Course Resource Kit

When to Assess, When Not to Assess

An important component of classroom, lesson, and course design is determining when a summative assessment is necessary, and what form that assessment should take. Often, we inherit an assessment structure, either for a specific course or from our own experience as students. But deciding whether or not a summative assessment is required should depend on course learning objectives and intended outcomes. Students are better able to understand the purpose of assignments when the connections to the courses learning goals are made explicit. This is a self-check for instructors, too, to ensure that they aren’t assessing for the sake of assessing, but that every assessment has a larger purpose; making this explicit can guard against over-assessment of students. And because students perform better when know how they will be evaluated, marking schemes and rubrics should be reviewed and distributed in advance of evaluation (ideally with the assignment guidelines) so that students can see clearly what the expectations of the assessment are.

Instructors should consider whether students are being over-assessed, not only in their own classes but, where possible, in whole programs. Assessments — both formative or summative — are helpful for both students and instructors to determine student progress through course content. But we can consider a law of diminishing returns with assessment: students can be over-assessed, and when that occurs, it does not promote learning.

How instructors weight assignments should also clearly link back to course learning goals. The most important content should carry the most weight in the course as a whole. By the same token, the types of assignments and their relative weights should align with course goals and with the time you expect students to spend undertaking the assignment. For example, if you don’t really care whether a student can write well and only intend to evaluate for content knowledge, would it make sense for a formal final essay in the course in question to be worth 50% of the grade? Likewise, if the expectations of a short written assignment are very high when it comes to form and style, it may not be appropriate to weight the item at 2% of the course grade.

Indeed, understanding how students perceive assignment weights, and being explicit with them about what weighting of assignment means, can help with student perceptions of over-assessment. If a student is new to post-secondary, they might not have a clear understanding of how long they should spend on an assignment worth 10% of the final grade. Making this explicit to students can help them use their time more effectively, so they aren’t spending the same amount of time on a short reading journal as they are studying for the final exam.

Some questions to ask yourself when designing assessments are:

  • Must this assessment be summative, or is formative assessment an option here?
  • Have I clearly expressed to students why they are doing this assignment and how it will be evaluated?
  • What formative assessment strategies will I use to ladder students into this summative assessment?
  • What is the relative importance of what the student demonstrates here to the course learning objectives? Does the weight and length of this assignment accurately reflect that?
  • Have I offered a number of different ways for students to demonstrate their understanding of the course content?
  • Do the assignment styles really match what I intend to evaluate the student for?