Types Of Assessments (Formative, Diagnostic, Summative, and Surveys)

March 22, 2009 at 2:50 pm 4 comments

I was working with Dr. Will Thalheimer of Work-Learning Research a few days ago on an interview style video around learning, e-learning, assessments and the macro economy’s impact on learning and assessment.  It was fun and I learned a bunch about the challenges that this type of production entailed. I’ll provide some links out to this when I get them form Will.

My discussions will Will, an expert in effective learning interventions, learning environments and the challenges of the forgetting curve prompted me to think more deeply about how we distinguish different style of assessments. And so I though it might be useful to share some distinctions with you on the types of assessments that we use during the process of learning.

Formative Assessments

My definition: Formative Assessments (quizzes and practices tests) are used to strengthen memory recall by practice and to correct misconceptions and to promote confidence in ones knowledge.


In the learning process we are trying to transfer knowledge and skills to a persons’ memory so that they become competent to perform a task. During that process people might fail to pay attention, fail to grasp everything taught or simply forget things even though they once knew it. Most learning environments use simple Formative questions as they can:

  1. Create intrigue in order to create a learning moment that motivates the learner to pay attention.
  2. Focus the leaner’s attention towards the importance of key topics.
  3. Reduce the forgetting curve; by recalling previous knowledge and skills we strengthen the ability to recall that knowledge or skill.
  4. We can correct misconceptions where someone formed invalid connections, however, that does border on the purpose of a Diagnostic assessment.

Typically a Formative Assessment does not need to store results as the job of the assessment is completed by providing the stimulus which causes the memory ‘muscle’ to be strengthened just as lifting a weight in a gym strengthen other muscles. Sometimes results are stored in order to track how instruction might be improved.

Diagnostic Assessments

DiagnosticAssessments When we visit our doctor we’d become concerned if our doctor prescribed pills without asking us any questions. Doctors typically ask where the pain is located, when the pain happens, is the pain associated with certain activities. The doctor might run tests on our blood or other bodily fluid (ugh)! And so it is with Diagnostic Assessments.

First we seek to understand the current knowledge, skill, and/or ability of the Participant so that we can diagnose the gap and thereby provide a prescription for learning if required.

Diagnostic questions might be self-assessment style of questions such as “Please rate your ability to ….” or test questions such as “Which savings plan would you suggest to a married man of 42 with 3 kids and dog and a large mortgage?”.  Either way the goal is to match the responses to the benchmark required in order to diagnose the gaps and prescribe something useful.

Diagnostic Assessments can be used to direct people to the right learning experience such as a class, conversation with a Subject Matter Expert (SME), a web search, a book, an elearning course, etc.

Diagnostic Assessments are not designed to stregthen memory recall, however, by their very nature they do provide some of those characterics.

Summative Assessments

SummativeAssessments Tests and exams designed to measure knowledge, skills, and abilities are known as Summative Assessments.  These are typically used to certify people have a certain level of knowledge, skills, and/or ability. Often these certifications grant people access to something previously not permitted such as a license to drive or be promoted within an organization or have physical access to dangerous materials.  because of this “Grant of Access” Summative Assessments are typically Higher Stakes assessments.  Typically Summative Assessments has “Pass” and “Fail” associated with them which distinguishes them from Formative and Diagnostic which don’t.  There are two basic types of Summative Assessments:

  1. Norm Referenced

    Where a Participant’s pass is determined by their positioning within a group of test takers.  The Participants’ results are compared to the others in the group after everyone has completed the assessment. This is often used in environments where the number of places in the next course or job role is limited and so only a certain number of people can pass.  A Norm Referenced test will tease out the best people within the group that took that test but the quality of competence passing will vary from one sitting of the test to the next.

  2. Criterion Referenced

    When the criterion for passing a test has been predetermined it is known as a Criterion Reference Assessment.  The most used Criterion Reference Assessment on the planet is the driving test. The criteria for passing has been determined prior to the test and you normally know whether you have passed or failed immediately; well you certainly could although sometimes administrative processes slow things up.

Criterion Reference Assessments are often used to certify Regulatory Compliance tests, HIPPA compliance, pre-employment test, and IT certification exams.


image We’ve all completed surveys and we all can recognize that results have to be stored and aggregated to help with the analytics. A common question type used within surveys is a Likert scale item developed by Rensis Likert, an American educator and organizational psychologist. Likert scales prompt a Participant with a statement and they respond by specifying their level of agreement to a statement which is then transposed to a number to ease the measurement and analytics process.

Course Evaluation are the most commonly used survey type within the Learning Process but others survey types include Job Task Analysis, Needs Analysis,  360  and other forms of peer review assessments, Employee Attitude, Customer Satisfaction, Partner Satisfaction and Political Opinion surveys.

Each form of Assessment has its own set of challenges for developing and maintaining the instrument, for delivering questions, providing feedback to the participants and stakeholders, and then performing the analysis of results; but that will have to wait for another blog entry!


Entry filed under: Assessment, Learning, Professional Life, Talent Management. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Distinguishing Low, Medium and High Stakes Assessments As Learning and Assessment Professionals What Could We Have Done to Prevent the Financial Crisis

4 Comments Add your own

  • […] We produced the first edition of this a few years ago when there was confusion around the security requirements for the various types of assessments.  It was painful, but also amusing, to hear people engaged in confusing conversations about “Assessment Security” when they had insufficient distinctions around low, medium and high stakes assessments (see previous post on Distinguishing Low Medium and High Stakes Assessments) and/or the different types of assessments (see previous post on Types of Assessments Formative Diagnostic Summative and Surveys). […]

  • […] April 2, 2009 One of my friends, traveling in Australia and attending the LearnX conference,  alerted me to a study by researchers from the Faculty of Medicine at The University of New South Wales that I thought might be useful after my post on the various Types of Assessments. […]

  • […] I wanted to share some work with you on how to logically organize assessments and came up with this simple model which seems to resonate with the people that I present it to.  You might also be interested in my previous article on Types Of Assessments (Formative, Diagnostic, Summative, and Surveys).. […]

  • […] I wanted to share some work with you on how to logically organize assessments and came up with this simple model which seems to resonate with the people that I present it to.  You might also be interested in my previous article on Types Of Assessments (Formative, Diagnostic, Summative, and Surveys).. […]


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