The three primary reasons for assessing students are to

  • evaluate individual student learning and/or grade students,
  • provide students with feedback for future learning
  • assess the effectiveness of instruction to improve teaching.

Developing quality assessments can produce gains in student achievement.2,3 Thus, assessment design is an important teaching competency for all instructors, including graduate student instructors.4,5,6

Grading Students

The purpose of grading students is to provide information about the extent to which individual students have mastered course content. The distinction between classroom assessment and grading is that grading does not necessarily involve instructors reflecting on instruction and student learning while assessment does not necessarily involve grading or evaluating students.7 In addition to providing information about mastery of course content, grades are also used to determine if students graduate and provide information to potential employers about a student’s knowledge and skills. For this reason, it is recommended that grades be assigned based exclusively on student achievement and should not include measures such as effort, attitudes, behavior, or aptitude.8

An effective grading system relies on the use of multiple assessments and a variety of assessment types. Multiple assessments are necessary because student performance will vary at differing times due to factors such as interest in and personal relevance of the content, fatigue, anxiety, illness, etc. Incorporation of a variety of assessment types is recommended because some students may perform differently on different kinds of assessments. For example, a student with strong writing skills may perform better on an essay assessment. Your course syllabus should provide information about the kinds of assessments that students can expect to take in your course, your grading methods, and your grading scale. 

Providing Feedback

  • Feedback is critical to the learning process
  • Feedback should identify both strengths and weaknesses
  • Include positive and constructive comments on student work

Theories of human learning indicate that feedback is critical in the learning process. For example, Robert Gagné’s theory about the conditions of learning posits that feedback is one of the nine critical phases in the learning process.15 One of the primary purposes of assessment is to provide learners with feedback about their achievement so that they can use this information to enhance their learning. Students need feedback that identifies both their strengths and weaknesses.10  Although grades provide some feedback to students, “alone, it [a grade] gives them little direction as to what to do next."11 In addition to providing students with grades, you should also help them understand how their grade compares to your expectations and the standards of the discipline, what the consequences are for performing at that level, and what they can do to improve their performance in the future. When providing feedback, include at least one positive comment and provide concrete and constructive feedback on student work, rather than simply indicating where students did not meet expectations. In addition to providing instructor feedback, you can also ask students to assess their own learning. This can help students become more self-directed learners over time.

Assessing your Teaching Effectiveness

Classroom assessment is also a useful tool for improving your teaching. If you administer an assessment and numerous students are deficient in a given area, you can reflect on why students have not acquired the intended knowledge, understanding, or skills from instruction. For example, you may use the one-sentence summary technique and find that few students in your class were able to identify the most important point of the lecture. If this happens, you can reiterate this information and emphasize the importance of this point by verbally indicating to students that this was an important idea to take away from the lecture or by summarizing the idea on a whiteboard. This process can provide you with insights about how you can adjust instruction in the future. If students share common misconceptions about a topic, you can reteach the topic and/or use a different instructional strategy to convey the information. To gain additional insight into the origins of students’ misconceptions, you may use an assessment to collect information on why they responded the way they did on the assessment.

After you have analyzed students’ responses, you should provide students with information about what you learned from examining their responses (such as reviewing common misconceptions) and explain how you plan to use that information to improve their learning experience. If the sole purpose of a classroom assessment is to improve your teaching, you may want to consider administering assessments anonymously to minimize the pressure that students experience to successfully complete the assessment. For example, ask students to complete the one-sentence summary without including their names.

When to Assess

Effective classroom assessment is ongoing; it is important that students’ knowledge is regularly assessed throughout a course.12 When you regularly assess student learning, you can use this data to make adjustments to your teaching. As Angelo and Cross stated, “the central purpose of Classroom Assessment is to empower both instructors and their students to improve the quality of learning in the classroom.” You should be assessing student knowledge prior to, during, and following instruction of distinct units of the course, as well as for the entire course.

Students’ prior knowledge accounts for the greatest proportion of variance in student achievement.13 You should assess students’ prior knowledge at the beginning of your course or prior to introducing a new topic. This can help to ensure instruction is at an appropriate level.

For example, gaining information about student’s knowledge of vocabulary in your field can help you improve your communication. You may use terminology with which students are familiar, or alternatively, for those terms with which students are unfamiliar, you can provide the definition and an example. You can also use information on students’ prior knowledge to connect your instruction to their life and experiences.

If you are teaching a unit on special interest groups in a government course, for example, you can invite students to connect the course literature to their own experiences in special interest groups. These connections help students retrieve information and organize their knowledge base.

Periodically administer informal assessments to provide feedback to students about their mastery of course content and to adjust your instruction. These assessments can be developed, administered, and analyzed using minimal time and energy (learn more about specific informal assessment methods). The power of these assessments is that they inform you to make changes to your teaching and allow your students to adjust their study strategies before a curriculum unit is complete.12 The most helpful time to assess students may be prior to unit, midterm, or final exams so that students can use the feedback to prepare for tests and so that instructors can address any shared misconceptions.

In addition to providing instructor feedback, you can also ask students to assess their own learning via these assessments. This can help students become more self-directed learners over time. Formative assessments also aid in learning because they facilitate spaced practice (having students return to information multiple times) in lieu of massed practice.

Administer formal assessments following the completion of units and the course. There are a variety of formal assessment methods, such as unit, midterm, or final exams; large papers; and portfolios (learn more about writing exams, developing essay prompts and grading essays, and implementing portfolio assessment). Unfortunately, these assessments may occur too late to impact student learning because students may view the unit as completed once you administer an assessment. Moreover, after a curriculum unit is completed, there is often little time to re-teach a topic. For these reasons, informal, intermittent assessments are often more helpful in guiding instructional decision-making.

What to Assess

Classroom assessments should evaluate the extent to which students have learned the intended course curriculum.11 Classroom assessments can measure students’ mastery of a variety of learning objectives. To select assessment methods (or even individual test questions), consider the level of learning desired according to a taxonomy like Bloom’s, which includes the ability to:

  • recall information,
  • understand information,
  • apply information,
  • analyze or break apart information,
  • synthesize information, and
  • evaluate or make judgments about information.

By identifying the level of mastery you desire in your students, you can choose the most appropriate assessment. For example, using long essays may be inefficient for testing simple recall, but may work well to assess the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, whereas the opposite may be true of multiple-choice items.14


(1) American Federation of Teachers, National Council on Measurement in Education, & National Education Association (1990). Standards for teacher competence in educational assessment of students. Retrieved from

(2) Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delat Kappan, 80(2), 139-148.

(3) Miesels, S. J., Atkins-Burnett, S. Xue, Y., & Bickel, D. P. (2003). Creating a system of accountability: The impact of instructional assessment on elementary children’s achievement test scores. Educational Policy and Analysis Archives, 11(9), 1-19.

(4) American Educational Research Association, American Psychological Association, & National Council of Measurement in Education. (1999). Standards for Psychological Testing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

(5) Schönwetter, D. J. & Ellis, D. (2011). Taking stock: Contemplating North American graduate student professional development programs and developers (pp. 3 -17). In J. E. Miller & J. E. Groccia, To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development (Volume 29), San Francisco, CA: Wiley Imprint.

(6) Simpson, R. D., & Smith, K. S. (1993). Validating teacher competencies for graduate teaching assistants: A national study using the delpi method. Innovative Higher Education, 18(2), 133-146.

(7) Wolcott, S.K. (2006). Overview of assessment methods for the classroom. Retrieved from

(8) Stiggins, R.J. (2005). Student-involved assessment for learning. (4th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson, Merrill Prentice Hall.

(9) Gronlund, N. E. (2003). Assessment of student achievement (7th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

(10) Huba, M. E. & Freed, J. E. (2000). Learner-centered assessment on college campuses. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon. 

(11) Angelo, T. A. & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Boss.

(12) Stanovich, Keith E. (1986). Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly, 21(4), 360–407.

(13) Bloom, B. S., Engelhart, M. D., Furst, E. J., Hill, W. H., & Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: the classification of educational goals; Handbook I: Cognitive Domain. New York, Longmans, Green.

(14) Community College of Philidelphia. (n.d.) Assessment information. Retrieved from

(15) Gagné, R. (1985). The conditions of learning (4th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.