6. Assessment & Feedback

Recommendation 6.3: Frequency & Variety
Provide frequent opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways.

Synopsis from Self-Review

The strategies you can use for students to demonstrate their learning vary along many dimensions (e.g., the purpose of the assessment; low-stakes quizzing or high-stakes exams; the level of sequencing and scaffolding of assignments, in which a larger assignment is broken up into component pieces). Review strategies for enhancing the variety and frequency of assessments in order to give you and your students targeted and reliable insight into how they are learning.

How to Put Into Practice

The benefits of giving students frequent and varied opportunities to demonstrate their learning are manyfold. This approach supports student engagement because students are rewarded by studying and keeping up with course activities on a regular basis. Knowledge-checks designed to give students insight into their level of understanding can help them alter their study habits and help you target your instruction ahead of higher-stakes assessments. Assignments that incorporate student choice, student interests, and connections to the real world deepen their engagement with the material and skills they are learning. All these practices discourage cheating and enhance students’ capacity and motivation to bring intentional, rigorous attention to their own work.

Varieties of Assessment 

Review some varieties of assessment to help you select the strategies best suited to a course. The two concepts to focus on overall are to (1) vary the purpose of the assessment (what you want to get out of having students demonstrate their learning); and (2) vary the form of the assessment (what students actually do), all in alignment with the learning outcomes of the course.

A common framework for describing assessment is to break down assessments into three different purposes: 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). These are usually brief, informal, and ungraded. Examples include:

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Writing/response prompts

Using the Canvas Groups tool, ask your learners to respond in writing or alternative formats to a case study, example, or sample scenario, even before you cover the content or practice together. Collect and review their responses to gauge where the class is, as whole, to determine where the knowledge is already strong, and where, instead, you need to focus your instruction. Avoid grading these responses, unless as part of a larger “participation” grade element.

Informal reading assessments

Ask students to read a brief sample (250-750 words, typically) of professional writing in your field, and then take a quick (10 or fewer items) ungraded reading quiz about the primary lessons or take-aways from the reading. Use the results to identify topics for further discussion.


If you plan to have your students take graded unit tests or quizzes regularly, give them a small, ungraded sample of the same assessments before they begin. Use the Canvas Quiz Question Bank tool and create a quiz with a small number of questions about the unit’s learning outcomes, or share a list of questions similar to, but not identical, to the questions students will encounter on the graded test or quiz. Use their performance on the pre-test to focus their questions and study habits for each unit, and prior to the graded tests.


Use the Canvas Survey tool or a Google Form to create brief check-ins with your students. The shorter, the better, as a survey with just two questions can provide actionable information about your students and their learning. Here are a couple of sample questions:

  • Respond honestly: how much of the reading are you doing? [100%, 80%, 50%, 10%, none]
  • What is one thing that is getting in the way of you being able to give your best effort to the course right now?


Ask students to create a Google Doc for themselves and share it with you. Provide them with a prompt, or just ask them to keep a regular track of their experience shifting to, and being part of, your course. Read selectively, especially if you have a large-enrollment course, and use what you discover to adapt and update your course interactions as you go along.

Formative assessments monitor student learning on an ongoing basis with the goal of providing actionable feedback to students and informing instruction. This helps you and your students resolve areas of confusion before they approach summative or higher-stakes assessments. These can be graded or not, and usually entail a significant feedback component. Examples include:

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Discussions offer a way for students to share their learning while discovering what other students are learning. You can use discussions to assess student engagement with the course, or as a way to promote critical thinking. For an online or hybrid course, you can create a graded discussion in Canvas or manually grade a discussion in Piazza.

Low-stakes writing assignments

The Writing Across the Curriculum program offers guidelines for designing and using low-stakes writing to support student learning. In an online or hybrid format, you can use Canvas Discussions, Quizzes, or Google Forms to host brief writing activities. You can also use the chat function in Zoom as a way for students to respond to short writing assignments. For longer pieces of writing, creating a Canvas Assignment and grading it using the Canvas SpeedGrader is a recommended way to assess the work and provide feedback.

Peer review

Canvas offers the option to make any assignment into a peer review activity. Peer review gives students the opportunity to assess their classmates’ work, as well as gain new perspectives on how their classmates approach and solve problems. This Writing Across the Curriculum resource on Making Peer Review Work focuses on writing assignments but can be applied to other contexts where you would like students to give and receive peer feedback.


Create regular low-stakes quizzes on content – like reading or content-check quizzes – to help keep students on track and set a baseline for assessing learning. Canvas can make grading and providing feedback on both long and short-answer questions faster. Many types of quiz questions can be automatically graded by Canvas, and it also be set up to provide feedback.  Both short or long-answer questions can be graded in CanvasOpen ended answers can be viewed and graded through the Speedgrader.  Learn more about best practices for delivering online quizzes and exams in Canvas.

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). These assessments  measure students’ cumulative understanding and skills in relation to the course learning outcomes. Summative assessments also provide students with an opportunity to demonstrate higher-order and comprehensive learning. Summative assessments are almost always graded, and feedback often focuses on what to do differently in the future. Examples include:

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Group Projects or presentations

Although it may look and feel a bit different, group projects and presentations can be conducted both in-person and online. Canvas has an easy way to create groups, which can facilitate students submitting group assignments. Students can create and record presentations (e.g. with PowerPoint) in their own time, and submit for you and/or their peers to review. Student presentations can also be conducted live with other students participating via these web conferencing options. As with any synchronous activities, bandwidth use and limitations should be taken into consideration, as some students may not have reliable access to robust internet. 

Research shows that the manner in which an instructor implements and facilitates a group project has a significant impact on the success of the group project. Review suggestions of good practice for instructors planning to experiment with collaborative group projects. Also review examples of collaborative group work assignments from UW-Madison instructors.


The Writing Across the Curriculum program offers inclusive design strategies for high-stakes writing assignments in both in-person and online formats.

Depending on the length and format of a writing assignment, you can use Canvas Discussion Forums or Quizzes to assess student learning.  You can also use the chat function in web conferences as a way for students to respond to short writing assignments. For more formal papers, creating an assignment and grading it using the Canvas SpeedGrader is a recommended way to assess the work and provide feedback.

Mid-Term and Final Exams

During online instruction, consider breaking up your traditional exams and major projects into smaller pieces. Both short or long-answer questions can be graded in Canvas. You can also:

For guidance on creating reliable exams, see Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams (University of Michigan). Explore Recommendation 1.4 Flexibility & Accommodations and Recommendation 2.5 Academic & Learning Support for inclusive practices for helping students demonstrate their best work on exams and other high-stakes assessments.

Variety in how assignments are graded. Using a mix of graded and ungraded assessments and varying the stakes of graded assignments helps you underscore the purpose of the assignment. For instance, a knowledge check quiz intended to surface common misunderstandings about a concept is best implemented as either an ungraded or a low-stakes complete/incomplete grade. This is consistent with its purpose as a tool to help students revisit the concept (for instance, ahead of a higher-stakes assessment of their learning).

Classroom assessment techniques. Classroom assessment techniques (CATS for short) are menus of in-class formative assessments that tell you what students are learning and how you might adjust your instruction. There are many online collections of classroom assessment techniques to choose from, such as by Vanderbilt University and University of Michigan

  • While CATS originated with face-to-face instruction, many techniques convert well to synchronous or asynchronous activities. This resource offers detailed guidance on how to implement selected classroom assessment techniques and other learning activities in online and in-person formats. The page is organized around four types of learning activities— critical thinking, discussions, prior knowledge, and problem solving—and supplies details for each technique like prep time (from low to high prep) and level of complexity.
  • Feedback on CATS is very often informal and delivered to the group as a whole. One might quickly skim (for example) a set of responses to a Muddiest Point question and then take a few minutes in a class session or feedback video to share with the class what you noticed and address confusions.

Real-world connections. Consider assessments that connect to the real world in the sense that they have students do things or create things that exist outside of the classroom, respond to real-life situations, or draw on professional practice in a field or discipline. 

  • This resource on authentic assessment from Indiana University offers a brief but substantive introduction to this approach with examples from various disciplines.
  • Using a case studies activity is one accessible and engaging strategy.

Student choice and creation. Introduce elements of student choice into how they demonstrate their learning. 

  • For example, a final project might ask students to express their learning in one of several forms (e.g., paper, video, audio podcast, or a website). 
  • To introduce choice on a smaller scale, students might select their own paper topics with your approval, or participate in generating high-quality questions and responses that will feed into the question bank for a quiz.
  • Use a student-generated rubric. Share some completed assignment examples with students and ask them to derive rubric criteria from those examples.

Scaffolding and sequencing. Breaking up a longer assignment into its component skills and parts is an almost automatic way to introduce variety and frequency. 

Individual and collaborative. Mixing individual and collaborative work creates variety while enhancing peer connections. To use group assignments effectively, see Recommendation 4.4 Group Work.

Reflection and metacognition. Metacognition, or thinking about one’s own thinking, is a habit that increases students’ ability to deeply process and apply what they are learning to new contexts. Asking brief reflection questions are a way to support this type of thinking while reaping the benefits of formative assessment (asking students to demonstrate their learning-in-progress). For instance, after a group discussion or forum interaction, you might ask, “What is one thing that you learned from a classmate?” or “How did your understanding of this topic shift after watching this video?”

Additional Resources

  • Create self-check Canvas Quizzes for formative assessments that provide automatic feedback explaining why answers are correct or incorrect. To do this, click the three dots below each possible response to enter explanatory text.
  • Consider alternative summative assessments. Alternatives to exams like final projects, portfolios, or group assignments can provide a way for students to authentically demonstrate their command of course concepts. Carefully constructed alternative assessments can help measure existing learning goals and work as a replacement for or complement to exams. Consider alternative testing strategies (shared by the Division of Continuing Studies, Learning Design Development and Innovation team).

Background Information

What is this?

Frequent and varied assessments means adding alternatives to high-stakes assessments into a course: frequent, low-stakes assessments and alternative assessments can scaffold or replace some high-stakes assessments.

Why is this important?

Providing regular and varied opportunities to evaluate student learning throughout the semester can help you and your students gauge the pace and quality of their learning. Regular and varied knowledge checks can also help keep students engaged, ease stress, and make it easier to identify where support is needed.

Where is this?

Assessments can be built in Canvas using the normal tools (Quizzes, Assignments, Discussions), or outside of Canvas. Canvas Assignments are flexible, allowing other forms of submitted work to be graded through the Canvas Gradebook.

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.

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