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The impact of summative assessment and tests on students' motivation for learning

This systematic review was prompted by concern to identify the impact of summative assessment and testing, which has burgeoned in many countries in the past decade, on students’ motivation for learning.
Harlen, W.; Deakin Crick, R. (2002). <i>A Systematic Review of the Impact of Summative Assessment and Tests on Students' Motivation for Learning (EPPI-Centre Review, version 1.1*)</i>. in, <i>Research Evidence in Education Library. Issue 1</i>. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education.

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: 10.04.2013
Last updated 27.10.2014
PDF PDF - 1,1 MB Project summary

Differences relating to age, gender and level of achievement

Older students (that is, aged 11 and above) are more likely than younger ones to have a better understanding of simple grades are less likely to report teachers’ grades as being fair but attached more importance to them. Older students are more likely to attribute relative success to effort and ability, whilst younger ones attribute it to external factors or practice. Older students are also more likely to focus on performance outcomes (that is, scores and levels) rather than learning processes.

Lower-achieving older students were more likely than younger ones to minimise effort and respond to tests randomly or by guessing. There was no evidence of age differences in test-taking strategies (checking, monitoring time, etc.). Instead of motivation and test familiarity increasing with age, older students feel more resentment, anxiety, cynicism and mistrust of standardised achievement tests.

Lower-achieving students are doubly disadvantaged by summative assessment. Being labelled as failures has an impact not just on current feelings about their ability to learn, but lowers further their already low selfesteemand reduces the chance of future effort and success. Only when lowachievers have a high level of support (from school or home), which shows them how to improve, do some escape from this vicious circle.  

Results of tests which are ‘high stakes’ for individual students, such as the 11+ in Northern Ireland, have been found to have a particularly strong and devastating impact on those who receive low grades. However, tests which are high stakes more for schools than for students (such as the National Curriculum tests in England and state-mandated tests in the US) hardly have less impact.

Students are aware of repeated practice tests and the narrowing of the curriculum and only those confident of success enjoy the tests. In taking tests, high achievers are more persistent, use appropriate test taking strategies and have more positive self-perceptions than low achievers. Low achievers become overwhelmed by assessments and demotivated by constant evidence of their low achievement, thus further increasing the gap between low- and high-achieving students. A greater emphasis on summative assessment thus brings about increased differentiation.

Girls were reported as expressing more test anxiety than boys. Girls also make more internal attributions of success or failure than boys, with consequences for their self-esteem.

The effect of the conditions of testing

The conditions that affect the impact of summative assessment relate to the
degree of self-efficacy of students, the extent to which their effort is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, the encouragement of self-regulation and self-evaluation, and the pressure imposed by adults outside the school.

Feedback has a central role since self-efficacy is judged from performance in previous tasks of the same kind. If students have experienced success in earlier performance, they are more likely to feel able to succeed in a new task. Feedback that focuses on the task is associated with greater interest and effort, whereas feedback that is ego-involving rather than task-involving is associated with an orientation to performance goals.

Teachers’ own class-testing practices can help to increase self-efficacy, if teachers explain the purpose and expectations of their tests and provide feedback. Further, a school’s ‘assessment culture’ influences students’ feelings of self-efficacy and effort. Collegiality – meaning constructive discussion of testing and the development of desirable assessment practice in the school – has a positive effect, whilst a focus on performance outcomes has a negative effect.

The degree to which learners are able to regulate their own learning also appears to favour students’ interest and to promote focus on the intrinsic features of their work. Students who have some control over their work by being given choice and encouragement to evaluate their own work value the significant content features of their work, rather than whether it was correct or not. Thus classrooms that allow more self-regulation promote change in the criteria students use in self-evaluation.

When test scores are a source of pride to parents and the community, pressure is brought to bear on the school for high scores. Similarly, parents bring pressure on their children when the result has consequences for attendance at high social status schools. For many students, this increases their anxiety, even though they recognise their parents as being supportive.

The effect on teachers and teaching

High-weight evidence from studies reporting on the effect of tests on teachers and teaching in addition to impact on students’ motivation indicates that 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.

External tests have a constricting effect on the curriculum, resulting in an emphasis on subjects tested at the expense of creativity and personal and social development. High-stakes tests often result in a great deal of time being spent on practice tests, the valuing of test performance and undervaluing of other student achievements, with teachers’ own assessment becoming summative in function rather than formative.

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 goals.
  • 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 self-regulation in learning and positive inter-personal relationships.
  • 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 about students’ attainment by reducing motivation that is of questionable validity.
  • Recognise the importance of the various components of motivation for students’ 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 learning strategies help them to develop understanding through linking to existing knowledge instead of just memorising, and the extent to which they feel in control of their learning.
  • Provide professional development, particularly for senior school management, aimed at enabling schools to develop a range of assessment strategies and using summative information of different kinds for improving the learning of their students. 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; includemoral, spiritual and cultural as well as cognitive aims; and range across an 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 that will 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 basingtargets 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.