Using Assessments to Enhance Learning

Learning from Assessment

We often think of assessing our students as “grading,” but assessments can serve a wider range of purposes that more deeply inform and enhance student learning, both within the semester in which assessments happen and in subsequent terms. In general, assessments fall into two categories: formative and summative.

Improving Learning This Semester: Formative Assessment

Formative assessments are formal or informal processes that faculty or students use to collect data to improve learning (Chappuis et al., 2012). These assignments are generally “low stakes,” meaning the point value attached to them is sufficient to motivate and acknowledge the students’ effort but not enough to significantly affect the students’ final grades. When administered throughout the semester, formative assessments help you and your students determine how they are progressing toward defined learning goals and allow time to adjust teaching and learning strategies, such as revisiting foundational concepts.

Improving Your Course: Summative Assessment

Summative assessments are primarily used to provide evidence of a student’s competence and are generally “high stakes” in terms of the value assigned—for example, exams and major projects (Chappuis et al., 2012). Summative assessments rarely provide students with feedback and an opportunity to improve their work, especially when they take place at the end of the semester. However, students’ performance on summative assessments, taken as a whole, can help inform future course revisions. These rich datasets allow savvy instructors to identify skills, concepts, or other outcomes that students struggle to learn, enabling them to test and compare the efficacy of different instructional approaches over time.


One type of formative assessment that can inform your teaching is “the muddiest point.” At the end of a class session, ask students to take one minute to write down one thing from that class that they feel is least clear to them. Because these responses do not need to be graded, and can be scanned in aggregate, you can gain a sense of the content or concepts that should be reviewed at the beginning of the next class before moving on (Angelo & Cross, 1993).

Some assessments that we typically classify as summative can be used for both summative and formative purposes. For example, midterm exams significantly impact students’ final grades, but their timing also provides an opportunity for students to receive feedback about their learning and identify opportunities for improvement. Consider using a midterm exam wrapper assignment that asks students to reflect on their study habits and their effectiveness to encourage improvements in learning before the final exam (Ambrose et al., 2010). In addition, major projects can be developed over time, with iterative peer and instructor feedback on benchmark deliverables, to provide formative input that ultimately improves both student learning and the final product.



Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chappuis, J., Stiggins, R. Chappuis, S., Arter, J. (2012). Classroom assessment for student learning: Doing it right-using it well. Assessment Training Institute.