Co-op Best Practices > Formative and Summative Assessment for Work Term and Performance

Formative and Summative Assessment for Work Term and Performance

posted on January 17, 2012

Co-operative education work terms are opportunities for students to develop as professionals. Through work, students can build competencies and over time become adept within the world of work. However, it is important to facilitate students’ professional development in order that they may gain the greatest benefit from their experience. One way to achieve this is by making performance indicators explicit and by coaching students towards successful attainment using formative and summative assessment.

Performance Indicators

Performance indicators are simply competencies that have value within the work environment. For co-op students, performance indicators often act as guidelines for what is expected on the job and sometimes as personal goals to exceed for those who seek advancement in their co-op careers and beyond.

Typically, a list of performance indicators will include skills such as working as part of a team, being on time and staying organized, as well as communication skills such as listening, writing and speaking effectively. But, to establish a list of performance indicators that best meet the needs of a specific co-op program it is important to determine if there are competencies that hold greater value than others. For example, is it important for students to demonstrate creativity or resourcefulness? Should they be ethical workers? Effective problem solvers? Is it important that they readily accept feedback? Or think critically?

To narrow the list of performance indicators down to a reasonable number it is advisable to involve co-op stakeholders. Stakeholders may include students, faculty and employers but may also extend to include co-op staff and members of key professional associations. It is also advisable to connect with subject matter experts that are knowledgeable in work performance and professional development.

Once the list of performance indicators have been established it is essential that these be provided to co-op students and employers prior to their work terms. Students need to know which competencies they will need to demonstrate and employers need to know which competencies they must watch for and report on. In short, the performance indicators should be explicitly stated by the co-op program at the outset. Better yet, students should also receive tips and strategies from the co-op program for successful achievement.

Example Performance Indicators and Tips for Co-op Students

Performance Indicator

Tips for Co-op Students

Writes effectively

Write appropriately for the given environment.

Be concise, use proper grammar and spelling.


Resolves problems using the required skills or knowledge

Identify problems, face challenges and come up with viable solutions.

When possible, attempt to resolve problems

Independently before approaching your supervisors.


Works well in a team

By showing sound judgment and working to the best of your abilities, you will reduce the possibility of conflicts at work.

Maintain positive working relationships with your colleagues.

Be willing to help, and make efforts to fit in well in your work environment.

Formative Assessment

The goal of formative assessment is to check-in with students and provide an opportunity for discussion, feedback and improvement. It’s not meant to be a final grade or a high stakes test. Instead, formative assessment provides students with a forum to review what has taken place and as appropriate make adjustments to achieve better results going forward. In short, formative assessment is more about coaching than examination.

In co-operative education, formative assessment fits well with the on-site visit as the assessment should take place around the mid-point of a learning event. If the formative assessment is scheduled too soon then there is little to discuss. If it is scheduled too late then there’s little opportunity for the student to make meaningful changes.

And so, formative assessment at the on-site visit would focus on helping the student understand where they are in terms of achieving the expected performance indicators. The discussion would include the employer’s feedback as well as tips and strategies for the student to consider and apply in the coming weeks.

Steps for formative assessment

  1. The co-op coordinator meets with the employer to review the degree to which the student attained the performance indicators and to gather tips and strategies on how the performance indicators can be better met in the coming weeks.
  2. The co-op coordinator then shares the employer’s feedback with the student along with the tips and strategies that the employer provided. The role of the co-op coordinator is to coach the student towards improvement.
  3. Over the remaining weeks of the work term the student makes adjustments to their performance using the results of the formative assessment as well as the coaching that they received.

Note: Steps 1 & 2 can be combined whereby the co-op coordinator meets with the student and the employer simultaneously. The goal of a three-way meeting is to encourage professional feedback and communication between both the student and employer and set the stage for better communication between the student and employer for the remainder of the work term.

Summative Assessment

Where formative assessment is focused on coaching for improvement, summative assessment is focused on final evaluation at the end of the learning event. Summative assessment is high stakes because there is limited or no opportunity for improvement and it should form part of students’ grade. But, while summative assessment acts as a ‘summation’ of what took place it is important to note that formative and summative assessment work hand-in-hand. The criteria used for students’ formative assessment should be exactly the same as the criteria used for students’ summative assessment.

In co-operative education, this means that performance indicators measured at the mid-point of the work term are the same as those measured at the end of the work term. If students received coaching on their ability to work as part of a team in the middle of the work term then they should be graded for the same performance indicator when the work term comes to a close. There should be no surprises when formative and summative assessment is used in conjunction.

Steps for summative assessment

  1. The co-op employer completes the summative assessment indicating the degree to which the student employee attained the performance indicators. Note: The student and employer should be well aware of the performance indicators because they received the list before beginning the work term and then used the same list for measurement during the mid-point formative assessment.
  2. The student receives the results of the summative assessment and the associated grade with the same list of performance indicators as used for the formative assessment.

When students participate in co-operative education they are exposed to the expectations of the work world and they have the opportunity to practice the skills required for excellence. But, to facilitate their success students will benefit from knowing the performance indicators that they must demonstrate while on a work term prior to starting their job. As well students benefit from an assessment process that is geared to helping them improve and achieve success. Naturally employers also benefit because their co-op student-employee is given the tools and the opportunity to perform better over time. 

Jeela Jones has incorporated performance indicators using formative and summative assessment into the University of Ottawa Co-operative Education Curriculum. For more information on these or other adult education practices please feel free to contact her at or 613-562-5741.

Note: The author would like to thank Christine Arsenault, Director, Management Co-op Programs University of Toronto at Scarborough for her comments and suggestions on this article.