In higher ed, there is an expectation that student work will be of sufficient academic quality, often called ‘rigour’. This is why the University of Victoria publishes the grading standards in every syllabus, and why we also published information about the SOLO Taxonomy. There needs to be a comparison of learners’ work against a pre-established standard, in a process known as assessment.

The key idea, as we talked about earlier, is that there needs to be alignment between the learning outcomes for the course and the activities in which learners engage to demonstrate their attainment of the learning outcomes. So if one of your learning outcomes relates to critical thinking, then the assessment of that learning outcome must require the learner to demonstrate the ability to think critically.

What might be the purpose of assessment?

Assessment is a critical piece of an educational process as it ensures that learners have the information that they need to understand how well they have met the learning outcomes for the course.

  • To provide information on learner’s current levels of progress on a given outcome
  • To inform the instructor and the learner about any misconceptions
  • To provide opportunities for learners to reflect on their learning
  • To inform the designer where to begin, and from there determine the supports needed in order to create strategic goals or targets. To adjust the planned learning opportunities to support the learners in meeting the goals.
  • To know if the learning events/activities are working
  • To communicate and inform – not just gather “marks”

By using instructional frameworks like Backwards Design, a learning designer would create the assessment before the lessons or activities. The assessment would be clear about WHAT evidence of learning the designer is seeking. If you plan your assessments first, you will know what to teach and have a greater likelihood of having coherent, focused, and related learning activities.

Tasks that are easily copied, completed by cheating, or solved with an answer key, probably should not be factored in as assessment. These lower demand tasks should be seen as practice leading up to proficiency in applying new learning.

Formative and Summative Assessment

There are generally two types of assessment, formative and summative. Formative assessment occurs when a learner receives feedback about their performance and has an opportunity to incorporate that feedback into future attempts. In this class, if a learner misses the mark on a post or assignment, I provide some feedback about how to improve, and typically provide an opportunity to revise and resubmit. That is formative assessment. The other type of assessment, summative, comes at the end of a learning experience, and is generally a final assessment of the learner’s performance. Typically there is no opportunity to incorporate feedback into future performance, because there is no opportunity for future performance. This is like having to write a final exam in a course. So, formative assessment is viewed as assessments performed throughout a unit of study and summative assessment is seen as an evaluation of learning, at the end of a unit of study. Formative assessment is often completed on an ongoing basis with information about progress shared in terms of feedback, performance standards, or grades. Summative assessment is usually completed at the end of a unit of study and is often written as grades.

Opening any discussion around formative and summative assessment with learning designers is sure to initiate a debate. Tom Schimmer has referred to these terms as oxymorons as they serve such different purposes. Ideally, assessments should be held as formative data for as long as possible in order to help guide a learner to meeting the learning outcomes. Formative and summative assessment should work together to support and improve student learning. 

Summative assessment has traditionally been thought of as something that occurs at the end of a unit of study, but really can happen at any point in the learning journey. However, if the purpose is to have a clear understanding of what the learner can do after they have completed a unit of study, the work and practice they have completed during the learning process should not be averaged into the final grade. Formative assessments should not necessarily leave “marks” in a gradebook. By the time a designer is ready to assess summatively, they should be focused on what a learner can DO with what they know, not just what they’ve learned. Understanding should show up in the learner’s application of WHAT they have learned.

Both types of assessment have their place in education, but there is a growing trend towards using formative assessment much more intentionally and focusing more on the process of learning (learning is hard), than on one high-stakes assessment at the end of a course which only provides a snapshot in time. Something more illuminating would be like a photo album – images gathered formally and informally over time. Assessment should be iterative. Formative assessment allows a designer to share feedback with a learner with the intention of helping a learner take initiative and ownership of their learning. It should be effectively delivered in such a way as to elicit a response from the learner.

Practically, one of the best ways to get some formative assessment and feedback is to ask questions of your instructor. Submit drafts, schedule synchronous calls or conferences. Please let me know if you’d like to schedule some time to chat about your work in this course!


If assessment is meant to be proactive, one of the best methods for precipitating action in the learner is to maintain an ongoing cycle of self-assessment. As a learner progresses through the sequence of activities, they could be asked to blog, reflect, or meet with learning partners to share new learning, ask questions, and clarify misunderstandings. 

One way to incorporate self assessment is to have the learner select their own learning artifacts for summative assessment. This requires a reflective process in the learner and self-advocacy in identifying what represents their “best work”.

Learner self-assessment could also take the format of conferencing with an instructor to ensure that feedback and grades are not a surprise. Conferencing with a learner who has been receiving and applying feedback while reflecting on their own growth and struggles can provide insight about the learner’s journey for the instructional designer.


(REQUIRED READING) This week we are asking you to read two chapters from Assessment Strategies for Online Learning. This book is available as a free .pdf download.

Please read chapters 1 and 4

(OPTIONAL READING) If you are interested in further readings on assessment for learning, please feel free to review the following articles:

Assessment and the Design of Educational Materials By: Paul Black & Dylan Wiliam

Linking Formal Assessment to Scaffolding By: Lorrie A. Shepard