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Part Seven: Assessing Learning: A Brief Introduction

Objective: In this part of the seminar, we'll provide a brief overview of some concepts of learning assessment and the relationship between assessment and course design. Afterward, you should be able to explain the place of assessment in the course design process and to begin identifying types of assessments that may be appropriate for your course.

What's Assessment Got to Do with It?

While this seminar is not focused on assessing learning - that topic demands an entire seminar of its own - we do want to touch briefly on the topic, since designing assessments and designing courses should go hand-in-hand.

Many people think of assessment as the thing you do after learning has taken place. But as Fink (2003) and other proponents of backward course design suggest, effective, integrated course design demands that we consider both the desired destination (where students will end up) and also the activities and assignments that serve as vehicles for arriving at that destination. Designing courses effectively for learning demands that we not only articulate what students will know and be able to do upon leaving the course, but also that we develop the learning activities, methods, and criteria for assessing this learning at the same time. Only in this way can we ensure that the choices we make for our course's design are aligned with or appropriate for advancing the learning we aim to see happen in our courses.

This image (which you saw earlier in Part 4: Developing Course Goals) represents the major elements of course design:

major elements of course design

As this image shows, the word "assessment" can have more than one meaning in the course design process: it is the act of measuring or determining whether students have met the learning objectives you've set for them. But it also can represent the activities you assign, from formal essays and presentations to informal blog posts and in-class writing exercises. In this latter sense, the "assessments" you design for your course (a.k.a., the assignments you ask students to complete) can serve as both the vehicle for learning and the vehicle for measuring learning.

While you do not need to know every single assessment activity you'll assign in the early stages of designing your course, you should give some thought to major assignments - and their assessment criteria - as you design your class. Only then can you be sure that you are actually asking students to do work that will help them achieve the learning objectives you've set for them.

Types of Assessment

There are both formal and informal ways to assess student learning. Assessment activities can be formative, summative, and/or diagnostic.

Formative assessment allows you to provide feedback for the purposes of forming (and sometimes re-forming) student achievement of the learning objectives you've set for them. An example would be when you provide feedback on an ungraded essay, for the purposes of student revision. Formative assessments can be formal or informal.

Summative assessment is usually "grading," providing the kind of information and feedback that evaluates how well students performed on a given task compared to a set standard. This kind of assessment may or may not be aimed explicitly at future learning. Typically, summative assessments are formal assessments (rather than informal, in-class activities).

Diagnostic assessments typically are assigned at the beginning of a course, unit, or lesson. They are activities designed to uncover prior knowledge and skills. Diagnostic assessments (and even self-assessments) can provide rich information about where students are at the beginning of a learning opportunity. This information can help you tailor your course and instruction to the specific learners in your teaching situation. It also can motivate students to be more intentional about the choices they make as learners, since it often can reveal to them deficits in their own understanding and knowledge base.

While there is much more we could say about various types of assessments - we haven't even touched on the area called authentic assessment - we will.

Designing Assessments for Your Course

As you design your course, then, it's important to be mindful of the kinds of assessments you might ask students to undertake. Think of all the activities and assignments that can help students learn the things you want them to learn and that can help you to assess whether students are, in fact, learning: in-class exercises, quizzes, formal essays, research projects and presentations, the list goes on and on. At a minimum, you should give some thought to the formal assessments and assignments you'll include as you design your course.

Your task is to identify the activities and assessments that will are most likely to contribute to the specific student learning you have in mind. Obviously, this task must be completed with an eye toward learning objectives. As we discussed in Part Five: Identifying Learning Objectives, aligning your assessment activities with course goals and learning objectives is essential to effective course design.

Aligning your assessment activities with goals and objectives is essential to effective course design.

Otherwise, you could find yourself in a situation where your students do a lot of work but do not seem to be learning what you want them to. This happens when there is a misalignment between learning objectives and assessment methods. (For a humorous - and powerful - example of mis-aligned assessments and learning objectives see the YouTube video of Professor Dancelot at

One way to think about it is this: if you never ask students to do the kinds of activities that will facilitate the learning you want and demonstrate their achievement of your learning objectives, how will you know they have achieved them? Misaligned courses and activities result in far less learning, as well as a lot of wasted time. Activities and assessments that are not aligned to learning objectives can leave students feeling like they've completed a lot of "busy work," without it adding up to anything significant for their learning.

Tips for Designing Formal Assignments

Here are a few tips for creating formal assignments to suit your learning objectives:

Tip 1: Work backward from learning objectives and goals.

Determine the specific tasks and assignments that could help students learn the things you want them to and help you to measure their learning.

Then, select the ones that seem best suited to your teaching situation and your course goals / learning objectives. Rather than asking, "what will students do?" consider asking, "what will doing that activity do for students?" By asking this question, you ensure that you're discerning the best activities and assignments for the task, not simply defaulting to assignments that are typical for a course like yours.

For complex projects and assignments, ask yourself what students will need to know and be able to do in order to complete the work successfully. Then, break those things into smaller, more manageable tasks. (This will help you ensure that you are scaffolding in appropriate ways and covering the content and teaching the skills necessary for success on the larger assignment.)

Tip 2: Determine your assessment criteria as you design assignments (not afterward).

Try to write a description of the characteristics of the most successful versions of the assignment. Answer this question: What would be the signs that the student work is meeting the objectives? If you can describe the features of successful versions of the assignment, you can develop a rubric or other scoring guide to give students; this not only conveys how they will be assessed, but it also enhances their learning.

Then, try to write a description of the features you would see if the student work were falling short of meeting its objectives. Try to answer these questions: What would be missing? What would be there that shouldn't be? As before, if you can describe the symptoms that student work is not meeting its objectives, you can better articulate your assessment criteria.

Finally, use these descriptions to plan the lessons that will prepare students for the assignment and to develop rubrics or other tools for assessing how well they do.

Tip 3: Consider letting students design some of the assignments or choose how they will demonstrate their learning for specific learning objectives.

When students have to develop assignments, they have to internalize the learning objectives in a different way than when they simply complete assignments you've designed. Ask them to brainstorm possible tasks or activities that would demonstrate their achievement of specific learning objectives.

If letting students design their own assignments isn't appealing, consider letting them choose from a list of possible assignments. Provide students with the criteria you'll use to assess their learning, and a list of possible assignments / activities they could complete to demonstrate their learning. Give them the freedom to choose which ones best suit them. This act of choice can increase their motivation to learn and to complete the assigned tasks.

Both of these suggestions fall into the category of what M. Weimar calls "learner-centered teaching."


It can be tempting to put off the work of developing course assessments until after you've finished preparing your syllabus and need to slot major assignment due dates. However, the best way to ensure that your course is designed for learning is to develop formal assignments as you design your class. The work of course design is an ongoing dialogue between how you'll structure learning for students and how they will achieve and demonstrate that learning.

Click to continue to Part 8: Wrapping Up

To Learn More About...

Assessing learning and designing assignments:

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Carnegie Mellon's Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. (n.d.). How to assess student learning and performance. Retrieved from

Korn, J. H., Stephen, M., & Sikorski, J. (2012). Assessment and grading. In A guide for beginning teachers. Retrieved from

Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning (2nd edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Walvoord, B. (2009). Effective grading (2nd edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Walvoord, B. (2010). Assessment clear and simple (2nd edition). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.