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Starting the Year: What Do You Need to Know About Assessment?

Assessment 101

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager






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Assessment is a critical intersection between teaching and learning, a junction at which educators understand what it is students have learned and where educators gain insights into teaching efficacy and exam design. As a result, upholding assessment with integrity--in other words administering tests, quizzes, and assignments that accurately measure student learning--is critical to furthering student learning outcomes and teaching efficacy.

To achieve assessment with integrity, let’s go over some foundational components of assessment.

What is assessment?

In education, the term assessment refers to the wide variety of methods or tools that educators use to evaluate, measure, and document the academic readiness, learning progress, skill acquisition, or educational needs of students.

Assessment can:

  • Provide educators with a deep understanding as to what students know, understand, and can do with their knowledge
  • Be used to improve subsequent student learning and development
What kinds of assessments are there?

The term “assessment” embodies tests, quizzes, exams, and assignments that measure student learning. While assessments are any assignment, test, quiz, or exam that measures student learning, they can also be categorized. The broader categories include:

Summative assessments: These are assessments that entail little or no feedback to the student. They are evaluative and tend to compare knowledge against a benchmark, usually at the end of a unit or course. Examples of summative assessments include standardized tests, final projects and exams, and heavily weighted midterm exams.

Formative assessments: These are assessments that collect information to facilitate student learning and to improve instruction via feedback and item analysis. In sum, they occur throughout the course to improve student learning objectives by supporting student needs. Examples of formative assessments include in-class discussions, weekly quizzes, clicker questions, and quick reflection writing. There is some flexibility; for instance, midterm exams can become formative with feedback, item analysis, and instructor intervention.

High-stakes assessments: These are assessments that are a large portion of a student’s course grade (e.g., final exams) or an exam that has a high impact on a student’s educational journey (e.g., standardized exams or entrance exams). Failing or struggling on such an assessment can render invisible the student’s effort in other areas of study.

Low-stakes assessments: These are assessments that have little or no impact on a student’s course grade or other educational outcomes. They tend to be formative in nature and facilitate learning via feedback loops and participation.

What kinds of assessment formats are there?

Assessments come in multiple formats. Some of the more common formats include true-false, multiple-choice, short-answer, and long-answer questions. Other common formats include written research reports and essays.

Each of these formats addresses different aspects of student learning. And for that reason, best practices advise instructors to use a variety of formats to test student knowledge.

For example, exams consisting of multiple-choice questions can cover a wide range of concepts in a limited amount of time, even if they may not test higher-order thinking skills as effectively as long answer questions. At the same time, long-answer questions better address whether or not students have a deep understanding of specific concepts but may take longer for instructors to grade. In short, different assessment formats can assess breadth (multiple-choice) in addition to depth (long answer, essays) of knowledge.

Why is assessment important?

We need to know what our students are learning.

Dylan Wiliams stated:

“If students learned what they were taught, we would never need to assess; we could instead just keep records of what we had is impossible to predict with any certainty what students will learn as the result of a particular sequence of classroom activities. And because we cannot teach well without finding out where our students are starting from, we have to assess.

Assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning--it is only through assessment that we can find out whether what has happened in the classroom has produced the learning we intended.” (2011, p. 1).

In other words, as Patti West-Smith advises, “Who ‘got it?’ Who didn’t? What are you going to do about it tomorrow?”

Assessments give educators our action items, just as assessment ought to provide students their next steps.

Assessment best practices

Feedback has always been a best practice in assessment, but remote learning has made assessment an even more critical communication tool between instructors and students. With a lack of in-person interaction, the feedback loop becomes the main conduit for knowledge sharing. Frequent, low-stakes assessments provide feedback loops that support student learning.

While summative assessment serves the purpose of evaluating a student’s mastery of content, formative assessment must have a presence within the curriculum.

The above must be done in a timely manner and with actionable feedback.

In order to enable accurate assessment, academic integrity must also be upheld. Some methodologies in assessment design entail questions specific to your classroom’s curriculum and class discussions, multiple versions of the same test, and as stated above, varying assessment formats.

Offering a variety of assessment formats upholds the inclusion of different learning styles and measuring different components of learning. Multiple-choice exams are often reviled, but can still be helpful to assess a large swath of concepts in a short amount of time. And when in combination with other formats, are very effective. And short and long answer questions have been regarded as effective ways to test whether or not students have a deep conceptual understanding of subjects.

Assessment software like Gradescope can uphold best assessment practices by enabling timely and effective feedback loops, upholding all assessment formats, and support frequent, low-stakes assessments, all while saving instructors time and offering data insights. Item analysis, the practice of analyzing student responses to individual exam questions (and a function within both Gradescope and Feedback Studio), can also provide further insight into student learning and future assessment design.

We hope this helps start or refreshes your journey in upholding assessment with integrity and facilitating excellent learning outcomes.