Assessments - Best Practices

Alignment to Learning Objectives 

Learning objectives are the central starting place for effective learning design. Ask yourself:

  • Are your learning objectives measurable?
  • Are your assessments designed to measure the stated objectives?
  • Do the course materials, learning activities, and supporting technologies promote achievement of the learning objectives?

Assessment Criteria

Starting with the end result in mind is the best way to make sure students learn what you want them to learn. Start with the question, "If the students really learned to critically interact with the material and concepts of this course, what would that look like?" The answer to this should become the assessment criteria for your course. The next question becomes the basis for learning design, "What can students produce to demonstrate they have learned what I want them to learn?"

Three Simple Steps to Keep Focused on Core Concepts

  1. Identify results that you want for your learners. These results will probably include "enduring understanding" (similar to concepts), knowing the vocabulary and syntax of a discipline domain and being familiar with the "exemplars of a discipline." The exemplars of a discipline might include the most famous representatives and case studies, etc.
  2. Determine the "acceptance evidence" by which the learners can demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and integration of ideas.
  3. Design the learning experiences to ensure learner accomplishment of these understandings and the processes for demonstrating their learning.
McTighe, J. & Wiggins, G. The Understanding by Design Handbook.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999. 

Aligning Objectives

Course learning objectives describe outcomes that are measurable. This is one of those statements that often gets misinterpreted because rigorous measurement is usually equated with traditional testing. However, authentic assessment (as outlined below) can be just as effective at measuring what your students can actually do. "Do" is the key word to keep in mind here. For an outcome to be measureable, it needs to be something students can do to demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind they have developed in your course.

Authentic Assessment is...

  • Performance-based
    Challenges learners to show what they can do along with what they know.
  • Integrative
    Requires learners to pull together skills and knowledge from multiple areas.
  • Useful
    Motivates learners to improve in the areas where they are weakest.
  • Relevant
    References the learner's situation and life experiences.
  • Participatory
    Solicits the learner's involvement in the evaluation process.

Assessment Strategies

The types of assessments selected measure the stated learning objectives. This is an easy one to miss if you don't start with the end in mind. In other words, what do you want the students to do? What will you accept as evidence that they can do those things? Most of us start by pulling together material that we think is critical to cover, then we come up with some assignments that seem appropriate and, at the last minute, we develop a grading scheme to put in the syllabus. Unfortunately this often results in not measuring what we are really interested in but rather in measuring what we think we can measure.

One of the simplest ways to get around this measurement problem is to begin by describing what a successful demonstration of learning would look like for your course. When you have done this, you have developed criteria that you can use for evaluating student work, communicating your expectations to students, and even guiding what kinds of test questions to create. Although there is a lot of fuss around the science of assessment, the most effective strategy is to use a series of assessments throughout the semester, preferably in various forms. This allows you to measure from multiple perspectives and provides richer information about your students' learning.

Learning Activities

The learning activities promote the achievement of the stated learning objectives. Learning activities become the natural outgrowth of your description of "acceptable evidence." If you can articulate what a credible demonstration of student learning would look like, then you can design an activity that lets you see what students can do.  

Articulating your expectations to the students

A critical, but often overlooked, aspect of assessment is to involve students in the process, first by clearly articulating your expectations and second by requiring them to evaluate their own work along with the work of their peers. Students need a clear map of disciplinary expectations along with a description of what mastery of your course material looks like. Students learn by systematically comparing your expectations to their own work and the work of their peers.  

One of the best ways to do this is to Create a Rubric that clearly spells out what you are hoping to see in their work, what would suffice and what wouldn't. Rubrics have gotten some bad press, but that is because there are too many awful rubrics being poorly applied. Even though rubrics take some work to produce, they make your job easier because students can self and peer-assess coursework in the draft stages.   

Keep in mind that you don't have to start a rubric from scratch.  You may have a colleague who has already created a rubric you can adapt. At Distance and Extended Education we have been collecting effective rubrics and formatting them in BbLearn's rubric tool. Browse our Sample Rubrics page to find something that works for your situation. You can import any of the sample rubrics directly to your course and edit as needed. On the Sample Rubrics page you will find all of the AAC&U's VALUE Rubrics along with rubrics created by colleagues. If you have a rubric you would like to share, contact us at and we will add it to the list.

Download Sample Rubrics

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