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Ipsative assessments: What are they? And what are their benefits?

Unleashing the potential of ipsative assessments. Embrace self-reflection and continuous student improvement with these tips and the use of ExamSoft tools.

Audrey Campbell
Audrey Campbell

Ipsative assessment, while an incredibly valuable way to measure a student’s learning progress over time, is a category of assessment that is far lesser known than, say, normative, summative, or standardized assessments.

When using normative or standardized graded assessments, instructors can evaluate individual student performance relative to current and past peers. But as valuable as the traditional criterion-referenced and norm-referenced assessment modes can be in grading against a static set of criteria, there is increasing debate as to whether these should be supplemented by ipsative assessment methods.

Traditional assessments are excellent for showcasing the strongest students in a class and grading the class as a whole, but they aren’t a fit with every academic objective. One objective for which ipsative assessments are better aligned is maximizing the performance of students for whom, say, the material does not come as naturally.

In this blog post, we’ll dive into the definition of ipsative assessments and look at examples of this type of assessment in education. We’ll explore how instructors can conduct an ipsative assessment and seek to better understand the benefits of ipsative vs normative assessments.

What is an ipsative assessment?

If the objective is to maximize individual student mastery, instructors can use ipsative assessments to track student progress over time. “Ipsative” derives from the Latin word ipse, meaning “of the self.” In education, “ipsative” refers to comparing an individual’s performance against their own past performances. By removing the futility of competing against students whose aptitudes are better matched with a subject and whose mastery is greater at the moment, students gain motivation from focusing on self-improvement.

According to Dr. Thomas Armstrong, “‘Ipsative’ assessment is far more important than any of the other forms of assessment... What we should be concerned about is how much individual progress a student makes, not whether he knows this or that chunk of knowledge or meets a statistical ‘norm.’”

He goes on to say that: “Research tells us that those who believe that ‘effort’ can improve a person’s intelligence and achievement (a growth mindset), do better over the long haul, than those who believe that one is either born smart or not (a fixed mindset). Thus, the person who shows greater individual growth via ‘ipsative’ assessment, is to be regarded as the better learner over the one who demonstrates less growth with respect to their previous assessments, even if their knowledge base or normative assessments are higher.”

Kyla Haimovitz and Carol Dweck, leading researchers in the concept of the “Growth Mindset”, explore the value of cultivating a growth mindset in children, specifically on the topic of intelligence as a quality they can grow vs a trait they cannot change. They conclude that a sustained focus on the process of learning is critical and in addition to affecting academic performance, correlates highly with career success (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2017).

Clearly, there is real value in incorporating ipsative assessments into curriculum as milestones to gauge individual student progress and promote growth. But what does ipsative assessment look like in the classroom?

What is an example of an ipsative assessment in education?

Often in sports training, an athlete will strive to beat their previous time or score; a runner may seek to best their previous 5K time or a weightlifter may try to increase their weight for their next attempt after a successful lift.

Ipsative assessments are similar in the education sphere: they place the onus upon the individual’s academic performance and on individual development across time.

Dr. Armstrong offers this example: “A student who improves in their reading from a 2.2 grade level to a 4.1 level should be regarded as a better learner than one who improved from a 3.9 reading level to a 5.2 level, even though the second student is over one grade level higher than the first student.”

What’s tricky is that the current state of testing values the highest test scores, reading levels, and grades instead of looking more intimately at the individual student progress. And because a high performance, Dr. Armstrong points out, can be “attributed to any number of things from students’ innate ability to their high socio-economic status,”, it’s not necessarily fair to solely assess students in that way.

He goes on to say that students with so-called “low” achievement levels may actually be showing greater individual improvement over past efforts, which in some ways may mean that they are superior learners, despite having a lower score than the highest performer in the class.

Dr. Gwyneth Hughes, in her research around ipsative assessments, suggests that these types of assessments “could be used to identify students who are on an upward trajectory and are willing to learn.” She suggests the following for instructors seeking to offer ipsative assessments in the classroom:

  • Look at both the student’s earlier work and their current work.
  • Ask students to identify what they consider to be their own areas of weakness in specific assignments and then reflect on if/how they may have improved in subsequent work.
  • Decide how the student has progressed and suggest the next steps the student takes.

With the aforementioned in mind, an instructor may want to:

  • Take recordings of their students reading at different times of the year, then watch the videos with the student and discuss so they can more easily see/hear how they have improved their intonation, cadence, and overall reading ability.
  • Offer an intake assessment at the beginning of a course to see where students are for that topic or skill, then track their progress across a term and share with them at key points in the school year their performance. One example might be a check-in quiz on a specific math concept taken at week one, three, and five of a semester, whereupon a student and teacher have a discussion about the previous quiz’s score and whether or not the subsequent one showcased improved performance based solely on that student, not compared to the performance of the class, grade-level, or state norms.
  • Take a look at the technology and tools used in the course to see if there are ways to incorporate ipsative-type data collection. As we’ll dive into later in this blog, ExamSoft offers ways for instructors to see a student’s individual performance across time.
What is the difference between ipsative and normative assessments?

It’s important to understand the difference between ipsative and normative assessments in order to grasp their unique applications and implications. Let's explore the disparities between the two:


Ipsative Assessments: Ipsative assessments evaluate an individual's performance or traits in relation to their own previous performance. These assessments focus on personal progress and growth, as they compare an individual's current abilities to their past performance.

Normative Assessments: Normative assessments, on the other hand, assess an individual's performance or characteristics in comparison to a specific group or population. These assessments aim to determine how an individual stands relative to others in the group. Normative assessments provide insights into where an individual ranks compared to their peers.


Ipsative Assessments: The primary focus of ipsative assessments is self-awareness and personal development. They highlight an individual's strengths and weaknesses over time, encouraging a growth-oriented mindset.

Normative Assessments: Normative assessments are designed to understand how an individual compares to a norm or a standard. They help in ranking individuals based on their performance or attributes within a specific group.


Ipsative Assessments: Interpreting ipsative assessments can be relatively straightforward, as they reveal an individual's progression over time. The emphasis is on the changes in performance or preferences, making it easier to identify areas of improvement and track personal growth.

Normative Assessments: Interpreting normative assessments requires considering the context of the comparison group. Being above or below the norm can indicate strengths or areas that need improvement, but it may not provide insights into an individual's growth over time.

Comparing Scores

Ipsative Assessments: In ipsative assessments, there are no absolute scores, as the focus is on the internal ranking of responses. The measurement instead occurs based on the performance of the student on the current assessment as compared to the previous assessment(s).

Normative Assessments: Normative assessments provide absolute scores that allow for direct comparisons between individuals in the same group. These scores are often percentile-based or standardized, reflecting an individual's performance relative to others.

Ipsative assessments are ideal for personal development, self-awareness, and tracking growth over time. On the other hand, normative assessments are essential when comparing individuals to specific groups or when standardized evaluation is necessary. Understanding the differences between these assessment types can help educators choose the appropriate assessment approach depending on their objectives and the insights they seek to gain from the assessment results.

How do you conduct an ipsative assessment?

As Jeanne Sager points out, “Ipsative assessments can be formed from other assessments. You may, for example, look at the pre-test given in the diagnostic assessment phase and compare it with results on a post-test given in the summative assessment phase for a truly quantitative assessment.”

In their research paper, “Making assessment promote effective learning practices: An example of ipsative assessment from the School of Psychology at UEL”, P.R. Penn and I.G. Wells offer an overview of the implementation of an ipsative assessment at the School of Psychology at the University of East London.

In it, they detail the ways in which an ipsative assessment was introduced into a core level 4 introductory module covering biopsychology, social psychology and individual differences on the BSc Psychology Programme at UEL. The process included weekly quizzes and immediate feedback accessible by students, to which they were required to respond with attempts to correct previous errors.

Overall, they note “how readily accepted the assessment was among the cohort of students” and “[i]n addition to the potential advantages for the students in terms of their retention of module material, the use of this assessment gives lecturers a meaningful real time index of students responding to feedback and learning.”

Thus, conducting an ipsative assessment may look very much like a formative assessment, but instead of measuring students against a grade-level, classwide, or state norm, they are measured against previous performances.

What are the benefits of ipsative assessments?

Instructors at every grade level and in every subject area strive to learn about the many forms of assessment and the benchmarks that measure student and educator success. Focusing on the progress that an individual student or trainee makes provides many benefits for both parties.

For students:
  • Helps students to “own” and feel a sense of control over their academic experience and individual development.
  • Provides a basis for students to take pride in their accomplishments.
  • Offers ongoing internal motivation for making progress, rather than punishment for falling short of a group standard.
  • Values the rate of improvement over specific competency measures; a student who improves more but shows a lower normative assessment score may actually be a faster learner.
  • Improves retention when a student is tested multiple times, instead of just one time with the same exam material.
  • Borrows progress tracking as a motivational tool from disciplines like athletics, health, and nutrition, so many students are familiar with the concept and enjoy the process.
For educators:
  • Enables instructors to track their effectiveness with different segments of students, from those who have aligned aptitudes to those who may be stronger in other areas.
  • Helps identify the students on an upward trajectory who are most willing to learn.
  • Empowers educators to become better at maximizing any individual student’s learning outcomes, not just the strongest students’ outcomes.
  • Enables targeted and detailed feedback based on areas of greatest and least improvement over time.

The continuous nature of ipsative assessments allows for ongoing monitoring and adjustment. As students progress and develop, educators can adapt their teaching strategies and learning materials accordingly. This dynamic process ensures that students are continually challenged, motivated, and engaged, preventing stagnation and promoting a culture of continuous improvement.

How ipsative assessments uphold academic integrity

When implemented thoughtfully, ipsative assessments can be an integral part of a course’s or program’s culture of academic integrity for myriad reasons.

First and foremost, this type of assessment promotes intrinsic motivation because it creates a structure within which a student can take ownership of their own improvement and growth. Research has show that “academic dishonesty [may be] positively linked with amotivation and extrinsic goal orientation” (Krou, Fong, & Hoff, 2020) whereas “intrinsic motivation is associated with better academic performance (Lepper et al., 2005)”.

Furthermore, ipsative assessments mitigate competition because students are striving to be better than yesterday, not better than their peers, their program’s expectations, or a district’s standards. Ipsative assessments are less likely to stress students out and less likely to lead to misconduct because instead of competing with peers for a top spot on Honor Roll, students are looking at their own progress, their own development, and looking at ways in which they can become the best version of themselves. And because ipsative assessments are highly personalized, they empower students and help them to feel seen, which in turn means they are less likely to choose a shortcut solution and instead, complete their own, original work.

Leveraging ipsative assessment objectives through ExamSoft

ExamSoft supports educators in their core mission of maximizing a variety of student outcomes. In addition to higher education, ExamSoft helps businesses, organizations, and government entities in the areas of allied health, business, law, medical, and nursing.

The Strengths & Opportunities Report can be organized to show how the student performs over time in a variety of disciplines or content categories. It can identify where the student is doing well, needs review, or is at-risk so that professors or work supervisors can tailor an improvement plan.

When ipsative assessments are used in a professional environment, they help to keep anxiety at bay. The professional being tested knows the ultimate goal is reaching specific competencies, and they can focus on doing this quickly, rather than competing with peers who may be currently achieving higher scores. This leads to the kind of self-reflection and motivation it takes to master a subject, without the damaging comparisons that can derail such an effort.

When context is important, the Strengths & Opportunities Report can be modified to include normative assessment data as well, including the student score, average, mean, rank, percentile rank, and ranges for specific competencies. A student can achieve a personal best score and may want to know how it compares with others; ExamSoft enables that context and flexibility. It can be anything from a personal progress tracker to a reference board. The possible configurations are all about aligning with and optimizing your educational objectives.

ExamSCORE for assignment grading and performance assessments is also a great way to apply a static rubric in order to realize the benefits of both normative and ipsative assessments. The criteria of the rubric set the standard, and a student’s performance is rated against the rubric. This allows instructors to evaluate performance levels based on objective descriptors and comment on each criterion. Applying a common standard to all students allows for fairer assessment. If a student is rated as “Fair” on a rubric that spans from Poor to Good, they know that their performance was not inadequate, however there is room for improvement, both at a personal level and in comparison to broader standards.

In sum: The benefits of using ipsative assessments in the classroom

Incorporating ipsative assessments in the classroom is a transformative approach that can revolutionize the way we support individual student growth. By prioritizing self-awareness, personal development, and progress tracking, ipsative assessments offer myriad benefits that traditional assessment methods often overlook.

Ipsative assessments provide educators with invaluable insights into each student's journey. Armed with a deeper understanding of individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning preferences, teachers can tailor their instruction to meet the diverse needs of their students effectively. This personalized approach can significantly enhance student engagement and academic performance, as students feel seen, heard, and supported on their learning paths.

As we embrace the diverse needs and potential of each student, we take a step towards cultivating a generation of self-directed lifelong learners ready to thrive in an ever-evolving world. Embracing the power of ipsative assessments can help lead to the fullest realization of every student's potential.