Center for Teaching Excellence




Best Teaching Practices: Assessment Basics

Best Practices

What Do We Want Them to Learn?

The first rule of creating an assessment plan for our students concerns what it is exactly that we want our students to learn. Is it facts and details, or is it facts and details and how to think about those facts and details?

The first is about memory; the second is knowledge that transforms.

Describing Active Goals

As a practical matter, determining what we want our students to learn entails describing our specific goals for them in an active way, for example:

I want my students to...

  • Describe the structure and content of major ethical theories
  • Contrast these theories
  • Explain how their differences respond to their respective weaknesses
  • Apply these theories to moral problems.


These are pretty straightforward goals, and finding out how the students are meeting them is a matter of using assignments, tests, and activities that honestly get at how students are integrating what we've been teaching them. Effective assessment does not simply measure memory output, but looks for evidence of creative and synthetic thinking and contributes to that outcome.

Other Goals

There are, however, other goals I might have in mind, less tangible perhaps, but just as, maybe more important to me as an instructor. For example: I want my students to...

  • Transcend their paradigms to become self-appropriated thinkers
  • Appreciate the complexity of human experience.


Certainly these goals will be harder to measure. That's because so much of what matters about being human is not quantifiable. Love, let's say, or creativity, or even good teaching.

The difficulty in measurement, or even articulating these goals should in no way mean that we pretend they don't exist. It is part of our call to teaching to want our students to not just understand art, rocks, or mesons, but to love them as much as we do. So, it's worth thinking about what we really want our students to learn and to try to find some way to clarify those numinous goals. Then we have to confront the challenge of bridging the gap between quantifying outcomes through rubrics and matrices, and making judgments about whether our students have learned in the best sense of all.

That can be done, but not perfectly, for it is an art.

Designing Effective Assessment Tools

When it comes down to designing and applying an assessment tool, we have to find a way to keep it in line with what we want to know, with what we are teaching, with the needs of the student to learn from our assessment of them, and with our own time and work constraints.

Here are some basic steps to keep in mind:

  1. Decide what we want our students to learn
  2. Design the test or assignment that...
    a. measures whether they have learned it,
    b. helps them to learn if they haven't.
  3. Reflect on the results and consider whether we need to...
    a. change our goals,
    b. re-evaluate our teaching methods,
    c. pat ourselves on the back.

Assessing Student Learning

Here is one typical way of assessing student learning, the essay, some of its strengths and weaknesses, and a few suggestions for getting more out of it. There are of course, many more instruments that can be used to aid in assessment of student learning that actually contribute to learning (debates, quizzes, case studies, variations on the research project, collaborative work, etc...).

The Essay:
Strength: Its strength lies in the potential for the essay to be the product of creative, synthetic thinking and therefore evidence of higher order learning or a failure to learn.

Weakness 1: This potential can be turned upside down if the criteria for assessing the essay only fall on repetition of certain facts. In this case, we ask for creative and evaluative thinking and yet grade on the basis of whether the student hit on all the right details.

1. One way to address this problem is to be very clear with the students (and in developing a rubric for assessment) about what synthetic, creative thinking is.
2. Another is to re-design the essay questions so that they truly require higher level thinking and not an information dump.

Weakness: 2: Essays take a lot of time to evaluate properly if they are going to be used to help a student learn.

1. Shorter written assignments throughout the semester that are designed to assist students in progressing in their skill and knowledge development.
2. A well-developed rubric can serve to clarify essay assignments for the student and relieve hand injuries caused by excessive writing of comments such as "awkward," "unclear," and so forth.

As a final note, the best assessment of student learning is that which is begun early on in the course. If problems are occurring, not getting feedback until mid-semester largely reduces the opportunity an instructor has for re-claiming the course objectives and getting the students on the right track.


In my opinion, this is the most trying part of teaching because it can be a drain on time and energy, create unpleasant tensions with the students, and because as much as we would like, no grading is ever completely objective, nor consistent. Adding to the challenge is the fact that students tend to have certain attitudes about what grades mean and expectations about what they have earned that don't jibe with course expectations.

Ongoing course preparation assignments that create greater student participation and in-class feedback on their understanding of material can help to increase communication about evaluation and assessment so that grades don't come as a big surprise and the students are motivated to take responsibility for their own learning.

As for the grading itself, it's worthwhile to consider using scoring rubrics such as a Primary Trait Analysis.  

Faculty adopt/adapt the grading model that suits them best, usually derived from a variation on two models: weighted letter grades and accumulated points.

The variations on these schemes include a developmental approach, whereby grades later in the semester are weighted more heavily, or a course component approach in which different sections of the course have the same contribution to the final grade.

Penalties and extra credit can be useful for assessing a final grade that is more in keeping with the students' true achievements in class than the standard results would otherwise indicate. A caveat for penalties and extra credit is that unless they have a real pedagogical function, you have to ask, "What is the point?"

To curve or not to curve

"Do you grade on a curve?" I hear that question every semester. In all honesty, probably no one should. Grading on a curve is a kind of bondage to the idea that all learning falls directly onto a graph of statistical distribution. Learning outcomes, as with any data on anything, can be analyzed as a means of finding patterns, but for the sake of fairness, accuracy, and grading that contributes to learning, each student should be judged on his or her own merit.

For more reasons not to curve, see Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson, Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998, 100-103; and Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004, 160.


Contact Information

For more information about the Center for Teaching Excellence, please contact:

Becky Kasper, Ph.D., Director
SUNY Plattsburgh
301 Feinberg Library, Plattsburgh, NY 12901
Phone: (518) 564-3043
Fax: (518) 564-5100
Email: [email protected]