Best Practices for Formative and Summative Assessments in Canvas


Best Practices for Formative and Summative Assessments in Canvas

What’s Included in This Post?
• Formative Assessment Defined
• Summative Assessment Defined
• Best Pratices in Canvas for Formative and Summative Assessments

Dr. Kristin (K.C.) Testerman, Team Lead, Learning Services

Payton Halinger, Instructional Designer

What are these assessments?


There are two types of assessments. 

Formative assessments generally gauge student understanding throughout an instructional unit. These tend to be low stakes (preferably no points) and quick (e.g., a pop quiz or a brief summary paper). Summative assessments generally evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit/Module. These tend to be high stakes and formal (e.g., a mid-term quiz or an end-of-course quiz).

Assessments used formatively shape feedback and instruction as the teacher determines what needs to be learned next based on what has been learned and what has not yet been taught. Feedback drives learning, as students utilize the feedback to improve their performance. Grades should be derived from performance on summative assessments.

Think of this analogy. Theorist and practitioner Robert Stake explained, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; when the guests taste the soup, that’s summative” (quoted in Scriven, 1991, p. 169). You can do some taste testing while you’re cooking it, but once the guests have it, you cannot change anything. Therefore, “it is not the nature of the test that earns the label of formative or summative, but the use to which that test’s results will be put” (Popham, p. 7).

This is important to consider when building your assessments, giving feedback, and grading in Canvas. You are not just grading assignments, you are collecting evidence of students’ progress and pointing them in the direction of their next steps. 

What's the True Difference between Formative and Summative?

Let's dig a little deeper into what makes up these types of assessments in Canvas.

Formative Assessments in Canvas


Formative Assessments are meant to be a “quick check” of understanding which provides feedback to both students and instructors about the learning process. This feedback should be goal-oriented, actionable, ongoing, consistent, and timely. Remember, you’re tasting the soup with these things in mind.

What Can I Do In Canvas?

Discussions - Using a discussion board, you can provide learners with a quick-check prompt, to which they can respond. Students can add their own responses, and reply to others, or you can encourage them to choose a favorite response by liking a reply. Discussions are an easy way for students to share feedback as a class where all responses are visible. For the purposes of providing feedback for a formative assessment, you may reply to students individually, or you can grade their responses on an attached rubric. 

PRO TIP: Don’t want your students to see what the rest of the class wrote before they reply? Click “users must post before seeing replies” before publishing your discussion.


Peer Reviews - When creating an assignment, you can check the box titled “Peer Review” to allow students to comment on one another’s work. This can be done either anonymously or not. In a peer review, students can use a rubric to provide feedback, or they can reply as a comment on the assignment. Setting up a peer review lets students work collaboratively to understand concepts, and as a teacher, you can review their assignments and peer feedback to assess formative understanding. 

PRO TIP: Once you have set up a peer review as anonymous or not anonymous, that setting is fixed for that assignment. Make sure to select the right one before assigning to your students.  


Practice Quizzes - Need a quick way to check understanding without taking a grade? An even easier way to give students feedback is by taking advantage of the question-based feedback in Canvas’s practice quizzes. This tool allows you to leave automated feedback for specific answer choices in a quiz. If students select that answer, Canvas will automatically display the feedback you’ve saved for that answer choice to the student. You can even set it up so that all correct answers to a question display one message, while all incorrect answers display another message in order to save even more time!

PRO TIP: For this method, make sure to select practice quiz rather than an ungraded survey - ungraded surveys will hide individual student responses and will limit you from seeing how an individual student answered.  


Add Your Favorite Ed Tech Tool - Got a favorite tool to use for formative assessments? Canvas integrates with many of them. Want to add a Google Doc and have students provide feedback on that document? You can use the Google LTI 1.3 to integrate directly into your Canvas assignment. Check out the Canvas Community for more examples of tools that educators use to assess student learning. You may also be able to embed a code using the embed cloud in the RCE.

PRO TIP: Not seeing an option for integrating your ed tech tool into Canvas? Your Canvas Admin may choose to lock down certain integrations - check with them before trying out any integrations. 


Summative Assessments in Canvas

Summative Assessments should be used to frame meaningful performance goals. At the beginning of a unit, students should know three things:

  1. Where Am I Going?
  2. Where Am I Now?
  3. Where to Next?

Summative assessments should clarify the targeted standards of learning. Whatever the task is for the summative assessment, it should yield evidence of true understanding. This should not be a surprise to the learner. Presenting the three tenets above at the beginning of a lesson reveals the learning goals for students and how to get there. Formative assessments plot where students are throughout the learning process. Ultimately, the results of the summative assessment should not surprise the learner or the instructor.

What Can I Do In Canvas?

Quizzes - When we think of summative assessments, tests, exams and quizzes are often the first thing to come to mind. When creating a quiz, you have a wide variety of options to assess a student’s learning. You can use question types like essays, multiple answers, fill in the blank, and more to engage students as they show their knowledge. With New Quizzes, you can add unique question types like hot spots and ordering. Quizzes also offer more flexibility when it comes to setup: you can set a time limit on an assessment, you can restrict how many times a student can retake a quiz, and you can restrict students from seeing the correct answers after they have completed the quiz. 

PRO TIP: Don’t want your students to get into their summative assessment before they are ready? Select the option “require an access code,” when you create your quiz, and you can create a password that must be entered before taking the quiz. 


Assignment Feedback through Speedgrader - Once students have turned in a final project, you can provide detailed feedback through Speedgrader. Speedgrader is a tool in Canvas that allows you to view all student submissions for a particular assignment, making it quick and easy to complete the grading of each assignment directly within Canvas. Within Speedgrader, you can not only leave text comments on the student’s submission, but you can also leave audio or video feedback for the student as well. This can be especially helpful for complex feedback or explanations that are better explained visually or through an oral explanation. If a student resubmits, Speedgrader captures each submission as a log of the assignment each time.

PRO TIP: You can speed up feedback even more by adding to your comment library. In Speedgrader, you can click the text bubble by your assignment comments and add pre-loaded feedback into Speedgrader. No more copying and pasting when you’re adding the same feedback! 


Rubrics - Rubrics can be tied to quizzes, discussions, and assignments. You can create a rubric specific to an assignment, or you can reuse a rubric several times in the same class. You have the ability to set specific criteria, and you can decide how many points are tied to each standard. A benefit of rubrics is that you have a clear set of criteria you can share ahead of the summative assessment, showing students where they are going as they learn. Having a detailed rubric can also help you structure formative assignments around the project to build their skills before their final project or exam. 

PRO TIP: To use a rubric for grading, make sure to check the box titled “use rubric for assignment grading.” When this is clicked, your rubric will appear in Speedgrader and allow for quicker grading and evaluation. 


Outcomes and Learning Mastery Gradebook - As you create a rubric, you can either create criteria directly in the rubric, or you can create outcomes. Outcomes are usually tied to a particular standard, and they can be added to rubrics throughout a unit. Each time that outcome is assessed, it records how the student performed on that particular standard. For instance, if a student achieves a 3/5 on Standard A during week one, and a 5/5 on Standard A during week nine, you can see that growth over time in your gradebook. To view your students’ standard mastery, you will need to enable the Learning Mastery Gradebook. You can also export reports to view overall standard mastery for a class or for an individual student. 

PRO TIP: Outcomes can be calculated in a variety of ways, with the default being “decaying average”. This means that the most recent assessment is weighted more heavily than the previous assignments. You have the option to change this to a different method of calculation as you build your outcomes.


Final Thoughts


There are many ways to assess and this is just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to options in Canvas. These are fairly traditional methods for assessment, but many of the options above can be tweaked to think outside of the box. 

What are some other ways you have used formative and summative assessments in Canvas that are not listed above? Feel free to share below to help others in the Canvas Community.


Guskey, T and Jung, L.. Answers to essential questions about standards, assessments, grading, and reporting. 2012. Corwin Press.

Popham, W. J. (2008). Transformative assessment. Ukraine: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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