Assessment of Student Learning

Assessment of Student Learning

Every assessment plan should begin with course goals and objectives. These should be measurable and provide evidence of mastery through student performance. After you develop these goals and objectives, decide how you will measure achievement.

For information on other levels of assessment addressed at GW, including program assessment, visit the Office of Academic Planning, Institutional Research, and Assessment.

Formative and Summative Assessment 

Assessments of student progress within a course fall into two broad categories:

  • Summative: This takes place at the end of a course segment to evaluate student mastery of specific concepts and skills. Summative assessment is what we usually associate with tests, papers and projects due midway or at the end of semesters. These graded activities typically translate into the student’s final course grade.
  • Formative: This is ongoing during a course. Through ungraded tests or surveys, polling, discussions, projects, and other activities, an instructor gives students a chance to assess their own mastery of topics and concepts as they are being taught. Students can then use these self-checks and feedback to focus and improve on problem areas. Formative assessments help instructors by providing information on what students are mastering and where they are having trouble as material is being taught. Instructors can then provide help and clarification as needed.

Research suggests that formative assessment is the best way to promote deep learning. Citing a Swedish experiment from the 1970s, Ken Bain, professor and author of What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard University Press), contends that most learning approaches fall into three general categories: surface learning where students are primarily interested in simply surviving a course, strategic learning with students motivated by grades and receiving accolades, and deep learning where students are intrinsically motivated to learn and challenge themselves.

Summative assessment is likely to appeal to surface and strategic learners who will learn information presented to them just to pass the test, often quickly forgetting what they have learn through rote memory or cramming. Formative assessment supports deep learning by giving students feedback and ideas for how to learn and to test their understanding while they have the chance to correct misunderstandings and reinforce key concepts. Both types of assessments can use authentic assessment techniques.

Assessment Strategy

The assessment strategy is your plan for how you will approach assessment and includes elements like:

  1. A pre-assessment or pre-instructional survey to understand students' needs in relation to objectives. This can help you develop more appropriate assessments.
  2. Assessment opportunities that punctuate a course to provide the student with performance feedback on concepts and learning activities. By providing a diverse array of assessment methods, you can accommodate different learning preferences and help students build a variety of skills. Opportunities for relearning and reassessment should be available to students.
  3. Methods for deploying the assessment.
  4. Strategies, techniques, and tools designed to minimize academic dishonesty, such as scaffolded assignments that require students to meet multiple deadlines on the path to a summative assessment.
  5. Post-assessment, which includes evaluation of overall student performance and of the assessment itself. 

Assessments can take many forms. Almost any approach taken in an in-person course can be accomplished online with the right instructions and tools. Also, there are assessments that are uniquely suited to the online environment. See Authentic Assessment and Ideas for Assessment for some effective strategies.