Assessment is the way we measure progress toward learning outcomes. It is the way we assess individual progress towards learning outcomes and capture the overall success of our course. We’ll begin by discussing the three basic types of assessment that educators use: diagnostic, formative, and summative.


Diagnostic assessments are those assessments we conduct to gauge the skills and knowledge of our learners. You can think of these as an attempt to “diagnose” the current skills and knowledge of your learners. As such, diagnostic assessments are no-stakes assessments (e.g. they are not used as formal grades). They are typically given at the beginning of a semester to gauge incoming skills and knowledge (e.g. those obtained in a previous course or throughout a previous educational experience).

When deciding whether or not to use diagnostic assessment, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do I need to know about the skills and knowledge of my current learners?
  • What is the best way(s) to obtain this information?
  • How will I use this information once I have it?
  • How will I discuss this assessment and its results with my students?
  • How will this information inform other aspects of the course (e.g. lessons, assignments, delivery)?

Answering these questions will help you to a) determine if a diagnostic assessments makes sense for you, your course, and your learners and b) consider the way(s) you will use this information once you have obtained it.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments refer to assessments used to help monitor the progress our learners are making towards the outcomes. You can think of these as a way to understand how students are “forming” their skills and knowledge. As such, formative assessments are low-stakes assessments (e.g. low-point / percentage value) and are often used a part of a larger category (e.g. participation) or assignment. They are typically deployed heavily throughout the first half of a semester because they provide you with valuable feedback on student learning progress and skill retention. Here are some of the ways you can use formative assessments in your course:

  • knowledge and/or skills check-in before, during, or after a lesson
  • micro-assignments that are strategically scheduled during a multi-phase project
  • feedback tools that are used to make adjustments to schedules, delivery, and lessons
  • participation tools to encourage engagement during a lesson

Formative assessments can take many forms, including as rough drafts, practice problems, discussion questions, speech notes, project outlines, and worksheets. Active learning activities such as think-pair-share, muddiest / ah-ha moments, and one-minute papers are also types of formative assessments.

Summative Assessments

Summative assessments refer to assessments used to capture whether or not learners have met the stated learning outcomes and to what level of proficiency if they have done so. You can think of these as a “summary” of the learning in the course both for individuals and for the class. As such, summative assessments are high-stakes assessments (e.g. high point / percentage value). They are typically deployed at strategic times during the term: stepping-stone (first half), milestone (midterm), and benchmark (second half). Each summative assessment should be directly aligned with a course’s learning outcomes and often encompass more than one. Summative assessments take many forms because they are discipline-specific.