skip to main content columnskip to left navigation

Center for Teaching Excellence

East Tennessee State University

Student Learning Assessment

Assessing student learning can take many forms and serve many purposes.

 Assessment, grades, feedback: these are overlapping but not quite synonymous terms.

Formative assessment gives learners ongoing feedback about how well they are progressing toward a learning goal. Teachers can use formative assessment to help determine whether students are getting it and what they may need to change or emphasize. Formative assessment is usually low-stakes and more informal. It can be short quizzes or tests or even as simple as in-class questioning, minute papers, or other classroom assessment techniques (CATs).

Summative assessments are evaluations of how well students met learning objectives by the end of the section or class and usually take the form of a high-stakes graded exam, project, or paper. Rubrics are a common, effective means of assuring summative assessments are graded consistently and fairly.  


Have you ever attempted to travel somewhere new without a map or GPS?

How helpful would it be to receive periodic updates telling you, "You're in the wrong place"?
Will that help you get where you are going?

Feedback is for students what a map or GPS is for travelers. It tells students not just whether they are on the right track or not, but precisely where they are in relationship to where they are going. Effective feedback should tell students three essential things:

  1. What they do or do not understand;
  2. Where their performance is good or poor; and
  3. How they should change what they are doing to move toward improvement (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010).

Feedback, like assessments, come in two forms:

  • Formative feedback provides information to students about how they are progressing toward a specific set of criteria. It can be used by students to inform their subsequent learning or performance. This kind of feedback should be offered before a final student product is submitted.
  • Summative feedback provides information to students about their level of proficiency on their final product. This is often where we would assign a grade or score.

Although both types of feedback have value, formative feedback truly supports a learning process for students, particularly if it is targeted. Targeted feedback details, in a prioritized fashion, where students do or do not approach the criteria, so they know how to most effectively and efficiently work to improve their performance.

The timeliness of feedback is essential to its effectiveness. Formative feedback is most effective when it is offered:

  • Early, when students need it and can use it;
  • Frequently, if possible (and even if somewhat minimal, but useful);
  • Before any subsequent attempts at similar performance (e.g., before a second draft is due).

How Can I Easily and Efficiently Provide Effective Feedback?

1. Identify common errors in student work.

It may take time with new assignment to recognize which errors student typically make, but this list may be very easy to create for assignments you have offered in the past. Consider creating a table that lists each common mistake, with a column to the left that allows you to mark (X) which items are of most concern. This table can be copied and pasted to students' electronic work (and returned) or printed and attached to hard-copy work. Example:

  The statements in your introductory paragraph do not support the direction of the rest of your paper. Please review the purpose of your paper and work to re-state it clearly in your introduction.
X Your spelling and/or grammar is impeding the effective communication of your message in this work. Please visit the Center for Academic Achievement for a consultation to learn where your most common errors are, so you can work to correct them.
  Although you include some citations, they are not as thorough or as updated as they ought to be. I recommend reviewing more research so that your statements are effectively supported.

2. Prioritize the feedback you provide.

Of the information you can provide each student on his/her performance, what 1-3 pieces of information would make the most impact on improved performance? Students may become overwhelmed by too many corrections; honing in on the changes that need to be made that will make the most (positive) difference can feel do-able by students and saves you some time on giving feedback.

3. Tell students where they are doing things right, too.

Hearing that some of their performance is correct can help students become more receptive to where they need to focus attention toward improvement. Further, like a roadmap, it says to students that they are on the right track here, but not there. Students therefore won't waste time correcting areas of their work that does not need correcting. Further, the next time they address a similar assignment, they will know that they can effectively perform well with those particular elements. 

4. Use rubrics - before the assignment begins and for feedback.

Rubrics can explain to students, in detail, the elements you believe are important for their performance to be successful. Consider investing some front-end time in creating a rubric (table) that details Excellent, Competent, Not Yet Competent, and Poor characteristics of the work to be assessed. Once created, this rubric can be used both to inform students in advance of how their work will be assessed, as well as attached to each formative submission so each student knows where work should be invested for improvement. The rubric can be printed, circled, and attached to students' hard-copy submissions, or attached electronically to a student's electronic submission (or sent/uploaded separately as an electronic document to each student), with the appropriate "cells" highlighted in some manner (text is red; background is yellow; etc.). 

5. Use peer feedback opportunities.

Providing an opportunity for peer feedback can give all of your students some valuable learning time, while also giving you a break. If you have clear criteria or a rubric, you can have students pair up to assess each others' work (using the criteria/rubric as a guide). From this experience, students will have an opportunity to learn how to identify the qualities of good work, and may identify places in their own work that need attention. Using peer feedback may work best if students are first provided with some practice opportunities, such as putting up examples of poor and excellent work, and having students evaluate them and compare notes, under your guidance.

Feedback on the CTE Resource Center

ETSU Tips on Feedback

By Alison Barton

Scholarly articles and books on feedback:

Ambrose, S. (2010). How Learning Works : Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass. Sherrod Library.


"When we talk about grading, we have student learning most in mind."

Walvoord and Anderson (2010) describe some of the many complex processes involved with grading:

By "grading," we mean not only bestowing an "A" or "C" on a piece of student work. We also mean the process by which a teacher assesses student learning through classroom tests and assignments, the context in which good teachers establish that process, and the dialogue that surrounds grades and defines their meaning to various audiences. Grading encompasses tailoring the test or assignment to the learning goals of the course, establishing criteria and standards, helping students acquire the skills and knowledge they need, assessing student learning over time, shaping student motivation, planning course content and teaching methods, using in-class and out-of-class time, offering feedback so students can develop as thinkers and writers, communicating about students' learning to appropriate audiences, and using results to plan improvements in the classroom, department, and institution. When we talk about grading, we have student learning most in mind (p. 1).

Grades can serve many purposes. They can be used to indicated both how well students are learning and how well teachers are teaching. A good grade helps students recognize what counts as good work in your class and field of study.

Scholarly articles and books on grading:

Davis, B. (2009). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass. Sherrod Library.

Dunn, D. S., M. A. McCarthy, S. C. Baker, and J. S. Halonen. 2011. Using Quality Benchmarks for Assessing and Developing Undergraduate Programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Sherrod Library.

Nilson, L. B., & Stanny, C. J. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Sterling, Virginia : Stylus Publishing, [2015]

Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning : A common sense guide / (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA :: Jossey-Bass. Sherrod Library.

Walvoord, B., & Anderson, V. (2010). Effective Grading : A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass. Sherrod Library.

Quizzes, Tests, and Exams

Quizzes, tests, and exams are most effective when they are tied to specific learning objectives and written to be versatile, reliable, and valid. There are many types of questions which can assess many levels of cognition as defined by Bloom's taxonomy.

See Davis' chapter on "Quizzes, Tests, and Exams" for a good overview of different types of tests and questions.

Creating multiple choice test questions in the CTE Resource Center.

Scholarly books and articles on quizzes, tests, and exams:

Bush, M. (2014). Reducing the need for guesswork in multiple-choice tests. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 40(2). 1-14. Link.

Davis, B. (2009). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass. Sherrod Library.

Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning : A common sense guide / (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA :: Jossey-Bass. Sherrod Library.


Rubrics are one of the best and simplest ways to assess student learning. Rubrics can be used on almost any type of student work: presentations, papers, essays, group work, research.

INtopFORM director Amy Johnson has come up with an elegant way to combine assignment instructions with a rubric into a single handout. See an example here, which you can easily modify to suit just about any assignment. 

See the VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) project rubrics for a good starting point for many more general competencies including critical thinking, oral communication, information literacy, and problem solving.

See how to create and use rubrics in D2L.

ETSU Colleges and Departments may create or share examples of rubrics for more discipline specific criteria. For example, see the Department of Economics and Finance's Assessment page.

Rubrics on the CTE Resource Center


Student Assessment of Instruction (SAI) 

Improving Student Rating Response Rate: Creating a Culture of Feedback

As controversial as they can be, student ratings instruments such as the student assessment of instruction (SAI) are here to stay. Though certainly not the only measure of teaching effectiveness, decades of research support their utility (Berk, 2012). A common challenge, however, is getting students to respond thoughtfully or even at all. A growing body of evidence and practice suggests the best way to get useful feedback about your teaching is to encourage it throughout the semester rather than waiting until the very end (Svinicki, 2001).

Creating a culture of feedback involves both teachers and students giving and receiving feedback. Students are used to getting feedback on assignments and exams (though feedback is not quite the same thing as grades) but may be less accustomed to giving feedback to instructors. There are some simple ways to encourage feedback from students. Stephen Brookfield’s Classroom Critical Incident Questionnaire asks students about moments when they were most and least engaged. 

Asking for feedback is the first step, responding to it is the next. If students see you take their input seriously and make changes where appropriate, they may see SAIs in a more positive light.

See more strategies for improving SAI response rate.

White Paper: Increasing SAI rates - policies and procedures. Committee for Online Education (COE), Clemmer College of Education.

Berk, R.A. (2005). Survey of 12 Strategies to Measure Teaching Effectiveness. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 17(1), 48-62.

Berk, R.A. (2012). Top 20 strategies to increase the online response rates of student rating scales. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 8(2), 98-107. Link.

Linse, A.R. (2017). Interpreting and using student ratings data: Guidance for faculty serving as administrators and on evaluation committees. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 54, 94-106. doi:10.1016/j.stueduc.2016.12.004. Link.

Svinicki, Marilla D. (2001). Encouraging Your Students To Give Feedback. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 87, 17-24. Link.


icon for left menu icon for right menu