Beau Golwitzer

Faculty, General Education

Our Stance

Assessment means simply to check on student understanding. Whether you know it or not, as a teacher you are always assessing. You assess by asking questions in the form of a facilitated discussion and you assess by asking questions in the form of a test.

When you assess, you are hoping to learn whether students are achieving the intended outcomes, big or small. Based on an assessment,  and depending on its kind, you may change the direction of a discussion or even change the direction of a class.

The following will give ideas for different assessments and how they might fit your classroom.    

Ways to Assess

There are many assessment tools and methods to track student progress in a course as against the outlined learning objectives. Often, assessment is associated with tests, and of course there is a place for testing in any course, but there are more informal means of assessment as well. Below, we have gone into some detail regarding formal and informal means of assessment, direct and indirect, and formative and summative. You will find overlap between these terms as there is not one standard definition for any of them. Likewise, one should not think of these terms as in opposition to each other, that is, an instructor is not required to choose between whether she is a teacher who practices formal or informal assessment. Rather, the variety of assessments are complementary to each other, so it is up to the instructor to determine where one kind of assessment is appropriate over another.    


As the name implies, formal assessments are planned evaluations in which time has been set aside specifically for students to apply their knowledge against some standard performance. These assessments are designed in order to determine how well students have mastered learning outcomes. Common types of formal assessments include tests and quizzes. Key to a formal assessment is consistency, that is the same set of expectations should exist for each student taking the assessment. To gather usable data from this kind of assessment, there must also be consistency in the set of criteria used to score student performance. Formal assessment is used to gather data on whether students have retained what they have been taught during a term, during a specific module in a term, etc. These kinds of assessments allow a teacher (or administrator) to compare students between each other according to their performance.

Informal assessments are also important, however, in tracking student progress. These are often less high-stakes than formal assessments and more individual. They can also be integrated into day-to-day classroom activity. Whereas formal assessment requires one standard against which all students in the particular subject are evaluated, informal assessments can be more tailored to a particular group or class. Some examples of informal assessments include student journals, in-class writing assignments, and classroom debate. Unlike the case in formal assessments, students can be included in their own evaluation in informal assessments.    


Direct assessments quantify student performance in learning and retaining the learning outcomes of a course. These kinds of assessments require a certain standard against which student performance is measured. There is much overlap between formal and direct assessments. So some examples of direct assessments include mid-term and final exams, portfolios, oral presentations, and capstone projects.  

While the end of direct assessment is relative conclusive data, indirect assessment can be said to provide signs of student learning. Examples of indirect assessment include student surveys, peer reviews, and teaching evaluations. These assessments are seen as a complement to direct assessments in that alone they do not provide enough data regarding student learning. However, they do provide the teacher a sense of how students have felt about their own process of learning. Indirect assessment can go beyond the classroom as well, in the form of, for instance, focus groups.    


Formative assessment is an on-going tracking of student learning. Formative assessment entails generally low-stakes activities for very low- or no-point totals. These kinds of assessments might include a one- or two-sentence summary of a lecture, a quick free-write on a discussion, or, even, simply asking students to raise their hands if they have understood a difficult concept. Formative assessment should have relatively immediate benefits for both the student and the teacher, in that this kind of assessment allows students to understand strengths and weaknesses regarding the subject, while also giving the teacher a sense of gaps in understanding.  

Whereas formative assessment is integrated into general classroom activities, specific amounts of time are set apart to perform summative assessments. You will see here overlap with formal assessments. Types of summative assessments include mid-term and final exams, final projects, and oral presentations. These kinds of assessments are typically worth a high number of points, sometimes comprising nearly a quarter of the final grade, so they are much more high stakes. Summative assessments are administered at the end of particular modules during a term to evaluate student learning against a particular standard. The data gleaned from summative assessments are used to track student learning, but are also useful to alert where needed curriculum design in future courses.