Assessment is the evidence we need from our students to judge if mastery of learning outcomes has taken place. There are two types of assessments:

Formative assessments evaluate for learning and is used to monitor student learning throughout the learning process. It provides feedback to students about what needs further development while providing us with feedback on our teaching and what needs more focus. Formative assessments are low-stakes assessments.

Summative assessments evaluate the integration of learning – or how well learning outcomes have been achieved and is usually given at the end of a learning period (e.g. course or unit). Summative assessments are high-stakes assessments.

Both types of assessment are essential to the learning process because they:

  • drive the curriculum by focusing the student on the essential knowledge to acquire and skills and attitudes to develop
  • help students consolidate the material to be learned
  • provide you and your students with feedback on their learning

Aligning assessments with learning outcomes

Developing learning outcomes is half the battle when designing assessments because they describe: what your students will know, do or value; the context in which the task should be performed; the level of thinking (Bloom’s taxonomy) students should be working at (expressed with an action verb) and the criteria by which performance should be measured.

What do well-aligned assessments look like?

Well-aligned assessments can be identified by a match between the outcomes and the demonstration of skill or knowledge being assessed. It is recommended to use different ways of assessing students so that they have multiple ways of demonstrating their learning. This table (Source: Eberly center, Carnegie Mellon University) presents examples of the kinds of assessment activities that can be used to assess different types of learning outcomes. The table also helps you ensure that you are testing the appropriate levels of thinking (Bloom’s Taxonomy).

Additional considerations when assessing your students

Additional considerations when assessing your students

      • Assess only the learning outcomes you have identified and ensure that students have had an opportunity to exercise the competency(ies) during learning activities so that the assessments are no surprise.
      • Make assessments as relevant as possible to situations students are most likely to encounter in the occupation or higher education. See more on authentic assessments here.
      • Be transparent with your students about what they will be tested on, the format and context of the assessment. Students should understand what a good or poor performance looks like. Rubrics can be helpful. See more on rubrics here.
      • Include sufficient formative assessment activities in your course to provide both you and your students with feedback that can help them succeed.

More resources

Understanding the Role of Assessment in Learning – Queen’s University

Formative and Summative Assessments – from Yale University

Guidelines for Assessing Student Learning – Brown University

Outcomes Driven Assessments – Arizona State University

Creative Methods in Assessment – Wiley

Formative Assessments: Low Stakes Assessments – Arizona State University

Summative Assessments: High Stakes Assessments – Arizona State University

Writing Open Book Exams – Arizona State University

Constructing Questions for the Basic and Clinical Sciences – National Board of Medical Examiners

Understanding the Role of Assessment in Learning – from Queen’s University

Formative and Summative Assessments – Yale University

Dawson’s Institutional Student Evaluation Policy (ISEP)

Academic integrity at Dawson


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The essence of feedback is to provide students with information on how to close a knowledge or performance gap so that students can move closer to mastering the course outcomes. Feedback is informative guidance toward improvement and a different from evaluation.

According to Hattie (2014) there are 3 essential elements that make feedback powerful and effective which highlight the importance of transparent course outcomes and assessment criteria:

      1. Students should know what success looks like.
      2. Students should know that feedback is aimed at reducing the gap between where they are and where they need to be.
      3. Feedback should be focused on providing students with information about where to go next.

In reviewing the literature on effective feedback John Hattie and Gregory C.R. Yates (2014) made the following observations:

      • It is important to focus on how feedback is received and not how it is given.
      • Feedback should relate to learning outcomes and success criteria.
      • Feedback should remain task oriented and not learner focused.
      • Feedback should engage the learner just above their current level of functioning.
      • Feedback should take place in an environment that fosters psychological safety and a culture open to failure and re-dos.
      • Peer feedback allows for elaborate discourse and provides practice for giving and receiving respectful feedback.
      • Feedback provides information about your teaching and may help you see where improvements or changes could be made.


Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn; Hattie and Yates (2014)

classroom assessment techniques (CATS)

Classroom assessment techniques (CATs)

Consider using Classroom Assessment Techniques or CATs  to quickly assess for learning (as opposed to assessment of learning) and then follow up with appropriate feedback.

CATs are quick and simple in-class activities designed to provide you with feedback on your students’ learning as well as on your teaching. Two examples of CATs that you have likely already used or heard of are: “The Minute Paper”, a very short writing exercise that encourages reflection and “The Muddiest Point” which asks students to identify something they felt unclear about in a lesson, assignment, or piece of homework. Cats are easy to implement in any classroom.

Last Modified: March 26, 2024