Assessment Fundamentals

Integrating various methods of assessment into the course design is essential to help students meet learning outcomes. Assessments should:

  • Be aligned with student learning outcomes.
  • Be integrated into the course design.
  • Include both formative and summative elements.
  • Evaluate higher-order as well as lower-order skills.

Formative & Summative Assessment

Assessments are used at the end of a learning unit to measure the knowledge students have gained. Traditionally, assessment mechanisms have taken the form of high-stakes objective-based tests and quizzes (multiple-choice, true-false, fill-in, short answer). Truly understanding how much a student is learning in the distance education environment, however, means incorporating authentic assessments aimed at evaluating not just students’ knowledge, but also how well they are able to apply that knowledge to real-world tasks that require higher-order cognitive skills.

When creating assessments for a course, it is helpful to think of the two major types of assessments, formative and summative.

Formative Assessment

Assessment that is carried out in order to form a picture of the learning process. Formative assessments are ongoing and can be used by both the student and instructor to gather information about how well the course is meeting the needs of the students. With formative assessments student participation plays an active role, as feedback is used to develop and set goals to further student learning outcomes. Discussion posts, journals and portfolio reflections are examples of this type of assessment.

Summative Assessment

Assessment that is used to measure what students have learned/mastered. Summative assessments involve assigning a grade and are generally the most common form of assessment in the traditional classroom environment. End of the unit tests and term papers are examples of this type of assessment. 

Integrating Assessment Types

It might seem that formative and summative assessments are mutually exclusive. However, when assessment is a cohesive part of the course design, there is often a balance of both assessment types. When formative assessments are used in conjunction with summative assessments, they will provide a more complete portrait of student learning. This is also known as continuous assessment.For example, instructor feedback on term paper outlines and drafts and peer reviews can be used by a student for a final draft that receives a letter grade. In this process-oriented approach to assessment, both the instructor and student adjust their teaching and learning during the first part of the project, resulting in a final product that receives a grade. 

Authentic Assessment & Course Design

When incorporating formative and authentic assessments into course design, assessment shifts from the evaluation of knowledge through an isolated testing event to a measure of the performance (known as performance-based assessment) of how much students are learning. Assessment is no longer linked to a single grade on a midterm or final, but rather is seen as integral to course design, and determines what instructors need to do to adjust their teaching in order to meet student learning outcomes.

Unit Example

Many of the sample tasks listed in the table describing Bloom’s Taxonomy can be used as formative assessments for projects that are formally evaluated. Because assessment in the traditional classroom is often limited to one quiz or test that demonstrates recall (and/or perhaps just guessing) of information, instructors have less information available to them to assess student learning. When using authentic assessments, however, instructors have more documentation and are therefore able to gain deeper insight about a student’s actual comprehension of the content.

The same holds true for midterm and final projects where, instead of having a single high-stakes exam, assessment can be based on a longer term project. Each step of the assessment task is integrated into the course and completed incrementally over a period of time. In this way students have the benefit of instructor feedback early on in a project and can then adjust their work as needed.

This means that students are not only evaluated on how well they do on the final project, but also on their ability to incorporate instructor (and perhaps peer) feedback into their end product. Performance then becomes a process linked to learning outcomes as opposed to a recitation of content.


Another type of alternative assessment used in a variety of professional and academic settings is the portfolio. A portfolio is simply a collection of artifacts a student compiles which includes reflections about how each artifact has contributed to his/her learning.

ePortfolios help students:

  • Develop their critical-thinking and higher-order learning skills.
  • Become reflective learners, that is, students are able to assess and show their own learning processes.
  • Become familiar with new technological tools.
  • Prepare professional materials for career-related objectives.

ePortfolios help instructors:

  • Gain a fuller picture of their students’ learning.
  • Assess students’ progress over a period of time.
  • Understand the process that their individual learners undertake to reach their academic goals.
  • Appreciate what their students are doing within the wider academic community.

While portfolios are a graded project, it is also self-assessment evaluative mechanism. This means that the goal of a portfolio is not simply for students to complete new assignments, but rather to reflect on and communicate to their instructors what they have learned, what they could have changed during the course of the semester and how they intend to apply their knowledge to their academic or professional lives. Portfolios are an opportunity for the student to demonstrate the ways in which they have connected with the course content. In addition, on a practical level, the process of creating portfolios provides students with an opportunity to hone their professional and critical thinking skills.

ePortfolios are simply portfolios that use some form of interactive web-based application to compile artifacts and reflections. The CANVAS LMS has an ePortfolio tool which can be easily incorporated into online, hybrid and face-to-face classrooms. The ePortfolio in CANVAS is not linked to a specific class, but rather to a registered PCC student’s individual account. An enrolled student can create as many portfolios on CANVAS as they wish – whether it is assigned for a specific course, program of study, or for personal/professional use.

To find out more about how to create ePortfolios in the CANVAS LMS, check out the ePortfolio section of the CANVAS Instructor Guide.

Evaluating Authentic Assessment

Objective tests focus on discrete items where one thing at a time is tested in isolation. Using authentic assessments, however, means that instructors need to approach evaluation differently. Instead of looking for a specific answer to a question, the entire student work is assessed holistically based on a set of criteria relevant to the project. This is done through the use of rubrics.


Rubrics are tools that outline the quality standards for student success in an assessment. Descriptions in a rubric are directly linked to the learning objectives of a particular assignment or project. When these benchmarks are used and given to students prior to turning in their assignments, students know what is expected of them. This gives students more opportunities to reflect on and revise their work and ultimately more control, or autonomy, over their own learning.

Benefits of Rubrics

  • More closely align assessments with student learning outcomes.
  • Clearly communicate course and instructor expectations.
  • Assess a wider range of skills and performances.
  • Give students greater autonomy in their learning.
  • Evaluate both the process and the product of a student work.

Types of Rubrics

There are two main types of rubrics used in higher education – analytic and holistic. While each type of rubric has advantages and disadvantages, in distance education, analytic rubrics are used most often because of the amount of detailed feedback they provide students.

Analytic Rubrics
  • Criteria for success are listed separately.
  • Provide more detailed feedback about performance.
  • Focus on criteria for success.
  • Take more time to create (at first).
  • Are used to evaluate authentic assessments.
Holistic Rubrics
  • Criteria for success are all listed together.
  • Provide general information about performance
  • Focus on a scale of performance.
  • Take less time to create.
  • Are often used to evaluate general proficiency.

Check out this example of an analytic and holistic rubric from DePaul University.

Creating Rubrics

Numerous resources exist for creating and modifying rubrics for distance education courses. Many websites, such as RubiStar, have rubrics which can be modified to meet individual course needs. Most learning management systems like CANVAS also have interactive rubric tools to aid in the grading process. For more detailed information abou thow to create rubrics, check out the CREATING RUBRICS PDF.