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Designing Fair and Effective Assessment Plans

At its most basic level, assessment is the evaluation of achievement. However, all too often educators substitute numbers, spreadsheets, and GPAs for true evaluation. Keep in mind that overemphasis on grades can lead students to care more about their performance than real understanding, improvement, and progress. Educators should use assessment techniques to foster student development by providing regular opportunities for students to demonstrate mastery of learning goals. To nurture healthy motivation, it is important to have fair and effective assessment practices: provide opportunities for “voice and choice” in assessments, encourage conferences to periodically review progress, offer constructive feedback, and promote multiple drafts of projects, to name a few strategies. Recognize that it takes practice – and, unfortunately, a bit of trial and error – to become a fair and effective assessor. We hope that the resources in our assessment page will help you become one.

A Guide to Designing Fair & Effective Assessment Plans

Assessment starts before you begin teaching – in your syllabus. In this integral document, be sure to state the goals – or learning outcomes – you expect students to reach by the end of the quarter/semester. Many educators use the acronym “SWBAT” (“Students will be able to…” as in, “SWBAT analyze the motif of the triangle in DaVinci’s paintings of religious scenes”) as a springboard for articulating learning goals. When possible choose concrete, measurable verbs when stating learning goals. Aim for easily quantifiable verbs such as “evaluate” and “describe.” For each learning goal in your syllabus you should provide either a formative or summative assessment. Formative assessments are pedagogical check-ups to chart student progress throughout the learning period. Summative assessments include a test and/or term project that allows students to exhibit mastery of the course goal. Show a direct relationship between your learning goals and assessments in your syllabus so that students see the greater purpose of assessments in your class from Day 1. Finally, in the syllabus you must explain how grades will be calculated (see subsection below, “Calculate Course Grades”). Find more information on syllabus construction our Syllabus Guidelines page.

Get to know your students. Consider different the learning styles and needs in your class when designing assessments. Within reasonable limits you may be able to have a variety of assignments that enable students to use their strengths. Some of your students may have learning disabilities that require instructional and assessment accommodations. Visit the Office of Equality & Diversity page to learn more about expectations of faculty to provide accommodations.

Design formative assessments that serve as building blocks toward the course goal. Formative assessments serve the tri-fold purpose of allowing students to demonstrate mastery of the learning goals, ensuring that students are making progress toward the greater course goal, and evaluating the effectiveness of your lessons. Some examples include one-minute papers (or exit tickets), reading logs, and personal response systems (also known as clickers; click on any of the instructional videos on this website to learn more). Read more about Interactive Engagement (IE) in our Polling-Based Strategies section. Assess early and often, especially in a first-year course in a subject new to many students, in order to facilitate learning. In terms of accumulating a course grade, consider counting formative assessments so that students are motivated to accumulate knowledge throughout the quarter/semester (and not just cram for the final exam). You can find more examples of formative assessments in the resources section below.

Design summative assessments that allow students to exhibit their mastery of the course goals. Your grading and rubric criteria should be clearly articulated. Calculate course grades following the model articulated in your syllabus. First and foremost, know your departmental, collegial, and university grading guidelines. Within those parameters, choose your preferred grading model. Most educators choose from one of these three grading models: the weighted letter grades system, the accumulated points system, and the multiple category system. In the weighted letter grades system, tests, projects, and formative assessments are assigned percentages (e.g. Tests 40%, Project 30%, etc.), which means that student performances in various categories are kept separate. Similarly, in the accumulated points system, tests, projects, and formative assessments are assigned point values (e.g. Tests 0-100 points Project 0-50 points, etc.), adding up to a total number points that generally exceeds 100. Lastly, the multiple category system is a bit more complicated in that student work is either graded on a point/percentage system or it is pass/fail work. Importantly, determine early on whether or not you will issue penalties and/or extra credit. It is crucial to have your policy written in the syllabus to avoid student confusion or frustration at the end of the term.

Grade and give feedback – in a timely manner! The two most popular complaints students have about professors (“They take forever to give us back our graded work” and “They’re not fair”) involve grading. Timing is critical so that students can learn from your painstaking feedback to improve for the next assignment. Always use a clear and objective-grading tool (rubric, answer key [with expectations for short answers/essays], etc.) to ensure fairness. Also, consider providing narrative feedback (comments) at the end of the rubric to foster healthy motivation. In your comments, highlight strengths and weaknesses in a constructive manner, striving for specificity (e.g. “Here, I do not see evidence to support your claim”), and if possible ask questions to guide students to new ideas. Although it may be tempting, avoid judgmental comments (e.g. “awkward,” “confusing”). Preferably, both narrative and numerical feedback should be used. However, narrative feedback is becoming increasingly popular in higher education because it enables you, the educator, to articulate your reaction. Moreover, narrative feedback facilitates a conversation about learning between you and your students that can continue throughout the learning period. If possible, try to hold one-on-one conferences to discuss progress toward the completion of the final draft/performance assessment

Review your work. Ask yourself the following questions: Do your assessments truly meet and match your learning goals and objectives? Have you been clear as to how these work with specific assignments? Have you provided enough constructive criticism in your feedback? Do your assessments reasonably meet the needs of diverse learners (students with learning and/or behavioral disorders)? Have you provided reasonable options for students of different learning styles? Have you provided accommodations for students with exceptionalities? Have you weighted the rubric(s) appropriately, with the greatest proportion of the grade counting as content and established knowledge of the topic (not aesthetics)? Have you graded each student fairly? Assessments are important and need to be done, but they are a feedback tool. The key is that assignments should have learning purposes, goals and objectives. The assessment of the assignments is what educators need to do to see if the learning goals are met. Once you have answered these questions, you should have a good idea of how to use the data you have collected from your assessments to plan your next quarter’s syllabus and assignments.


Formative Assessments

  • One-Minute Papers (Exit Tickets): Students respond to teacher-posed question (e.g. “Design a bumper sticker that summarizes today’s lesson”) on a scrap of paper at the end of class, and they must turn it in before exiting. (Determine if you want students to write their names on their papers or not.) This is a good way to evaluate the effectiveness of your lesson. Click here for more ideas.
  • Reading Logs: This reflection on assigned reading can be assigned regularly and checked regularly or at the end of the learning period; the former is suggested in order to provide consistent feedback to the student.
  • Personal Response Systems (Clickers): Using electronic devices that resemble television remote controls, students immediately respond to teacher-posed questions projected overhead. A PowerPoint presentation explaining this type of assessment is available here. Click on any of the instructional videos on this website to learn more.
  • Concept Mapping: Sometimes known as graphic organizers (Venn diagram, web/flow chart, table, etc.), concept maps allow for information to be organized in a visual way. Consider giving students sticky notes on which to write words related to your lesson and have them arrange the notes as a concept map on a piece of paper. On the other side of the paper, have students explain the relationship between the words and entitle the concept map.
  • Discussion: Use the Socratic method to elicit answers out of students as a means to assess their progress. Consider cold calling (randomly selecting participants) as opposed to waiting for volunteers to keep everyone engaged.
  • Muddiest Point: Students write one or two ideas that were least clear to them from the current or previous class. (This is a great idea for a One-Minute Paper; see above.)
  • Do you have another example of a formative assessment? Please e-mail the name and description of your technique to us at and we would be happy to add it to our collection.

Summative Assessments

(See Association for Assessment of Learning in Higher Education - Sample Rubrics and RubiStar for ideas)

  • Oral Projects (debate, interview, newscast, video)
  • Products (brochure, poster, newspaper, timeline)
  • Multimedia (PowerPoint, website)
  • Research & Writing (persuasive essay, research report, letter-writing, analysis)


Angelo, Thomas A., and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Banta, Trudy W., Elizabeth A. Jones, and Karen E. Black. Designing Effective Assessment: Principles and Profiles of Good Practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

McKeachie, Wilbert J., et al. McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 2006.

Mezeske, Richard J., and Barbara A. Mezeske, eds. Beyond Tests and Quizzes: Creative Assessments in the College Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007.

Walvoord, Barbara E., and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Web Resources

Association for Assessment of Learning in Higher Education - Sample Rubrics

Bloom's Taxonomy

Colorado State University - Informal, In-Class Writing Activities

Drexel University - Polling-Based Strategies

Drexel University - DCAE Syllabus Guidelines

Drexel University - DCAE Teaching Tips Guide

Educational Assessment in E-Newsletter, Faculty Focus

Iowa State - Classroom Assessment Techniques

Learning Disabilities Association of America - Resources

Penn State - Classroom Assessment