Assessing Learning “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” – Bill Gates


An effective, well-designed course will have assessments, activities, materials and tools that all work together to ensure learners reach the stated course and module or unit objectives. All objectives should be measurable and guided by Bloom's Taxonomy or a similar framework. All readings, videos, activities and tools in the course should lead to student success on the assessments. The assessments should measure the course and module objectives. This is the concept of alignment.


Examples of alignment between an objective and assessment:

  • A multiple choice quiz verifies that learners can "define" or "identify" vocabulary.
  • An assignment shows that learners can "write" or "compose" a composition.

Examples of lack of alignment between an outcome and assessment:

  • The objective is to "write a persuasive essay" but the assessment is a multiple-choice test.
  • The objective is to "create a body of work that illustrates your photographic vision" but the assessment is a 25-page thesis about contemporary photographers.

Types of Assessments

The distinction between formative and summative assessments is important in the concept of alignment and effective course design.

Summative Assessments

Summative assessments in the course should be aligned directly to the course objectives. These are the major exams, assignments and projects that show the student has met the objectives of the course. They are generally higher stakes for the student and can be designed to encompass all, some or just one of the course objectives. Summative assessments should measure the achievement of the stated course objectives. This is part of the concept of alignment.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments in the course should align with the course or module/unit objectives and some may be considered activities for the purpose of alignment. Formative assessments are designed to show the student and faculty how well the student is progressing in the course and to help students make progress toward the course objectives. Formative assessments are generally low stakes, shorter in nature, and include constructive feedback to help the learner improve.

A well-designed assessment plan...

Ensures every student can meet the course learning objectives.

Every activity students do in your course should lead them to success on the formative and summative assessments.

Has specific and clear criteria for evaluation and grading so that students know what they need to do to meet expectations.

This may include a list of all activities that contribute to the final grade, the explanation of points and/or percentages, how late work is handled, how often students need to participate, etc.

Has varied methods and timing of assessment to meet the needs of all learners.

For example, quizzes, discussions, presentations and group work are spread throughout the course and major projects are split into logical parts that have incremental due dates.

Assesses students in a logical sequence appropriate for the course content.

For example, assessment in a public speaking course could include an outline of a speech, then a draft of the speech, and then delivering the speech.

Listen to Authentic Assessment Strategies: Assessing Learning that Empowers Your Students.

Is suitable for the level of the course.

Bloom's Taxonomy provides guidance on cognitive levels for assessment.

Strategies for Equitable Grading and Effective Feedback

Feedback is an essential component of effective assessment in any course. Regardless of the modality, students need to know how they are doing at any given point during a course.
  • Feedback can be automated with a quiz or game, provided with extensive comments on a draft of a paper, or shared in a short video.
  • Feedback can be provided by peers or the instructor.
  • All assessments should incorporate feedback that is frequent, substantive and timely to provide students with the opportunity to improve.

Meaningful and constructive feedback...

  • Is returned quickly so that students can work toward improvement right away.
  • Enhances critical thinking and reflection.
  • Develops better student-faculty relationships.
  • Fosters a mindset that feedback and correction lead to learning.
  • Increases student motivation because students feel the instructor is interested in their success.
  • Shows what they did well and where they can improve.
  • Provides additional resources for improvement.

Start with a rubric!

Why rubrics?
  1. Transparency - Creating and sharing a rubric with your students makes your expectations clear and transparent. Students know what you want from them in the assignment when they have a rubric.
  2. Consistency - Using a rubric can make your grading more consistent among all students. If you stick to the rubric components when reviewing assignments you will be more likely to grade fairly and consistently.
  3. Clarity - Creating a rubric forces you to think through the criteria for the assignment before you share it with students, providing a better structure and clarity for your students.
  4. Reduces bias - When you use a rubric for grading, you grade based on the elements in the assignment and not what you know about the student.
  5. Reduces grade complaints - When students know your expectations and can see what they missed in a rubric, they are less likely to question the grade you assign.

Review these rubric examples from Edutopia.

Grade Anonymously

When possible, grade assignments with names hidden. This reduces the opportunity for bias.

Provide Clear Instructions

When students know what you expect, they do better. Provide as much information as possible so that students can successfully complete the assignment.

Strategies to Promote Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck and her colleagues studied the behavior of thousands of children to learn more about their attitudes toward failure. They found that when students believe they can get smarter, they put in extra time and effort that leads to higher achievement. They call this attitude "growth mindset". Read more about Dweck's work and growth mindset.

Allow Multiple Submissions, Retakes or Dropping of the Lowest Score

Make resubmission a part of the learning process. Provide feedback and give students the opportunity to redo an assignment, retake an exam, or drop a low quiz score.

Offer Learning Resources

Provide students with resources that will help them improve when they miss the mark.

On Exams and Quizzes

  • Provide an "unsure" option.
  • Use a test wrapper for metacognition. Ask students how and when they studied and what they can do better next time to prepare.
  • Use LMS tools to provide instant feedback on exams and quizzes.


A well-designed course will provide multiple means of assessment.

Using the basic principles of Universal Design for Learning ensures access and success for all learners. Watch Strategies to Design Assessments Based on Universal Design for Learning.

Tips for Success

  1. Set aside a time each day or week for grading and feedback.
  2. Let students know when and how you will provide feedback for each assignment or assessment.
  3. Be kind. Think about how you would feel reading your comment before you share it with the student.
  4. Consider video feedback for a more personal touch.