Tips on Teaching

An Overview of Assessment

by Konnor Brennan, Graduate Assistant, Reinert Center

The tools and methods instructors use to assess to student understanding in their courses play many roles in course design. Assessing students throughout the course is important to ensure that students passing the course are meeting certain standards that are required to pass the course, and/or ensuring that students have the prerequisite knowledge needed for future courses. While these reasons for assessment are important, assessing students’ knowledge has many other benefits including providing students and instructors with valuable information about the learning process. For example, if a student performs poorly on a quiz, they can make modifications to their study habits and come better prepared for the next quiz or exam. Also, if an instructor notices a large number of students getting the same question wrong on a quiz or test, the instructor can use this information to revisit this topic in a future class, or change their instructional method in future courses.

Assessment in the larger picture of course design can be thought of in two ways: formative assessment and summative assessment. Formative assessments are usually low-stakes assessment that happen during the learning process. These types of assessment provide information to both the student and instructor about whether the students are learning the intended material, and allow for changes or adjustments in the learning process if necessary. A good example of a formative assessment is a clicker quiz. This assessment can be administered during class as students are learning new material. The results of a clicker quiz are immediate and provide both the instructor and the students with information as to whether or not the students are learning the material. Summative assessments are usually higher stakes assessment at the end of the learning process. Some examples of this assessment include exams, term papers, presentations or projects. Instructors should aim to use both assessment types when designing their course.

Another thing to consider when designing a course is what style of assessment should be used. When considering this issue instructors should first consult their learning objectives. The assessment style should match the cognitive demands of the learning objective. To help with this process instructors can refer to Bloom’s Taxonomy to help match the learning objective with an appropriate assessment style. Consider this example of a learning objective from a biology course:

“Students should be able to define a gene”

To formatively assess this learning objective, an instructor could provide students with a self-graded quiz during class that requires them to define what a gene is. Students receive the correct answers from the quiz immediately and are able to assess whether they are meeting this learning objective or not. To summatively assess this learning objective, an instructor could include a short answer question on an exam where students need to provide the definition of a gene. Note that it is very easy for an instructor to misalign learning objectives and assessment level. For the above example, if an instructor were to summatively assess the above learning objective by having students compare and contrast between a gene and an allele, this would not be appropriately assessing the learning objective because the instructor is assessing students at a higher cognitive level than the learning objective. The instructor can either change the assessment type or change the original learning objective.

Finally, instructors should consider the interaction between the amount of time that certain assessment types demand from the instructor to grade, and how much information the instructor gains from the assessment. Multiple choice questions and true or false questions take very little time for an instructor to grade, but provide relatively little information to the instructor about how much a student understands. On the opposite end of the spectrum, essays, term papers, and oral interviews provide a lot of information to the instructor about student understanding, but require the most time to grade/implement. To compensate for this instructional design dilemma, instructors can include multiple assessment types (multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions) to achieve the balance of grading time and proper assessment of student understanding.


In order to use assessment effectively in their courses, instructors might consider the following guidelines: use both formative and summative assessment types throughout their course, match the cognitive demands of assessment types to their learning objective, and vary assessment types to balance the time it takes to grade the assessment with the amount of information the instructor receives about student understanding.

Additional Resources

Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching- Student Assessment in Teaching and Learning

Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning- Assessment and Evaluation

Earl LM. Assessment as Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press, 2013.

Paul AM. A New Vision for Testing. Scientific American. 313(2):55-61. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0815-54.

Shepard LA. Linking Formative Assessment to Scaffolding. Educational Leadership. 2005;63(3):66-70.