Assessing student learning

After determining what you expect students to learn, the next step is designing assessments that measure their learning. Good assessments help both instructors and students understand the learning progression within the course. Are students achieving the learning outcomes? Are students confused about particular topics?

Many instructors use a combination of frequent, lower-stakes exercises to help students apply their learning and cumulative, higher-stakes measures to inform grades. The most important consideration ensuring your assessments are aligned with your learning outcomes.

Formative and summative assessment

Classroom assessment can be used to inspire development (formative) or measure student performance (summative). Some assessments can be used in both formative and summative ways: to calculate grades and inform students about areas for improvement.

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  • Formative assessments provide students with information on where they stand in the class and are typically low-stakes or ungraded. These assessments provide instructors with important feedback on whether the class as a whole understands the material. Use this information to identify challenging topics and provide additional support.
    • Here are some assessment strategies that can be used in formative ways:
      • Poll questions
      • Online quizzes (before or during class)
      • Think-pair-share questions
      • Minute papers
  • Summative assessments measure student understanding and skills; these assessments should be closely tied to your course learning objectives. Many courses use exams, projects, papers, or performance for this purpose.
    • Exams can be administered in formative ways as well. Two-stage exams allow students opportunities to revisit their errors and improve, ultimately facilitating both learning and grading.
    • To learn more about other powerful assessment methods such as peer review, visit our page on Measuring Student Learning.
  • Structuring Grades to minimize anxiety: Many factors affect how instructors decide to assign grades, including departmental policies and pedagogical approaches. Offering multiple types of assessments throughout the semester can help reduce student anxiety. Some instructors also offer students the option to throw out a lowest score or choose among assignments to accumulate points.
  • Using Rubrics: For grading and sharing them with students before assignments are submitted can both ease student concerns about grading and clarify the criteria for high-quality work in your course. To ensure fairness, some instructors also use blind grading, removing names during the grading process.

Selected resources

Cornell grading policies

Cornell has a set of grading policies for faculty.

Learning technologies that support assessment

There are a number of learning technologies that can assist in formative and summative assessment:

  • Canvas is Cornell’s learning management system. It contains a number of assessment tools, including quizzes, assignments, peer assessments and discussions.
  • Classroom Polling (using Poll Everywhere, for example) allows instructors to quickly ask questions in class and receive instant responses from students. It is an excellent tool to quickly assess student learning and engage students in peer instruction.
  • In-Video Quizzes can be used to allow students immediate opportunities to test their comprehension of course material presented through instructional videos. Instructors can place quiz questions within the video at designated times and provide students with instant feedback.
  • Turnitin provides students with originality reports for their work and can be an important tool to help them develop proper paraphrasing and citation skills. It also can be used to facilitate assessment with rubrics, in-line grading, and peer assessment tools.
  • Survey tools such as Qualtrics are an effective way to determine relevant background knowledge, identify misconceptions, or provide insight into the impact of your teaching practices.
  • Digication allows students to create an electronic portfolio in which they can track, reflect on, and collect evidence of their learning.

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: a handbook for college teachers. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Walvoord, B. E. F., & Anderson, V. J. (1998). Effective grading: a tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass Publishers.