses.
  • To help students to develop self-awareness.

Assessment also contributes to evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of modules and improving the quality of learning delivery (Box 4).

Box 4 Purpose of assessment with respect to quality assurance

  • To provide feedback to lecturers on student learning.
  • To evaluate a module’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • To improve teaching.
  • To ensure the module is creditworthy.
  • To monitor standards over time.