Learning Assessment

Step Three: Learning Assessment

Students encounter material through learning activities, but are they learning? Assessment is crucial for helping students improve and for evaluating student progress toward learning objectives. For more detailed information, see Assessing Student Learning and Teaching.

Assignments and Examinations: Not Only for Assessment

Instructors generally use assignments and examinations for assessment. But these are learning activities in their own right (Brame and Biel, 2015). Since assignments and examinations reinforce key concepts and skills, instructors should construct them as opportunities to deepen learning through repetition, practice, and—when appropriate—higher-order thinking, like application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis (see Verbs and more for Bloom's Taxonomy).

Formative Assessment

Assessment should not be limited to providing a grade. Formative assessment is the process of monitoring student learning to offer continuing feedback to the student and suggest adjustments for the instructor. (See the table to the right for a comparison of formative and summative assessment.) Such interventions can significantly improve student learning (Black and William, 1998). Formative assessment activities are often simple, quick, low-stakes (even non-graded), and done in-class. For example, an instructor may begin a class session by giving a brief quiz over material from the last class session. However it is administered, the instructor needs immediate access to the results so that he or she can make real-time adjustments.

Feedback can also serve as formative assessment. Clear, thought-provoking, and specific comments on student work—when the work is not given a final grade and students can make changes and ask for further clarification—can help a student improve.  Because formative assessment has a low impact on grades, students may find it less stressful, but they may also be less motivated to perform well.

Summative Assessment

Summative assessment provides the data for students’ grades. In contrast to formative assessment, which happens during the learning process, summative assessment is done at the end of a learning activity, unit, or course. Summative assessment must align with the learning objectives and learning activities. For example, if one of the learning objectives entails higher-order thinking like analysis, an examination that tests only for memory would not be appropriate. Likewise, if none of the learning activities provided students the opportunity to evaluate or analyze data but such skills are expected on an examination, students may justifiably feel that the course does not match the examination. Because summative assessment has a high impact on grades, students may find it more stressful, but they may also be more motivated to perform well.

Comparison of Formative and Summative Assessment





During learning cycle; often part of lesson plan

End of learning cycle; often standalone event (e.g., test day)




Main Audience

Internal—Students and Instructors

External—Future instructors, institutions, prospective employers


Informal—polls, quick writing, pre-quiz

Formal—exams, reports, etc.

Student Perceptions

Less stressful, less motivated

More stressful, more motivated


Black, P., & William, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 5(1), 7-74.

Brame, C. J., & Biel, R. (2015). Test-enhanced learning: The potential for testing to promote greater learning in undergraduate science courses. Cell Biology Education, 14(2).

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