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Summative vs. Formative Assessment

Compliance training programs are built around assessments. In fact, compliance training often prepares learners to complete a specific assessment—the credentialing or licensing exam. Along the way, tests, quizzes, and even individual knowledge check questions help both students and instructors see what students know and what they have left to learn. When and why learners take these tests determines whether they are summative or formative assessments. 

Regulators and employers need both types of assessments to create an effective compliance training program. But what is the difference between these two assessment types, and why do you need both? 

Summative Assessment

Used to evaluate student learning as compared to a standard or benchmark. It tells instructors and regulators whether the learner has gained a working understanding of the material. Passing a summative assessment may earn the learner a passing grade or a credential. 

  • High stakes – determines grade or credential award
  • Given at the end of a program or unit
  • Typically supervised – invigilated or proctored in academic language
  • Enables regulators to assess the learner’s level of knowledge
  • Rigorously evaluated to ensure the assessment is legally defensible

In the case of regulatory training, credentialing tests are summative assessments. A test at the end of a training program is also summative if it determines the learner’s grade or pass-fail status. 

Formative Assessment

Used to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback. The results of a formative assessment don’t affect the learner’s grade or credentialing status. Instead, they are used to help the student and instructor to spot areas for improvement. 

  • Low stakes – little or no effect on grade
  • Given at checkpoints throughout the program
  • Helps students and instructors identify strengths and weaknesses

Formative assessments might show up as true or false questions that pop up in the middle of a lecture or as quizzes at the end of a section in a textbook. 

Keep in mind that there’s no fundamental difference in the structure of these exam types. Instead, the difference between the two is a matter of context. For example, a practice test for the Certified Financial Planner™ examination would be a formative assessment. It helps the student spot holes in their understanding before they take the credentialing exam. By contrast, the CFP exam itself is summative, because it evaluates the learner’s level of knowledge against the industry-standard benchmarks. The two assessments may share the same structure and general content, but they serve different purposes. 

Formative Assessments in Compliance Training

In credentialing for compliance, we tend to focus mostly on the summative assessment. After all, the whole point of a compliance training program is to prepare learners to pass the summative credentialing exam. But a single-minded focus on this type of assessment is a mistake. Learners need both summative and formative assessments to get the most out of your training program.

When used thoughtfully, formative assessments can: 

  • Help learners recognize holes in their knowledge. Without structured assessments, learners may gloss over the areas that don’t come easily. They may mistake familiarity with understanding, with negative consequences when they take their credentialing exam. 
  • Allow learners to practice for the summative exam. Formative assessments can familiarize learners with the structure and style of questions that will be asked on the credentialing exam. This gives them a low-stakes practice arena. 
  • Inform instructors on how to tailor instruction for the individual. The results of formative assessments can show instructors where students might need more practice or additional explanation. If you’re using a fully digital training program, formative assessments can shape the 
  • Fix ideas in the student’s memory. Spaced repetition helps students to cement knowledge in their memories. Formative assessments allow students to practice what they’ve learned, strengthening recall. 

It costs resources and time to train professionals in regulated industries. Both learners and organizations want to see a positive return on this investment. A mix of formative and summative assessment improves results on credentialing exams and marks progress along the way. 

An experienced training partner can help you design or administer a training program that includes the right mix of assessments. At Oliver, we follow international evaluation best practices to develop, deliver, and evaluate courses and exams. Contact our training experts to design, build and deliver properly-constructed assessment programs.

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