Student Assessment


In education, it is important to know not only what is being taught, but also what is being learned. That is, it is not sufficient to document teaching activities; rather,  it is crucial to determine whether or not students have learned what has been taught.  In any particular course, what is taught is determined by the learning objectives chosen (Developing Student Learning Objectives). How the outcomes are measured is determined by the assessments chosen. How the assessments are evaluated is determined by the rubrics developed (Creating Rubrics). Thus, the assessments used are the means for collecting evidence of student learning. The intent is to link student performance to learning objectives in order to provide useful information to both students and Instructors on students’ progress toward reaching the desired learning objectives and course goals.

Program Assessment

At the outset, it is important to distinguish between program level assessment and student level assessment. Program level assessment focuses on what and how an academic program is contributing to the learning and development of students as a group. It involves identifying programmatic goals and learning outcomes, aligning individual courses to the learning outcomes, and determining how well students are meeting these outcomes and thus the program’s goals. Student performance is linked to the curriculum through a curriculum map, which identifies the courses in which program learning objectives are taught and assessed; that is, the curriculum map shows where and how program-level outcomes are introduced, reinforced, and mastered in the curriculum.  Data are analyzed on the program level: what per cent of students, for example, have attained the desired level of achievement?  Programmatic assessments allow programs to determine how well students are achieving program goals, and the results can be used  to make adjustments to the program curriculum, associated courses, and pedagogy.


Student Assessment

Student assessment is the process of gathering evidence on what individual students are learning and then evaluating and refining instruction or curriculum based on the findings. Assessments allow both instructor and student to monitor progress toward achieving learning objectives. Linking student performance to specific course learning objectives allows assessments to provide useful information to students and instructors about whether students are learning what the instructors expect them to learn.  Student assessment is distinct from grading, which involves assigning a number or letter to an assignment.

The best practices in student assessment are also the best practices in inclusive student assessment; the literature on the two overlap considerably. A list of best practices includes the following principles:

  1. Align Assessment with Outcomes: Assessments, learning objectives, and instructional strategies need to be closely aligned. The kind of assessment you choose should depend on what kind of task will reveal whether students have achieved the learning objectives that you have identified. Once you have made these choices, be clear with your students about the task and criteria for success for each assessment. Make sure instructions are understandable to all students.
  2. Communicate Expectations: Define and articulate what constitutes high and low quality work on a particular assignment or test. One way to do this is by creating and sharing rubrics. Creating rubrics to articulate your expectations in advance, setting standards for high and low quality work, and applying these standards consistently also can help minimize the influence of subjectivity in the assessment of student learning. Another way is by sharing examples – actual or hypothetical – of student work and allowing students to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these models, so they are clear about your expectations.
  3. Share Rationale: Being transparent by sharing the purpose of each assignment and explaining how each contributes toward reaching a specific learning outcome can help students understand their learning experience more clearly and thus increase their motivation and support their learning. Consider allowing students to collaborate with you on developing assignments, test questions, and rubrics for their evaluation.
  4. Provide Early and Frequent Opportunities: Giving early and regular opportunities for students to demonstrate learning throughout the term/semester enables both you and your students to monitor progress toward achieving learning objectives. Pace assessments throughout the term so you can determine where students are struggling and can adjust accordingly. Use different kinds of assessments throughout the semester/term so students can express their knowledge in a variety of ways.
  5. Use Multiple Formats: Use a variety of formative and summative assessments throughout your course. Formative assessments occur during the learning process to identify misconceptions and gaps. Formative assessments provide feedback to students and teachers along the way and clarify areas for improvement. Summative assessments occur at the end of the learning process to summarize students’ learning. Summative assessments can be used to determine achievement of specific learning objectives.
  6. Provide Options: Providing a variety of assessment options helps to ensure that all students can demonstrate what they know. Allow for multiple means of demonstrating learning. Create opportunities for students to choose activities and topics related to their own interests, which highlight their strengths (e.g., by selecting research project topics that are meaningful to them or by using different modalities for presentations). If possible, use questions that call for both qualitative and quantitative answers.
  7. Balance Low-Stakes and High-Stakes: Low-stakes assessments are often informal opportunities for students to check their understanding and practice using new material or modalities without the pressure of a grade or formal evaluation. These might include class discussions, practice quizzes and exams, and early drafts. High-stakes assessments are often formal graded assessments. These might include midterm and final exams, term papers, and major projects. Distribute points across a range of assignments, lowering the stakes of any one assignment.
  8. Encourage self-awareness: Give students exercises or assignments that allow for self-assessment, so they gain insights about the nature and quality of their own work, build self-regulation skills, and increase their motivation and confidence.  You might also give them opportunities for reviewing each other’s work.
  9. Create a Learning Community: Build a climate of cooperation instead of competition by giving students opportunities to collaborate with classmates. Use peer feedback sessions and workshopping as well as group projects. Assign students to teach, facilitate, and present. Have students work together on professionally relevant activities such as conference posters, grant proposals, podcasts, videos, or websites to share.
  10. Minimize Bias: Knowledge of students’ previous performance, personal identities, and other attributes can introduce personal bias into the assessment process. Consider implementing an anonymous grading policy by eliminating identifying information from assignments prior to evaluating them. Because students come to a course with differing types and levels of experience, consider exposing students to the types of assessments you will be using in a low-stakes situation in order to prepare them for high-stakes assessments, so everyone will have had the opportunity to become familiar with the format before the high-stakes assessment. Also, be sure to define all terms and avoid jargon  with which some students may be unfamiliar.
  11. Give Useful Feedback: Design assessments so you provide feedback to students early and often. Break down large assignments into smaller steps and give feedback along the way. Useful feedback is focused on things that students can control, is given at a time when it can be applied to improve future performance and is related to specific learning outcomes and/or established criteria.
    ▶ Providing Effective Feedback
  12. Turn Assessment into Grades: Connect your assignment descriptions, rubrics, and other assessment tools to appropriate letter or number grades. Provide students with information and examples of what constitutes A-level work, B-level work, and so on for a given assignment or course. Be specific about which elements of an assignment or course will be formally graded, what grading scale or scales will be used, if you will grade on a curve, if you will give partial or only full credit, and if you will apply a penalty for late work.
    ▶ ​​​​​​​ Evaluating Group Projects


Formative and Summative Assessments

One of the most frequently mentioned characteristics of best student assessment practices, and a crucial aspect of inclusive assessment, is the use of both formative and summative assessments. According to the Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, the goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning in order to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning.

Formative assessments:

  • Help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
  • Help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately

​​​​​​​Formative assessments are generally low stakes, which means that they have low or no point value. Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

  • Draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
  • Submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
  • Turn in a research proposal for early feedback
  • Complete a homework problem set
  • Take a short quiz in class
  • Participate in a structured small group discussion or exercise

The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark.

Summative assessments are often high stakes, which means that they have a high point value. Examples of summative assessments include:

  • Midterm or final exam
  • Final project
  • Major paper
  • Comprehensive examination
  • Portfolio

Thus, formative assessments are ongoing during a course; they can be used to scaffold learning as students work toward a summative assessment. Formative assessments help instructors by providing information on what students are mastering as well as on identifying misconceptions, struggles, and learning gaps.  Instructors can then modify teaching and provide help or clarification as needed. Feedback from formative assessments can be provided in discussions during office hours, in written comments on assignments, and through emails. Formative assessments also give students a chance to assess their own mastery of topics and concepts as they are being taught. Students can then use this feedback to focus on problem areas as well as to determine what support resources they may need and how they might change their learning strategies to better meet the course expectations.

Summative assessments evaluate students’ learning, knowledge, proficiency, or success in mastering course learning objectives. Summative assessments are usually cumulative and take place at the end of a course or a course segment. These activities are formally graded, heavily weighted, and typically translate into the student’s final course grade. Information from summative assessments also can be used formatively by students or faculty to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses.


Additional Resources on Student Assessment

  • Assessing Student Learning
    Elon University Center for Advancement of Teaching and Learning
    This site includes a table that suggests examples of assessments that align with various types course objectives.
  • Creating Assignments
    Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation
    This site provides suggestion and questions to consider in creating assignments, including a Checklist for Designing Assignments.
  • Creating Exams
    Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation
    This site  gives guidelines for designing exams, including specific rules for creating objective test questions.
  • Creating Checks for Learning
    University of Texas/Austin Faculty Innovation Center
    This site has sections with specific considerations for creating different types of assessment questions: multiple choice, short answer, and matching. It also includes information on building an exam and creating an assignment prompt.
  • Is This a Trick Question? A Short Guide to Writing Effective Test Questions
    Kansas State University Curriculum Center
    This is a very comprehensive guide to test construction, with information on developing different types of items.
  • Feedback and Assessment
    Stanford University Teaching Commons
    This site focuses on online teaching; it applies the concepts of formative and summative assessments to online courses, as well as discussing remote exams and academic honesty.
  • Creating and Administering Online or Remote Exams: Considerations and Effective Practices
    University of Colorado/Boulder Center for Teaching & Learning
    This site addresses effective practices for online exams as well as concerns about cheating.