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Student Assessment in Teaching and Learning

By Michael R. Fisher, Jr.

Much scholarship has focused on the importance of student assessment in teaching and learning in higher education. Student assessment is a critical aspect of the teaching and learning process. Whether teaching at the undergraduate or graduate level, it is important for instructors to strategically evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching by measuring the extent to which students in the classroom are learning the course material.

This teaching guide addresses the following: 1) defines student assessment and why it is important, 2) identifies the forms and purposes of student assessment in the teaching and learning process, 3) discusses methods in student assessment, and 4) makes an important distinction between assessment and grading.


What is student assessment and why is it Important?

In their handbook for course-based review and assessment, Martha L. A. Stassen et al. define assessment as “the systematic collection and analysis of information to improve student learning.” (Stassen et al., 2001, pg. 5) This definition captures the essential task of student assessment in the teaching and learning process. Student assessment enables instructors to measure the effectiveness of their teaching by linking student performance to specific learning objectives. As a result, teachers are able to institutionalize effective teaching choices and revise ineffective ones in their pedagogy.

The measurement of student learning through assessment is important because it provides useful feedback to both instructors and students about the extent to which students are successfully meeting course learning objectives. In their book Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe offer a framework for classroom instruction—what they call “Backward Design”—that emphasizes the critical role of assessment. For Wiggens and McTighe, assessment enables instructors to determine the metrics of measurement for student understanding of and proficiency in course learning objectives. They argue that assessment provides the evidence needed to document and validate that meaningful learning has occurred in the classroom. Assessment is so vital in their pedagogical design that their approach “encourages teachers and curriculum planners to first ‘think like an assessor’ before designing specific units and lessons, and thus to consider up front how they will determine if students have attained the desired understandings.” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, pg. 18)

For more on Wiggins and McTighe’s “Backward Design” model, see our Understanding by Design teaching guide.

Student assessment also buttresses critical reflective teaching. Stephen Brookfield, in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, contends that critical reflection on one’s teaching is an essential part of developing as an educator and enhancing the learning experience of students. Critical reflection on one’s teaching has a multitude of benefits for instructors, including the development of rationale for teaching practices. According to Brookfield, “A critically reflective teacher is much better placed to communicate to colleagues and students (as well as to herself) the rationale behind her practice. She works from a position of informed commitment.” (Brookfield, 1995, pg. 17) Student assessment, then, not only enables teachers to measure the effectiveness of their teaching, but is also useful in developing the rationale for pedagogical choices in the classroom.


Forms and Purposes of Student Assessment

There are generally two forms of student assessment that are most frequently discussed in the scholarship of teaching and learning. The first, summative assessment, is assessment that is implemented at the end of the course of study. Its primary purpose is to produce a measure that “sums up” student learning. Summative assessment is comprehensive in nature and is fundamentally concerned with learning outcomes. While summative assessment is often useful to provide information about patterns of student achievement, it does so without providing the opportunity for students to reflect on and demonstrate growth in identified areas for improvement and does not provide an avenue for the instructor to modify teaching strategy during the teaching and learning process. (Maki, 2002) Examples of summative assessment include comprehensive final exams or papers.

The second form, formative assessment, involves the evaluation of student learning over the course of time. Its fundamental purpose is to estimate students’ level of achievement in order to enhance student learning during the learning process. By interpreting students’ performance through formative assessment and sharing the results with them, instructors help students to “understand their strengths and weaknesses and to reflect on how they need to improve over the course of their remaining studies.” (Maki, 2002, pg. 11) Pat Hutchings refers to this form of assessment as assessment behind outcomes. She states, “the promise of assessment—mandated or otherwise—is improved student learning, and improvement requires attention not only to final results but also to how results occur. Assessment behind outcomes means looking more carefully at the process and conditions that lead to the learning we care about…” (Hutchings, 1992, pg. 6, original emphasis). Formative assessment includes course work—where students receive feedback that identifies strengths, weaknesses, and other things to keep in mind for future assignments—discussions between instructors and students, and end-of-unit examinations that provide an opportunity for students to identify important areas for necessary growth and development for themselves. (Brown and Knight, 1994)

It is important to recognize that both summative and formative assessment indicate the purpose of assessment, not the method. Different methods of assessment (discussed in the next section) can either be summative or formative in orientation depending on how the instructor implements them. Sally Brown and Peter Knight in their book, Assessing Learners in Higher Education, caution against a conflation of the purposes of assessment its method. “Often the mistake is made of assuming that it is the method which is summative or formative, and not the purpose. This, we suggest, is a serious mistake because it turns the assessor’s attention away from the crucial issue of feedback.” (Brown and Knight, 1994, pg. 17) If an instructor believes that a particular method is formative, he or she may fall into the trap of using the method without taking the requisite time to review the implications of the feedback with students. In such cases, the method in question effectively functions as a form of summative assessment despite the instructor’s intentions. (Brown and Knight, 1994) Indeed, feedback and discussion is the critical factor that distinguishes between formative and summative assessment.


Methods in Student Assessment

Below are a few common methods of assessment identified by Brown and Knight that can be implemented in the classroom.[1] It should be noted that these methods work best when learning objectives have been identified, shared, and clearly articulated to students.


The goal of implementing self-assessment in a course is to enable students to develop their own judgement. In self-assessment students are expected to assess both process and product of their learning. While the assessment of the product is often the task of the instructor, implementing student assessment in the classroom encourages students to evaluate their own work as well as the process that led them to the final outcome. Moreover, self-assessment facilitates a sense of ownership of one’s learning and can lead to greater investment by the student. It enables students to develop transferable skills in other areas of learning that involve group projects and teamwork, critical thinking and problem-solving, as well as leadership roles in the teaching and learning process.

Things to Keep in Mind about Self-Assessment

  1. Self-assessment is different from self-grading. According to Brown and Knight, “Self-assessment involves the use of evaluative processes in which judgement is involved, where self-grading is the marking of one’s own work against a set of criteria and potential outcomes provided by a third person, usually the [instructor].” (Pg. 52)
  2. Students may initially resist attempts to involve them in the assessment process. This is usually due to insecurities or lack of confidence in their ability to objectively evaluate their own work. Brown and Knight note, however, that when students are asked to evaluate their work, frequently student-determined outcomes are very similar to those of instructors, particularly when the criteria and expectations have been made explicit in advance.
  3. Methods of self-assessment vary widely and can be as eclectic as the instructor. Common forms of self-assessment include the portfolio, reflection logs, instructor-student interviews, learner diaries and dialog journals, and the like.

Peer Assessment

Peer assessment is a type of collaborative learning technique where students evaluate the work of their peers and have their own evaluated by peers. This dimension of assessment is significantly grounded in theoretical approaches to active learning and adult learning. Like self-assessment, peer assessment gives learners ownership of learning and focuses on the process of learning as students are able to “share with one another the experiences that they have undertaken.” (Brown and Knight, 1994, pg. 52)

Things to Keep in Mind about Peer Assessment

  1. Students can use peer assessment as a tactic of antagonism or conflict with other students by giving unmerited low evaluations. Conversely, students can also provide overly favorable evaluations of their friends.
  2. Students can occasionally apply unsophisticated judgements to their peers. For example, students who are boisterous and loquacious may receive higher grades than those who are quieter, reserved, and shy.
  3. Instructors should implement systems of evaluation in order to ensure valid peer assessment is based on evidence and identifiable criteria. 


According to Euan S. Henderson, essays make two important contributions to learning and assessment: the development of skills and the cultivation of a learning style. (Henderson, 1980) Essays are a common form of writing assignment in courses and can be either a summative or formative form of assessment depending on how the instructor utilizes them in the classroom.

Things to Keep in Mind about Essays

  1. A common challenge of the essay is that students can use them simply to regurgitate rather than analyze and synthesize information to make arguments.
  2. Instructors commonly assume that students know how to write essays and can encounter disappointment or frustration when they discover that this is not the case for some students. For this reason, it is important for instructors to make their expectations clear and be prepared to assist or expose students to resources that will enhance their writing skills.

Exams and time-constrained, individual assessment

Examinations have traditionally been viewed as a gold standard of assessment in education, particularly in university settings. Like essays they can be summative or formative forms of assessment.

Things to Keep in Mind about Exams

  1. Exams can make significant demands on students’ factual knowledge and can have the side-effect of encouraging cramming and surface learning. On the other hand, they can also facilitate student demonstration of deep learning if essay questions or topics are appropriately selected. Different formats include in-class tests, open-book, take-home exams and the like.
  2. In the process of designing an exam, instructors should consider the following questions. What are the learning objectives that the exam seeks to evaluate? Have students been adequately prepared to meet exam expectations? What are the skills and abilities that students need to do well? How will this exam be utilized to enhance the student learning process?

As Brown and Knight assert, utilizing multiple methods of assessment, including more than one assessor, improves the reliability of data. However, a primary challenge to the multiple methods approach is how to weigh the scores produced by multiple methods of assessment. When particular methods produce higher range of marks than others, instructors can potentially misinterpret their assessment of overall student performance. When multiple methods produce different messages about the same student, instructors should be mindful that the methods are likely assessing different forms of achievement. (Brown and Knight, 1994).

For additional methods of assessment not listed here, see “Assessment on the Page” and “Assessment Off the Page” in Assessing Learners in Higher Education.

In addition to the various methods of assessment listed above, classroom assessment techniques also provide a useful way to evaluate student understanding of course material in the teaching and learning process. For more on these, see our Classroom Assessment Techniques teaching guide.


Assessment is More than Grading

Instructors often conflate assessment with grading. This is a mistake. It must be understood that student assessment is more than just grading. Remember that assessment links student performance to specific learning objectives in order to provide useful information to instructors and students about student achievement. Traditional grading on the other hand, according to Stassen et al. does not provide the level of detailed and specific information essential to link student performance with improvement. “Because grades don’t tell you about student performance on individual (or specific) learning goals or outcomes, they provide little information on the overall success of your course in helping students to attain the specific and distinct learning objectives of interest.” (Stassen et al., 2001, pg. 6) Instructors, therefore, must always remember that grading is an aspect of student assessment but does not constitute its totality.


Teaching Guides Related to Student Assessment

Below is a list of other CFT teaching guides that supplement this one. They include:


References and Additional Resources

This teaching guide draws upon a number of resources listed below. These sources should prove useful for instructors seeking to enhance their pedagogy and effectiveness as teachers.

Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for
College Teachers
. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. Print.

Brookfield, Stephen D. Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 1995. Print.

Brown, Sally, and Peter Knight. Assessing Learners in Higher Education. 1 edition. London ;
Philadelphia: Routledge, 1998. Print.

Cameron, Jeanne et al. “Assessment as Critical Praxis: A Community College Experience.”
Teaching Sociology 30.4 (2002): 414–429. JSTOR. Web.

Gibbs, Graham and Claire Simpson. “Conditions under which Assessment Supports Student Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 1 (2004): 3-31.

Henderson, Euan S. “The Essay in Continuous Assessment.” Studies in Higher Education 5.2 (1980): 197–203. Taylor and Francis+NEJM. Web.

Maki, Peggy L. “Developing an Assessment Plan to Learn about Student Learning.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 28.1 (2002): 8–13. ScienceDirect. Web. The Journal of Academic Librarianship.

Sharkey, Stephen, and William S. Johnson. Assessing Undergraduate Learning in Sociology. ASA Teaching Resource Center, 1992. Print.

Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding By Design. 2nd Expanded edition. Alexandria, VA: Assn. for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 2005. Print.


[1] Brown and Night discuss the first two in their chapter entitled “Dimensions of Assessment.” However, because this chapter begins the second part of the book that outlines assessment methods, I have collapsed the two under the category of methods for the purposes of continuity.