Design Effective Assessments

Assessments can be used both to promote learning as well as provide useful insight into student progress toward a particular learning outcome. There are two general categories of assessments that highlight these different purposes: formative and summative.

Formative & Summative Assessments

Formative assessments are for learning. Their aim is to provide both the students and instructor with an idea of where their level of understanding is at the current moment, and enable the instructor to adjust accordingly to meet the emerging needs of the class. Formative assessments are typically “low stakes,” meaning that they are often ungraded or worth few points. In using formative assessments…

Instructors might consider: What evidence do I have that students in my course learned what I think they learned?* Do I need to re-explain that concept differently? Do I need to backtrack two steps and catch everyone up to where we are now? Do I need to change my pedagogical approach to engage this group of students? 

Students might consider*: Which aspects of the course material should I spend more or less time on, based on my current understanding? What strategies am I using that are working well or not working well to help me learn? When I do an assignment or task like this again, what do I want to remember to do differently?

What are some examples of formative assessments? There are many different ways to relatively quickly gauge student thinking, often referred to as classroom assessment techniques (CATs). These can include strategies like:

Summative assessments are used to evaluate a cumulation of student learning, likely at the end of a unit or course. Summative assessments commonly take the form of exams or final papers or projects. They are used to determine the level at which students achieved the expectations for their learning and to identify instructional areas that may need additional attention. Summative assessments are often “high stakes,” meaning that they have high point values. 

Assessment is not synonymous with grading. Grading is a means of evaluation based on a set of criteria, which may not always directly reflect measures of learning (e.g., attendance, participation). Graded and ungraded assessments can be used as evidence of student learning.

*Tanner, Kimberly D. "Promoting student metacognition." CBE—Life Sciences Education 11.2 (2012): 113-120.