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

What do we want to know?

The impact of testing on teachers, teaching and students' achievement is well represented in reviews of research. Much less attention has been given to the impact on motivation for learning. While it is claimed that tests cause students to put more effort into learning, a counter claim is that tests motivate only some students and that they increase the gap between higher and lower achieving students. This review, prompted by the burgeoning of testing in many countries in the 1990s, aims to identify the impact of summative assessment and testing on students' motivation for learning.

Who wants to know?

Teachers, organisations representing teachers, and policy-makers at national level.

What did we find?  

  • After the introduction of the National Curriculum tests in England, low-achieving pupils had lower self-esteem than higher-achieving students; before the tests, there had been no correlation between self-esteem and achievement.  Low self-esteem reduces the chance of future effort and success.
  • High-stakes tests can result in transmission teaching and highly-structured activities.  This favours only students with certain learning styles.  These tests can become the rationale for all that is done in the classroom.
  • A strong emphasis on testing produces students with a strong extrinsic orientation towards grades and social status, i.e. a motivation towards performance rather than learning goals.  Students dislike high-stakes tests, showing high levels of test anxiety, and are aware that they give only a narrow view of what they can do.
  • Interest and effort are increased in classrooms which encourage self-regulated learning by providing students with an element of choice, control over challenge and opportunities to work collaboratively. 
  • Feedback that is ego-involving rather than task-involving is associated with an orientation to performance goals.

What are the implications?

  • There should be an emphasis on learning rather than performance goals by teachers and in professional development.  Teachers should avoid comparisons between students based on test results.
  • Teachers should develop students' understanding of the goals of their learning, the criteria by which they are assessed and their ability to assess their own work, and encourage self-regulation in learning.
  • There should be a move towards testing individual students when teachers judge them to be ready. 
  • Schools should develop assessment policies that include both formative and summative assessment and ensure that the purpose of all assessment is clear to those involved.
  • Policies for school evaluation should ensure that it: covers a full range of subjects; includes moral, spiritual and cultural as well as cognitive aims; and includes a variety of teaching methods and learning outcomes.
  • For tracking national standards, only a sample of students needs to be tested.
  • Comparisons among schools in terms of test results should be avoided and the practice of basing targets only on test results should be ended.

How did we get these results?

Nineteen studies were synthesised, consisting of 13 outcome evaluations, three descriptive studies and three process evaluations.

This summary was prepared by the EPPI Centre

This report should be cited as: Harlen W, Deakin Crick R (2002) A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students' motivation for learning. In: Research Evidence in Education Library. London: EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London.

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