The Importance of Assessment

Assessment activities are a core component of any course experience, as they represent opportunities for an instructor to gather information and make determination about what students have learned. Assessment can take many forms, from the traditional quizzes and exams, to papers and projects, to in-class activities. Ideally any assessment activity you employ in your course should match clearly to a stated learning objective and serve to evaluate students’ progress toward a desired learning outcome. Assessment is often thought of interchangeably with grading, and although grading can be part of assessment, assessment can include a range of non-graded activities that inform both student and instructor about student learning.

Assessment activities are often grouped into different categories depending on their goal. In planning assessments for a course you might consider the role of formative assessment, summative assessments, diagnostic assessments, and self assessments.

Formative and Summative Assessment

Assessments are traditionally defined as either formative or summative, and ideally any course experience will include both of these types of assessment. Summative assessment is often described as “assessment OF learning” while formative assessment is described as “assessment FOR learning."

Formative assessments include any assessment that takes place during a learning activity that informs the instructor about the students’ progress toward a given learning objective. Formative assessment can be thought of “monitoring,” and ideally is helpful to both instructor and students in evaluating their learning. Questions during lectures and Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) are popular formative assessment tools. Formative assessments are traditionally “low stakes” and have no or minimal grade repercussions. Based on information collected via formative assessment an instructor can potentially take steps to make corrections to students’ understanding of a topic through assigning supplemental reading, clarifying issue during lectures, etc.

In contrast to formative assessment, summative assessment evaluates student learning at the completion of a course, instructional unit, or other milestone. Summative assessments make a determination about student competencies and evaluates whether or not they have met stated learning objectives. Summative assessments are often “high stakes” with major grade implications and/or impacting further progression in a program. Summative assessment is frequently thought of in the form of certification exam or course final exams/midterms, but summative assessment can also take the form of non-exam based activities such as papers or projects.

Diagnostic Assessment

A diagnostic assessment can also be thought of as pre-assessment, or a pre-test. A diagnostic assessment is any assessment activity (quiz, class discussion, etc.) that gathers information about students’ prior knowledge and possible misconceptions in a given topic area. A diagnostic assessment might appear at the start of a course or the start of a new unit, as an opportunity for the instructor to understand what students have or have not retained from previous courses. Diagnostic assessment activities can be a helpful addition to many courses by helping to avoid assumptions about student prior knowledge.

Self Assessment

Self assessment can take the form of practice quizzes or other activities where students practice and evaluate their preparedness for high stakes summative assessment activities. Self assessment can also incorporate activities that ask students to reflect on their learning or progress through the course material. Many courses and programs have goals related to preparing students for “lifelong learning;” preparing students for self assessment of their learning can be an important aspect of lifelong learning. In preparing students for self assessment it could potentially be important to include appropriate practice activities, such as peer feedback on a paper, or evaluating their own work with a rubric.

References and Further Reading

Black, Paul; Wiliam, Dylan (1998). "Assessment and classroom learning". Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 5 (1)

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