Summative Feedback: Focusing on Learning and Grading

Daniel Emery

Research in teaching with writing consistently emphasizes the importance of early, formative feedback on writing as critical for students' growth as writers. Formative comments on works in progress can affirm effective writing choices, correct misconceptions and misunderstandings, and coach students on various improvements they can make to their written work. The labor of revising and extending their writing based on expert feedback provides some of the most engaging and practical lessons for developing writers.

Aurora displayed over dock and water in Glacier National Park.

Still, this is not to say that summative feedback is insignificant—and since December is the month of final grades, this blog post discusses strategies for incorporating meaningful feedback with summative assessments. By shifting students' focus from receiving a single grade to reflecting upon semester-long learning goals, summative feedback on writing can affirm students' growth and help them to transfer learning across contexts.

What is summative feedback?

Summative feedback includes the comments and advice accompanying summative assessments, like letter grades or numerical scores. While formative feedback emphasizes coaching for revision, summative feedback rarely implies the need for additional rewriting and engagement with the assignment. Summative feedback focuses on evaluating students’ progress as learners on a given topic (growth) and describing students' current state of knowledge and performance on a subject (achievement). Ideally, summative feedback will help students remember how far they have come and understand where they may continue to improve.

Unfortunately, this feedback is often ignored if students are less concerned with learning than with their final grades. For that reason, the emphasis of summative feedback may focus less on the features of a student’s submission and more on how their work demonstrates they have achieved the broader learning goals of the course.

Advice for effective summative feedback

Use scoring rubrics to differentiate grading from commentary. 

Students benefit from assignment sheets that include evaluation criteria and access to scoring sheets and rubrics. In both cases, clarity about the assignment's purpose, audience, and evaluation standards make it easier for students to meet the instructor’s expectations. (More information about designing rubrics for writing assignments can be found on our Teaching Resources pages). Rather than appending summative commentary to the rubric or scoring sheet, consider offering summative feedback independently or in an alternative format.

Ask students to specify the feedback they would prefer. 

When students submit their final documents, ask them to append a cover memo describing their experience with the assignment and identify the feedback they find most helpful (e.g., questions about clarity, notes about what is working well for you as a reader, attention to sentence-level usage and punctuation, etc.). If you already require students to submit revision memos, appending a question about preferred feedback can be a simple addition.

Focus on key learning goals for the course.

While formative commentary often focuses on improving specific features of a document, summative commentary can concentrate on the conceptual, procedural, and metacognitive knowledge students have developed over the term. As students' final assignments often combine learning across the semester into a larger document or project, summative comments can help students see the bigger picture.

Emphasize how student learning will transfer to new contexts. 

While students will not submit additional assignments after a summative assessment, the learning they do connects to their future courses and their post-graduation futures. Highlighting how the skills developed in one class will apply in future contexts can help students retain and build upon their learning. If the program, major, or department had curriculum-wide expectations, referencing these abilities or outcomes can be particularly effective.

Two instructor benefits of summative feedback

While summative feedback benefits students in their growth, composing summative feedback is also helpful for instructors when preparing for their next teaching opportunity. When feedback reveals a consistent pattern of weakness or a learning goal that remains unmet, this insight can lead to revision of course contents, amendments to course calendars, or the development of supplemental instruction resources for future students.

Similarly, saving summative feedback can be extremely helpful when students return for letters of recommendation or references after the semester. Summative feedback typically highlights strengths with specific examples and can help to personalize recommendations with concrete examples.

Additional Resources

Linda Adler-Kastner and Peggy O’Neill. Reframing Writing Assessment to Improve Teaching and Learning. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010.

Huot, Brian. “Chapter 3: Assessing, Grading, Testing, and Teaching Writing.” Rearticulating Writing Assessment for Teaching and Learning. Boulder: University Press of Colorado/Utah State University Press, 2002.

Maki, Peggy L. Assessing for Learning. Building a Sustainable Commitment Across the Institution. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Further Support

See the Teaching with Writing pages and our Teaching Resources for more advice. Our WAC program hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online!

January is prime time for developing and revising courses and assignments!  Contact us to schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation before the start of the spring semester.