6. Assessment & Feedback

Recommendation 6.1: Measuring Achievement
Design assessment to measure students’ achievement of course learning outcomes; explain to students how assessments align with outcomes.

Synopsis from Self-Review

Review your assessments and how they align with course learning outcomes—what you want students to know or be able to do by the end of the semester. Explain how each activity or assignment is specifically related to the learning objectives for the task and the desired course-level outcomes.

How to Put Into Practice

An effective assessment plan provides you with a view into how students are doing and whether or not they are meeting planned learning outcomes. Assessment is not the same as grading: activities or assignments measuring achievement of outcomes may be graded or ungraded, and there is value to using both. When assessments overall are well-aligned with course learning outcomes and activities, they enhance students’ learning and motivation by giving them the tools to adjust their own learning habits, evaluate their own work, and connect to the larger purpose of the course.

A useful approach to developing assessments is to plan, over the duration of the course and/or each unit, to deploy three categories of assessment: diagnostic, formative, and summative.

  • Diagnostic assessments provide a quick look into what students know or understand at the start of a period of time (the start of a course, unit, or class session).
  • Formative assessments monitor student learning on an ongoing basis with the goal of providing actionable feedback to students and informing instruction. 
  • Summative assessments are designed for students to demonstrate what they have learned at the end of a period of time (the end of a unit or the end of the course). 

Recommendation 6.3 Frequency & Variety offers further explanation of diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments, with for each category. Note that these three categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, a summative assessment that takes the form of a research paper involves many component skills—designing a good research question, identifying peer-reviewed sources—that can be broken up into a sequence of checkpoints for diagnostic and formative assessment and feedback. 

Developing an Assessment Plan

Here are general practices for reviewing an assessment plan:

Check for alignment. Assessments that look at knowledge or skills not well-aligned with observable and measurable course learning outcomes (and the activities and instructional materials sustaining them) lead to frustration and demotivation for instructors and students alike. See Recommendation 1.1 Course Outcomes for strategies to develop or refine strong course learning outcomes.

Focus and narrow assessments to what is most critical for students to know or do. For an exam or quiz, this may mean narrowing the exam questions to assess the most critical skills or knowledge. Or this might mean taking a longer assignment and breaking it into pieces to give each more sustained and focused attention over a longer period of time—and without giving many additional assignments during that time period in order to conserve students’ focus.

Conduct regular and varied assessments. This can mean combining the three assessment categories outlined above (diagnostic, formative, and summative), as well as varying what students will actually do in order to demonstrate their learning. For instance, you can combine formative assessment (to identify gaps and areas for more focus) and summative assessment to check if foundational skills and knowledge are adequately mastered before moving on to a new topic or module in your course.

  • Example 1: A group of students are struggling in a homework assignment that lays the foundation for an important skill in the course. This gives you information about where students have gaps and may need additional support or guidance before moving on to more advanced skills. 
  • Example 2: Conversely, students may be exceeding expectations on an assignment you expected to be more challenging. This may support moving through this skills area more quickly and moving ahead to more advanced skills as a result.
  • For more strategies and resources in this area, see: Recommendation 6.3: Frequency & Variety.

Plan to communicate to students regularly about how the assessments help them achieve the stated learning outcomes. This helps build student motivation and investment in the assignment, activity, or exam.

  • The syllabus, Module overviews, Assignment descriptions, Quiz directions, and Grading Rubrics are key venues to clarify to students about how assessments fit into the course as a whole.
  • Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself in different venues–repeat exposure helps students receive these messages.

Provide transparent instructions and expectations for assignments and exams. If students are supported in understanding what an assignment or exam is designed for them to do, you can better assess the quality of their work and their progress towards the learning outcomes. For strategies and resources, see Recommendation 6.4: Writing Clear Instructions and Recommendation 6.5: Expectations and Feedback.

Facilitate students’ learning from assessments and feedback. Students often fixate on the grade they earned over receiving the bigger-picture messages that assessments can convey (feedback to apply to future work; study habits to adjust). Here are practices to disrupt this pattern.

  • Adjust grading policies weighted heavily towards a few high-stakes assessments. Students’ anxiety and over-fixation on points lessen when the grading policy encourages them to study and accumulate points on a regular basis, rather than in a few large chunks.
  • Have students reflect on what they learned from completing an assessment. To ensure that they don’t experience them as extra busywork, such reflection activities require time, space, and intentional framing by you. 
    • One common framing strategy is to ask students to complete an exam wrapper after receiving an exam score. An exam wrapper is a handout with questions designed to help students identify the study and learning habits that helped or hindered their success on the exam, with the goal of adjusting their habits for future exams. Carnegie Mellon offers several examples of exam wrappers in STEM courses and tips for using them effectively.

Additional Resources

  • This planning guide from the L&S Instructional Design Center offers a framework for creating a detailed week-by-week course plan that can help you align learning outcomes, materials, and activities, including assessments: Create your own copy of the planning guide.
  • Going further: Direct Evidence of Student Learning (DESL): DESL is a tool to digitally capture and track direct evidence of student learning using Canvas, UW-Madison’s learning management system, and AEFIS, the UW-Madison’s assessment management system. DELS also allows for differentiation when some students are finding the material too easy and others are struggling. You can add resources and support tools to guide different students to what they need. What is DESL | How to Link DESL to Canvas | DESL Reports

Background Information

What is this?

An assessment is an activity, exam or assignment designed to measure student learning. Well-designed assessments align with the learning outcomes and activities of the course. Provide a short explanation with assessment that makes explicit how it connects to the learning outcomes and other parts of the course.

Why is this important?

Assessment plays a critical role in the teaching and learning process. Assessment is not just about grading and examinations. It is also about getting to know your students and the quality of their learning, and using this insight to their benefit. Assessments help students reflect on and improve their own learning.

Where is this?

Assessment activities and assignments can be delivered in a wide range of asynchronous and synchronous formats. Your syllabus, Module overviews, Assignment descriptions, Quiz directions, and Grading Rubrics can all help to clarify to students about how assessments fit into the course as a whole.

Success Factor 6: Assessment & Feedback

Methods for assessment, grading, and feedback are planned and clearly outlined for students. Assessment methods should be carefully considered in terms of equity, transparency, rigor, and integrity, and may challenge conventional approaches to quizzes and exams.