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Assessment strategies in the classroom: Raising the bar for learning

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell






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What is the function of assessment strategies in the classroom? Many instructors deliver summative assessments — like midterms or final exams — to determine students’ grasp of course material and decide if students are ready to advance to higher-level courses. Summative assessment can be an effective tool to evaluate student knowledge and in the realm of licensure and certification exams, determine qualification for beginning a career. Traditionally, this assessment method moves in a single direction — from the student, who demonstrates their mastery of a certain subject, to the educator, who factors the test score into a final course grade.

But the assessment process doesn’t have to end with a test score. In fact, making assessment a recursive activity can reveal valuable opportunities to improve teaching methods, which in turn can improve student outcomes. While summative assessments like midterms and finals play an important role in gauging course mastery, formative assessments — including quizzes and in-class polls — can help instructors determine if their teaching is effective and make necessary and timely adjustments during the semester.

Formative assessment is also useful for reinforcing key concepts, so that testing is not solely a measure of student knowledge, but also a rich teaching opportunity. Below we discuss strategies to cultivate teachable moments in testing, fine-tune teaching methods to support knowledge retention, and provide targeted feedback to improve student outcomes, all with the help of a data-driven solution for assessment.

Assessment strategies: assessment of vs. assessment for learning

In “Assessment for Learning: Classroom Assessment to Improve Student Achievement and Well-Being,” Judith Arter notes the differences between “assessment of learning” and “assessment for learning,” the former aligned with summative assessment and the latter, formative. While Arter acknowledges a place for assessment of learning through summative exams. She posits that this method alone “is insufficient to help us reach our goals for student learning.”

Assessment for learning, on the other hand, involves a continual process of formative assessment — adjusting teaching methods in response to test results and involving students in the process of self-assessment and self-improvement. But for this process to be successful, Arter writes, instructors must develop specific “learning targets” and help students engage with these objectives.

One way to implement an assessment for learning approach is to write every test and quiz with a focus on learning targets. By focusing and linking individual questions to categories — including subject areas or learning outcomes — instructors can generate performance data that enables them to identify the needs of individual students, observe any course-wide trends, and target any course topics that may require revisiting.

How can formative assessment strategies improve learning?

Assessment is a crucial junction in the learning process because it reveals what the students do and do not know, and perhaps why students do or don’t understand concepts. Thus, formative assessments–aka assessments that take place throughout a unit–can improve learning because they offer three important opportunities:

  • Understanding student learning
  • Providing formative feedback
  • Performing item analysis

Let’s dive into these three concepts more deeply:

How can I better understand what my students have learned?

With each assessment comes the chance for an instructor to better grasp their students’ understanding of a concept (or lack thereof). If an entire class scored notably low on a particular pop quiz or check-in assignment, it’s clear to that instructor that the material needs to be reviewed and/or presented in a different way. On assessments that require students to show their thinking or explain their reasoning, it can be easier to pinpoint where a misunderstanding occurred and how to mitigate further confusion. With assessments that simply have right/wrong answers without context, it might behoove an instructor to sit down with the student individually to ask about any questions they may have on the topic and what would help clarify the concepts.

How can I provide formative feedback to my students?

Formative feedback is essential in helping students grow and improve, as it allows them to recognize an error or area of improvement and apply that learning in their next draft or the following assignment. Instead of receiving feedback at the end of a course or unit, where it is too late to make corrections, they can receive feedback while they are learning in order for it to effectively contribute to their growth. It can guide students along the way in order to keep them on the right track and heading towards their learning goals (accreditation, licensure, passing a grade level or course).

With regard to writing assignments, “Where to next?” feedback has shown itself to be an impactful structure for formative feedback. It focuses on three essential components: the issue as it relates to the writing task; the relevance as it aligns to the stated expectations of the rubric; and the action a student can take, guiding the work but not necessarily “giving” the student the answer. For educators using Turnitin Feedback Studio, write “Where to next” comments as inline comments, bubble comments, or QuickMark comments.

How can I perform item analysis on my assessments?

Item analysis is an integral part of successful exam design and consequently, unit or curriculum design. “Item analysis is the act of analyzing student responses to individual exam questions with the intention of evaluating exam quality,” says Christine Lee. “It is an important tool to uphold test effectiveness and fairness.” It can help instructors to see if their exam is measuring exactly what they intended to measure, and if the questions themselves are appropriately difficult and geared toward the learning outcomes. Both Gradescope and ExamSoft offer item analysis insights for instructors who are seeking to improve their exam design and inform their course content.

How can summative assessment strategies improve learning?

Similar to formative assessment, summative assessments can help instructors to determine if students have wholly expressed their skill and knowledge acquisition in order to move forward (to the next unit, the next grade level, the next step in their career). Because summative assessments are often at the end of a learning cycle, they are often higher stakes and occur as a culmination of learning across a semester or term.

Different types of assessments are valuable in different ways. A summative assessment may be multiple choice, true/false, short or long answer, assessing a lot of information in an efficient amount of time. They also might take the form of authentic assessment, which requires learners to apply their knowledge and skills in a real-world context. These types of assessments improve learning because they ask students to problem solve, think creatively, and actively apply what they’ve learned. For example, a nursing student may be asked to create a plan of care for a patient based on a case study or a computer science student may be tasked with trouble shooting a problematic piece of code.

Summative assessments can help teachers determine whether students are making adequate academic progress or meeting expected learning standards, and results may be used to inform modifications to instructional techniques, lesson designs, or teaching materials the next time a course, unit, or lesson is taught.

Keep track of learning targets with digital assessment strategies

Establishing a thorough but focused set of course objectives is a good starting point to deliver effective instruction and assessment. Test creation is an important next step of an assessment for learning approach since this is when many instructors first connect test questions to their learning targets. With this framework in place, tests and quizzes can bring meaningful performance insights that show student progress for each learning target.

Jon Reifschneider, an engineering instructor at Duke University’ s Pratt School of Engineering, describes in his EdSurge article his approach to formative assessment, which involves weekly, 10-question quizzes to track student progress by course topics. Over time, the sheer number of paper-based quizzes made observing trends difficult. To gather this performance data effectively, the instructor set out to develop a machine learning tool with his colleagues that would provide “insight into where the class was successfully learning the material and where [the instructor] needs to reinforce certain topics.”

For educators in search of a simpler way to aggregate performance data, a digital testing platform can help. A solution with built-in item-tagging and category-reporting capabilities enables educators to upload and/or create assessment items, tag these items to learning targets, and analyze student performance. Category-driven assessment makes it possible for educators to tailor instruction to the needs of their students and evaluate the efficacy of their own teaching practices.

Take a look at three ways instructors can leverage digital assessment data to improve their teaching strategies:

  • Providing differentiated feedback
  • Revisiting topics as a class
  • Testing instructional adjustments
Providing differentiated feedback

As noted in an article published by Graduate Programs for Educators, “If goals are set in collaboration with students and teachers can identify abilities of their students, differentiation is an efficient use of test results to improve learning.” Educators can use assessment software with category-based reporting to provide timely, individualized feedback that helps students grow.

Reviewing assessment results with every student can be time-consuming, but digital assessment tools can deliver automated reports to students, summarizing their performance by each learning target. When students know their strengths as well as opportunities for growth, they know exactly where to focus their study efforts. Category reports give students a way to engage in the process of self-assessment, and educators make this possible simply by tagging questions to learning targets during exam creation.

Revisiting topics as a class

Even the most well-vetted teaching methods are not guaranteed to support student learning in every course, and educators may find that assessment data reveals course-wide performance trends that require intervention during the semester. When this is the case, the Association for Supervision and Curricular Development (ASCD) advises that instructors “follow their assessments with instructional alternatives that present those concepts in new ways and engage students in different and more appropriate learning experiences.”

A digital assessment tool can generate course performance reports that show the average test score for an assessment, performance trends in categories across multiple assessments, and how a course or multiple courses are performing by category. Based on these insights, an instructor could see that a majority of students in a course requires corrective instruction for specific learning targets and revisit topics accordingly.

Testing instructional adjustments

Presenting concepts in new ways based on assessment data is an essential step of student evaluation. But how can an instructor be sure that new teaching methods are working for their course? ASCD writes, “[I]f teachers follow assessments with helpful corrective instruction, then students should have a second chance to demonstrate their new level of competence and understanding.”

This is yet another way digital testing can support a recursive approach to formative assessment; instructors can create and administer new quizzes, or offer an alternate means of assessment such as a presentation, on the same course material and compare student performance on the assessment events by learning target. With this valuable performance data, educators can make meaningful adjustments to their teaching methods while a course is ongoing to support student success. Without an assessment for learning approach, these adjustments could otherwise take years of instruction to correct.

In sum: Assessment strategies in the classroom

By integrating assessment strategies and tools into the classroom, educators create an environment that fosters continuous improvement and growth. Students are motivated to strive for excellence and are provided with valuable feedback to guide their progress. Meanwhile, educators gain valuable insights into their instructional practices, allowing for ongoing refinement and adaptation.

In essence, assessment strategies supported by effective tools elevate the quality of learning in the classroom. By leveraging these resources to create, administer, and analyze exams aligned with course objectives, educators empower themselves and their students. The result is a more accurate assessment of student mastery, personalized instruction, and a culture of continuous improvement. Ultimately, by raising the bar for learning through robust assessment practices, educators set the stage for student success and lifelong achievement.