Methods of assessment overview


This overview of assessment methods is likely to be useful to those new to learning and teaching practice and assessment design, and goes through the differences betweeen formative and summative education, and some examples suitable for each.

Formative (Low-Stakes) Assessments

Formative assessment techniques monitor student learning during the learning process. The feedback gathered is used to identify areas where students are struggling so that instructors can adjust their teaching and students can adjust their studying. These are low-stakes assessments (i.e., they have low point values) that happen early and often in the semester.


Written Reflections. Sometimes referred to as “Minute Papers” or “Muddiest Points,” these popular assessment techniques have students reflect immediately following a learning opportunity (e.g., at the end of a class or after completing an out-of-class activity) to answer one or two basic questions like:

“What was the most important thing you learned today?”

“What was the most confusing topic today?”

“What important question remains unanswered?”

Polls/Surveys. Data on student opinions, attitudes, behaviors or confidence in understanding can be gathered either during class (e.g., with a classroom response system) or outside of class. This can illustrate student engagement with the material as well as prior knowledge, misconceptions, and comprehension.

Checks for Understanding. Pausing every few minutes to see whether students are following along with the lesson not only identifies gaps in comprehension, but helps break up lectures (e.g, with Clicker questions) or online lessons (e.g., with embedded quiz questions) into more digestible bites.

Wrappers. “Wrapping” activities, using a set of reflective questions, can help students develop skills to monitor their own learning and adapt as necessary.


In-class Activities. Having students work in pairs or small groups to solve problems creates space for powerful peer-to-peer learning and rich class discussion. Instructors and TAs can roam the classroom as students work, helping those who get stuck and guiding those who are headed in the wrong direction.

Quizzes.  Gauge students’ prior knowledge, assess progress midway through a unit, create friendly in-class competition, review before the test — quizzes can be great tools that don’t have to count heavily toward students’ grades. Using quizzes to begin units is also a fun way to assess what your students already know, clear up misconceptions, and drive home the point of how much they will learn.

Online Learning Modules. Canvas and other Learning Managment Systems allow students to solve problems or answer questions along the way.  This can provide you with analytics on student responses and class performance so you can tailor your instruction to their particular learning needs.

Class Deliverables. In-class activities are designed so students, usually in groups, are required to submit a product of their work for a grade.  Among the variety of techniques that can be used, the most effective will balance individual and group accountability and require students to think about authentic complex issues.  Team-Based Learning uses four criteria in the design of collaborative application exercises.

Summative (High-Stakes) Assessments:

Summative assessment techniques evaluate student learning. These are high-stakes assessments (i.e., they have high point values) that occur at the end of an instructional unit or course and measure the extent to which students have achieved the desired learning outcomes.

Exams. This includes mid-term exams, final exams, and tests at the end of course units. The best tests include several types of questions – short answer, multiple-choice, true-false, and short essay – to allow students to fully demonstrate what they know.

Papers, projects, and presentations. These give students the chance to go deeper with the material to put the knowledge they’ve acquired to use or create something new from it. This level of application is an extremely important and often overlooked part of the learning process. These types of projects also give students who do not test well a chance to shine.

Portfolios. Submitting a portfolio at the end of a course can be a powerful way for students to see the progress they’ve made.  More than just a collection of students’ work from the semester, good portfolios also include reflections on their learning. Asking students to spell out the concepts or techniques used with each piece, the themes addressed, and hurdles faced also brings a sense of completion to the learning process.

This resource is reproduced in accordance with the Creative Commons license of the original, which is available here [last accessed 18 August 2015].

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