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Education Quality and Policy Office


This page outlines main types of assessment carried out at the University and considerations for Faculty Boards and Degree Committees when considering forms of assessment.

On this page:

You may also be interested in the guidance about feedback to students on their academic performance and progression.

Formative assessment

Formative assessment constitutes a learning experience in its own right so feedback is provided at the time to identify the student’s strengths and weaknesses and provide practical guidance to enable them to improve their academic performance. However, formative assessment activities do not usually count towards the marks for an award.

The most common form of formative assessment at Cambridge is the work undertaken in supervisions, but it is also provided through mock exams, marked practical work, coursework and projects (where applicable).

Summative assessment

Summative assessment measures attainment, understanding or achievement at a particular time and contributes towards the grade that student’s receive at the end of the year. It is not traditionally regarded as having any intrinsic learning value in its own right but measures performance, so students will not generally receive feedback beyond being informed of their grades and mark breakdown. This is the primary form of assessment in the Tripos examinations used by the University.

Institutions are encouraged to provide opportunities for skills acquisition, though in the main, such skills are not formally or directly assessed as part of the course. Where such direct assessment does occur the contribution to overall marks should be small.

General Board policy on forms of summative assessment at Tripos level

The Board recognises the three hour written examination paper as the primary basis of summative assessment of Tripos performance, but recognises that forms of assessment should be subject to regular review and that the key criterion should be the effectiveness of whichever form is adopted in properly assessing the intended learning outcomes of the course.

Considerations for Faculty Boards and comparable authorities

When considering the forms of assessment care should be taken to ensure a reasonable level of comparability across a Part of a Tripos, so that one candidate's choice of papers does not lead to a combination of forms of assessment substantially different from another's. In particular caution should be exercised when considering whether to permit candidates a choice of forms of assessment.

In some Triposes candidates are permitted to borrowed papers from other Tripos for which the authority offering the borrowed paper allows a choice of form of assessment. In such circumstances, the General Board have agreed that, should it wish, a Faculty Board may prescribe the form of assessment to be chosen by their candidates taking a borrowed paper.

Possible advantages and disadvantages of various forms of assessment

Advantages of unseen papers:

  • the consistency encouraged by all students taking the same paper under (generally) the same conditions, with the examinations conducted by the same examiners;
  • a concentration of the examination period, enabling candidates to collate and integrate their knowledge at the end of the year through revision, and keeping the examining load to a manageable (and predictable) period of time;
  • some students prefer this type of examination;
  • some subject areas, particularly core or foundation aspects of a subject, are best assessed through this means.

On the other hand, unseen papers may:

  • be stressful for all involved, particularly for students less accustomed, in pre-university examinations, to a concentration on unseen papers and increasingly used to producing word-processed text;
  • be perceived as leading to classification based on a student's performance over just a few days;
  • mean performance is subject to unpredictable factors on the day of the examination;
  • over-emphasise examination techniques and under-emphasise the assessment of other skills acquired during the course of study.

Possible advantages of other forms of assessment:

  • they may allow students to demonstrate a wider range of skills more effectively;
  • topics can be covered in more depth and with greater care;
  • student performance is less likely to be affected by particular examination conditions;
  • the timetabling of the examination season may become more conducive for all concerned

On the other hand, possible disadvantages include:

  • the potential for increased use of unfair means (for example, plagiarism) in the examination;
  • the pressures associated with any form of assessment being spread over a longer period;
  • an increased examining load;
  • a particularly heavy dependence on the quality of supervision received;
  • an increased potential for inconsistency in the examination process, particularly in instances in which candidates for the same paper are offered a choice of forms of assessment.