Assessing Student Learning

Creating an Assessment Plan

Active learning places the student in the position of inquirer, creator, investigator. It initiates curiosity and requires students to either engage existing background knowledge or acquire lower order thinking skills (remembering, understanding). Students in active learning environments will not be successful if they intend to pop into a class every few weeks, cram for a big exam, and do just fine -- which, sadly, is the reality of many college students (who succeed!). This is because the activities in an active learning environment function also as assessments. Active learning requires students to be continuous participants throughout a process of engagement, as they go through phases of development and growth that involve participating with peers, providing feedback, sharing dialogue, reflecting on perspectives, and working through problems in groups or as a result of group input.Assessments or evaluations of learning provide learners and instructors with opportunities to check-in and understand how they are developing or progressing through the mastery of the course level and/or module learning objectives. There are two types of assessments that provide learners and instructors with different types of information about a student's progress: Formative Assessments and Summative Assessments.

Formative Assessment

is like checking the map along the way to see if you're headed in the right direction.

Formative Assessments are assessments for learning.

  • Formative assessments are frequent, simple evaluation opportunities that provide learners with feedback about their progress. The feedback does not have to be provided by the instructor or it may be feedback that is automated. For example, students may share drafts of a paper or presentation with their peers who provide feedback for revisions prior to a final version or students may complete a brief auto-graded multiple-choice quiz in CILearn/Blackboard after finishing a module that has feedback built-in from the instructor. The quiz may be an optional quiz that students do not earn points for, it merely provides them with an opportunity to check-in an see how well they understand the major concepts from the module. Discussion forums or VoiceThread conversations may be formative assessments, if they are designed to cover topics that will later be rolled into a larger assessment.
  • Formative assessments are "baked into" the learning process.

Summative Assessment

is like reflecting back on the journey understand what was good and what you would change.

Summative Assessments are assessments of  learning.

  • After students have had ample opportunity to master the necessary proficiencies, summative assessments provide you, the instructor, the opportunity to assess the students' overall mastery of how well they have achieved the course outcome(s) or learning objective(s).
  • In online classes, students typically participate frequently in formative assessments and less frequently in summative assessments. As you design your course, you will need to consider designing in opportunities for students to receive regular feedback and for yourself to be present in the class, but you will also need to manage your workload carefully. In other words, do not overload yourself with weekly formative assessments that require you to provide feedback to every single learner.
  • Be aware that you will play a more active, regular role in the class as a participant earlier in the course when group dynamics are forming between students and as the weeks progress, you may begin to design activities in which you fade out and your learners provide feedback to each other.

Indirect Assessment

An assessment of perceptions about what students learned or are able to do (mastery of student outcomes). These perceptions might be from students themselves but they can also be by peers, employers, etc.

Direct Assessment

An assessment of student work or behaviors that demonstrate what a student learned or is able to do (mastery of student outcomes).

Collecting Evidence of Student Learning

Optimally, student's have a variety of opportunities to demonstrate their learning throughout the course of a semester. Various types of evidence or examples of student work should be utilized as grounds for demonstrating their mastery of learning in a mixture low stakes and high stakes assignments. No matter the purpose (formative or summative) or perspective being gathered (indirect or direct), there are many types of evidence with which to assess learning; some of these are listed below:

  • Questionnaire calling for self reflection of learning outcomes
  • Interview note sheet recording salient points learned
  • Students read and sign statement
  • Personal awareness survey
  • Multiple choice test
  • Portfolios that collect student work over time and demonstrate students’ abilities to monitor and reflect on their work, providing longitudinal evidence of student learning and development
  • Internally or externally juried reviews of student projects or performances, providing evidence of students’ problem-solving abilities
  • Interview
  • Report
  • Journal
  • Focus Group
  • Demonstration
  • Making a video
  • Essay
  • Hypothetical
  • Projects
  • Written presentation
  • Group work
  • Discussion
  • Debate
  • Role play
  • Case study, along with students’ analysis of how they solved the case study, providing evidence of students’ abilities to apply, synthesize and solve problems. Case studies may be used over time to track the development of students’ knowledge or abilities


Rubrics are tools you may use to communicate your expectations for an activity to your students in advance. They eliminate the mystery from the grading process and also improve a student's understanding of what it is that you want from them. In this way, rubrics significantly improve the online student experience because distance learners engage with materials in solitude and will rely more heavily on the information presented to them in your course to understand what they are expected to do.

According to Suskie (2009), rubrics have many advantages in instruction. For example, they:

  • Help clarify vague, fuzzy goals
  • Help students understand your expectations
  • Help students self-improve
  • Inspire better student performance
  • Make scoring easier and faster
  • Make scoring more accurate, unbiased, and consistent
  • Improve feedback to students
  • Reduce arguments with students Improve feedback to faculty and staff (p. 139)

Rubrics may be analytic or holistic.

Holistic and Analytic Rubrics

Adapted from Mertler, (2001). Click the image above to download the PDF version.

Rubric Sample and Resources

Instructors often find it helpful to view samples of existing rubrics to help them get started with their own.

Sample rubric

Sample rubrics by tool type:



Mertler, C. A. (2001). Designing scoring rubrics for your classroom. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 7(25). Retrieved from

Mueller, J. Authentic Assessment Toolbox. Retrieved from:

Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.