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A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students' motivation

Motivation is a complex concept concerned with the drive, incentive or energy to do something. Motivation is not a single entity but embraces, for example, effort, self-efficacy, self-regulation, interest, locus of control, self-esteem, goal orientation and learning disposition. Learning, too, is a complex phenomenon that cannot be conceived as a single entity but is best understood as a field or as an ecological composite.

Evidence of impact

Between them, the identified studies considered a number of the component
aspects of motivation, but none considered all. The following main findings
emerged from studies providing high-weight evidence:

  • After the introduction of the National Curriculum Tests in England, lowachieving pupils had lower self-esteem than higher-achieving pupils, whilst beforehand there was no correlation between self-esteem and achievement.
  • When passing tests is high stakes, teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasises transmission teaching of knowledge, thereby favouring those students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantaging and lowering the self-esteem of those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences.
  • Repeated practice tests reinforce the low self-image of the lowerachieving students.
  • Tests can influence teachers’ classroom assessment which may be interpreted by students as purely summative, regardless of the teacher’s intentions, possibly as a result of teachers’ over-concern with performance rather than process.
  • Students are aware of a performance ethos in the classroom and that the tests give only a narrow view of what they can do.
  • Students dislike high-stakes tests, show high levels of test anxiety (particularly girls) and prefer other forms of assessment.
  • Teachers have a key role in supporting students to put effort into their learning activities.
  • Feedback on assessments has an important role in determining further learning. Students are influenced by feedback from earlier performance on similar tasks in relation to the effort they invest in further tasks.
  • Teacher feedback that is ego-involving rather than task-involving can influence the effort students put into further learning and their orientation towards performance rather than learning goals.
  • High-stakes assessment can create a classroom climate in which transmission teaching and highly structured activities predominate and which favour only those students with certain learning dispositions.
  • High-stakes tests can become the rationale for all that is done in classrooms, permeating teacher-initiated assessment interactions.
  • Goal orientations are linked to effort and self-efficacy.
  • Teacher collegiality is important in creating an assessment ethos that supports students’ feelings of self-efficacy and effort.
  • An education system that puts great emphasis on evaluation produces students with strong extrinsic orientation towards grades and social status.

Evidence from studies providing medium-weight evidence:

  • The state-mandated tests in the US lower self-esteem for ‘at risk’ students.
  • Low-achieving children can improve their achievement with the help of supportive teachers or other adults.
  • Interest and effort are encouraged in classrooms which encourage selfregulated learning by providing students with an element of choice, control over challenge and opportunities to work collaboratively.
  • Teachers can influence the criteria that students use in self-assessment of their work.
Systematic review
A systematical summary of studies in the current topic based on formal criterias for evalution of related studies.
Published: 09.04.2013
Last updated 24.10.2014

 Increasing the positive and decreasing the negative impact

Although the study findings pointed to negative impacts of summative assessment on aspects of motivation for learning, they also indicated ways in which these could be ameliorated so that learners as well as teachers can benefit from summative assessment. High-weight evidence suggests that practice in summative assessment could be improved by the following:

  • Promoting learning goal orientation rather than performance orientation
  • Cultivating intrinsic interest in the subject and putting less emphasis on grades
  • Teaching approaches that encourage self-regulated learning (including collaboration among students) and cater for a range of learning styles
  • Providing explanations of the purpose of assessment and providing feedback that can help further learning
  • Establishing a school climate of constructive discourse about assessment among teachers, and between teachers and students
  • Developing a constructive and supportive school ethos in relation to tests
  • Ensuring that the demands of the tests are consistent with the expectations of teachers and the capabilities of the students
  • Involving students in decisions about testing
  • Developing students’ self-assessment skills and use of learning rather than performance criteria as part of a classroom environment that promotes self-regulated learning
  • Using assessment to convey a sense of learning progress to students

 Implications for assessment practice and policy

In order to explore the implications of the review as fully as possible, the review methodology included a consultation conference with invited policymakers and practitioners. Some of the messages below are derived directly from the research studies whilst others emerged from discussion of the review findings and reference to current practice in the UK at the consultation conference.


  • Reduce the narrowing impact on the curriculum and on teachingmethods by professional development that emphasises learning goals and learner-centred teaching approaches.
  • Share and emphasise learning goals, rather than performance goals, with students and provide feedback to students in relation to these goal.
  • Share in developing and implementing a school-wide policy that includes assessment both for learning (formative) and of learning (summative), and ensure that the purpose of all assessment is clear to all involved, including parents and students.
  • Develop students’ understanding of the goals of their learning, the criteria by which they are assessed and their ability to assess their own work.
  • Implement strategies for encouraging.
  • Avoid comparisons between students based on test results.
  • Present assessment realistically, as a process which is inherently imprecise and reflexive, with results that have to be regarded as tentative and indicative rather than definitive.


  • Recognise that current high-stakes testing is providing information aboutstudents’ attainment by reducing motivation that is of questionablevalidity.
  • Recognise the importance of the various components of motivation forstudents’ attainments in education. Empirical evidence shows that these are positively related to attainment. For example, the OECD/PISA (2001) provides firm evidence that achievement of literacy is positively related to students’ interest in their learning, the extent to which their learningstrategies help them to develop understanding through linking to existingknowledge instead of just memorising, and the extent to which they feel in control of their learning.
  • Provide professional development, particularly for senior schoolmanagement, aimed at enabling schools to develop a range of assessment strategies and using summative information of different kinds for improving the learning of their sudents. Current training focuses too narrowly on the use of test scores, accountability and targetsetting;it needs to be more learner-focused.
  • For summative purposes in reporting on individual students, move towards testing students when their teachers judge them to be ready to show their achievement at a certain level, thus minimising experience of failure and its impact on self-esteem.
  • Ensure that the criteria used in school evaluation (including selfevaluation)make explicit reference to a full range of subjects; include moral, spiritual and cultural as well as cognitive aims; and range acrossan appropriate variety of teaching methods and learning outcomes.
  • Develop schools’ self-evaluation practices, including teachers’assessment skills, through targeted professional development.
  • For tracking national standards, sample students rather than test all and use a wider range of test forms and items.
  • Quantify the ‘cost’ of current practice, including teaching time taken up with testing and practice testing; the additional workloads to teachers’ of extra marking; in addition to the cost of the tests and their development.
  • Use test development expertise to create new tests and assessment thatwill enable all valued outcomes of education, including creativity and learning to learn to be assessed.
  • Reduce the ‘stakes’ of summative assessment by avoiding comparisons among schools in terms of test results and end the practice of basing targets only on test results.

Other outcomes of the review were the identification of further research required in this area particularly to extend the research base in relation to outcomes of education that are particularly important for lifelong learning, and a clarification and development of the methodology of systematic reviewing applied to educational research.