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Introduction: What is assessment?

Assessment is "the systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development." (Palomba & Banta, 1999)

This highly recommended guide from the Joint Information Systems of the United Kingdom (JISC) gives us an insight  into the nature of assessment in a digital age: Effective Assessment in a Digital Age: A Guide to Technology-Enhanced Assessment and Feedback.

Formative vs. Summative Assessment

There are two major categories of assessment. Formative and summative. Formative tasks are ongoing throughout a course and are embedded in the instructional process. These can vary from short quizzes to short papers, observations to group activities and classroom discussions. Angelo and Cross developed  fifty (50) different assessment techniques  known as Classroom Assessment Techniques or CATs that help in observing and improving student learning. The main focus of formative assessments is to identify areas in student comprehension that may need improvement. They provide ongoing feedback to students for improvement and inform instructors about students' understanding of course material.

Summative Assessments as the name implies, sums up what the student knows, understands, or can do at the end of an instructional unit or at the end of the course.  They are cumulative in nature. In most cases, a grade is assigned and is used to make some sort of judgment of a student’s performance.  These give a much larger picture of a student's progress and should relate back directly to the course objectives.  View the presentation on formative and summative assessments.

Types of Assessments

Multiple-Choice Questions

It takes a lot of practice and experience to compose well-written multiple-choice questions. We've compiled some tips for writing good questions for your reference.
The Quiz Generator, built into CoursePlus, allows many variations of online exams.
CTL has developed some Guidelines for Students using this tool that you may wish to post to your class site or distribute with an announcement about an upcoming exam. We also have tips for suggestions for faculty delivering CoursePlus exams in a face-to-face classroom.

Tip Sheet for Objective Questions

Here, also, is a list of resources for writing multiple-choice questions depending on your desired outcome:

Written Assignments

Written assignments can take many forms.  Some options include:

  • Research Paper
  • Opinion piece
  • Editorial (with a specific publication or audience in mind)
  • Grant proposal


Discussions can be a useful method of assessment for the instructor and student.  A good discussion will give the instructor an idea of where the class's difficulty and understandings lie, and it will allow students to explain their own thoughts and learn to question their own learning. 
For some tips on facilitating effective discussions, see our Facilitating Discussions page. 

Major Assignments/Projects

Assignments and/or projects that are cumulative in nature should focus on higher-order thinking skills such as application, analysis and synthesis. Allow for some flexibility in the choice of format and topics to be covered and provide specific guidelines and instructions that students can follow.

Another suggestion is to have students submit parts of the project or assignment in stages/phases - for instance, submitting the topic or the problem statement first, then an outline or the research methods at the next stage and the final version at the end. This strategy provides students with the feedback they need to make sure they are on target and receive any assistance before the final submission.

Students can also peer assess and provide feedback to each other. This feedback from their peers will provide insight/different perspectives on the topic under review and enrich the end product.

Oral Presentations

These can either be individual or group assessments. While presentations provide for increased class interaction and participation, they also help students enhance their research skills and interest in learning new perspectives. Most importantly, though, they heighten presentation and communication skills which will become valuable in their future workplaces.


Portfolio is defined by Paulson, Paulsun and Meyer (1991) as a purposeful collection of student’s work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress and achievement in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection, the criteria for judging merit and evidence of student self-reflection. There are several types of portfolios and they can be used both as formative and summative assessments.

Performance or Authentic Assessments

One of the key characteristics of good assessments is that they are designed to apply the knowledge gained from the course to real-life situations.  For example, creating a poster that could be presented at a conference, writing an editorial for a real publication, or creating a grant proposal for an intervention. These types of assessments are called Performance or Authentic assessments.  Any task that all students are likely to come across in their professional life is one that will be the most useful to them after graduation.  Also, authentic assessments are one of the most effective ways to engage students, help them to apply the information and interpret its implications for their own lives.  This will help students to retain information in a much more meaningful way.
These are several types of Performance or Authentic Assessments.  These assessments require that the students demonstrate their learning or knowledge in a real-life context.  Authentic assessment is a "form of assessment in which the students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of knowledge and skills (Mueller, 2003)." Some examples are debates and role-plays, demonstrations, oral presentations, experiments, interviews, observations, projects, portfolios and journals and are further elaborated below.   

Role Play

This is an interactive method that engages the student in playing a specific character and portraying that character's point of view. View this link for more information and details on role plays.

  • Provide clear directions on the role-play students need to perform
  • Access to resources, tools, and materials for performing the task
  • A rubric or scoring guide detailing the grading criteria for assessing the performance
  • Preferably, access to samples and/or completed products from previous years
  • Recommendations on what tools students could use to facilitate collaboration during the development of the task
  • Provide opportunities to practice the required skills
  • Provide feedback as the task develops
  • If an online course, recommend method of presenting the completed task for assessment
  • Discussion and debrief after the activity 


  • Develops critical thinking
  • Encourages consideration of different viewpoints and perspectives


Another example of a performance-based assessment is debates. They allow students to sharpen their critical-thinking skills, consider opposing view points and be actively engaged in the learning process.

Peer Assessments

Peer assessment can be defined as student assessment of the work or performance of other students using relevant criteria; it can be used for both formative and summative assessments. Please read more about Peer Assessments on the CTL Toolkit's Peer Learning page.

Aligning Course Objectives with Assessments

An important aspect of curriculum design is ensuring that your course learning objectives, instructional activities and assessments are aligned with each other. Your assessments should be assessing the course objectives/learning outcomes that you have set out for the course. One method of aligning course objectives with your assessments is to use the "Backward Design" method.  Proper alignment ensures that students learn what you intend (course objectives) and that you accurately assess what they have learned (assessments). The instructional activities are the learning activities/experiences that help students to achieve the intended learning objectives. 

Grading Methods/Rubrics

One important tool for evaluating assessments is a rubric.  Rubrics use a predetermined set of criteria as a guideline to evaluate a student's performance.   You can use a rubric to clearly delineate what is expected of students in the assignment.  For more information on rubrics, see our Rubric page.

It is recommended that rubrics be used for grading authentic/performance-based assessments.

UDL and Assessments

"Provision of options within the design of both formative and summative assessment helps to ensure that all learners can act on new information and demonstrate what they know."1 Following the principles of Universal Design for Learning and for Instruction (UDL and UDI, respectively), students should be offered multiple means of demonstrating their progress and understanding in a course. This includes demonstrating what learners know through opportunities that are varied in both their presentation and activity. UDL on Campus (CAST's "Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education") has an entire site devoted to UDL and Assessment. Their "Introduction to UDL and Assessment" video is a good prompt toward thinking about how thoughtful selection of assessment techniques by faculty can reduce barriers for all students.


Paulson, F.L., Paulsun, P. & Meyer (1991). What Makes a Portfolio? Educational Leadership, 48, 60 - 63.

CTL Assessment Workshops:

Explore more: Assessments are part of the Course Development Process.

Tracy Thompson,
Jun 7, 2012, 11:28 AM
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