Definition of assessment
Assessment in education is the means by which we use data — both learner grades and feedback but also observations about learner experience or the classroom — to refine and improve learner outcomes and also make changes to teaching practice and course or program expectations.
In general terms, assessment is the process you use to
- establish learning outcomes;
- determine whether students have the tools to achieve success;
- collect data to demonstrate this success; and
- make changes to the learning environment to improve success.
In other words, assessment is a continual process of gathering information to improve student opportunities for success at achieving course outcomes.
In this resource, we will establish what the different types of assessment (formative and summative) mean, how to consider the needs of different learners in your classroom, how to establish when and what kinds of assessment are necessary, and how to prepare learners to be assessed and achieve success.
What kinds of things are considered assessments?
We often use “assessment” as a synonym for “test” or “assignment,” and it certainly does incorporate those key ideas, but assessment is also much broader. When you ask students for feedback on their course experience, or you make notes about the success of an activity, or work through a reflective assignment in a class, you are working with assessments. Assessment is anything that allows you to make informed decisions about learner progress through course material, so it involves establishing their competency with course content and essential skills, but also how we help students achieve that competency.
Two types of assessment — formative and summative — will be discussed at length in this resource. If assessment includes any learning activities that allow students to determine how they are progressing in a course and instructors to determine whether content is being delivered successfully, formative assessments are those things that assess process and summative assessments are those things that assess outcomes. Or, in more common parlance, summative assessments are “for marks” while formative assessments are usually not (or at least not for a large percentage of the course grade). For example, in-class activities, mini reading quizzes, and journals are typically formative assessments, while exams and essays are typically summative.
Consider that there is a broad range of what may need to be assessed in the classroom and also in who should do this assessing. For example, in a group assignment where interpersonal communication competency is being assessed, perhaps students should evaluate each other with a rubric, and then themselves with a piece of reflective writing, rather than having the instructor assign a mark.
Assessing the classroom experience can also take different forms, including the instructor’s own reflective practice, a peer assessment, or student evaluations.
How does assessment differ from grading?
Though it is central in the lives of both teachers and students, grading is only one component of assessment. As we have discussed, even non-graded components of the learning experience fulfill the role of assessment; indeed, it’s very possible that the majority of the assessments in a course are not related to grading at all, where students engage in a lot of in-class activities and reflective practice. Thinking through the role of a particular assessment will help determine whether it needs necessarily to be graded or not.
However, principles of good assessment practice are strongly interrelated with grading practice. For example, students should always know how they will be assessed on an assignment; aspects of grading practice like rubric, marking schemes, and explicit learning outcomes help facilitate strong assessment practice.