Formative vs. Summative Assessment

Formative assessment occurs at the beginning of or during a course or program and provides evidence of student learning along the way. This allows instructors or program leaders to identify changes and improvements to better support learning for the students who are currently engaged in the course or program.

Summative assessment occurs at the end of a course or program and provides evidence of what students have learned by completing the course or program. This allows instructors or program leaders to identify changes and improvements to better support student learning the next time the course or program is offered.

Both of these approaches can be useful, and neither is necessarily “better” than the other. Formative assessment allows current students to benefit from adaptations made in response to assessment results, but there may be particular skills or knowledge that they are only expected to gain by the end of the course or program, making summative assessment the best approach. Often, a combination of the two is ideal.

Direct vs. Indirect Assessment

Direct assessment involves measures of student learning that ask students to directly demonstrate or perform the desired knowledge or skill. Examples include papers; quizzes and exams; music, theater, or dance performances; or execution of safety procedures. Often, the use of a rubric can be beneficial for determining whether students met the desired learning outcome(s) and ensuring consistency in evaluation across students, instructors/evaluators, course sections, and program offerings. Direct assessment functions best when it can be embedded into the course or program. Embedded assessment saves both the instructor or program leader and students time by utilizing activities or assignments students will already complete during the course or program as assessment evidence. Sometimes this requires a slight adjustment; for instance, while an assignment grade might encompass many learning outcomes as well as other elements such as timely completion or formatting, assessment of a particular outcome might focus instead on student scores within one line/dimension of a rubric.

Indirect assessment involves measures that ask students to self-report or reflect on their knowledge and skills in order to allow instructors or program leaders to make inferences about their learning. Examples include surveys and reflection papers. Other broad metrics of student success, such as graduation rates, graduate school admission, or overall GPA, are also often used to indirectly characterize student learning.

Similar to formative and summative assessment, direct assessment is not necessarily “better” than indirect assessment, but when feasible it does allow for greater insight into what students actually know and can do compared to self-report or other indirect evidence. However, not all learning outcomes lend themselves well to direct assessment. It may even be useful to combine the two methods – for instance, survey students about their perceived skill development as well as assess their demonstration of that skill to check for alignment or misalignment between what students think they know or can do and their actual performance.

It’s also important to note that particular methods do not always strictly align with one type of assessment versus the other. For instance, a survey is typically considered an indirect assessment method, but it can also function as a sort of “quiz” if some questions ask students to demonstrate knowledge (e.g., “Name three resources for academic support on campus”) rather than rate their understanding (e.g., “How familiar are you with academic support resources on campus?”). As another example, a reflection paper might function as a direct assessment method if reflection itself is a skill articulated in the course or program learning outcomes.

When choosing the appropriate assessment method that will yield the most useful results, it’s helpful to consider the alignment between your course or program learning outcomes and your chosen assessment method. Is what you’re asking students to do, write, perform, report, etc. going to tell you whether they have achieved the desired outcome?

Closing the Loop

Once you have gathered assessment data, it is important to close the loop on assessment by implementing changes based on the results and assessing the same student learning outcome(s) to determine whether the changes you made had a positive impact on learning.


Assessment basics: The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) has curated a “New to Assessment” webpage with resources, articles, glossaries, and the like.

Closing the loop: Again, NILOA has a list of helpful resources about using assessment evidence to improve student learning (last dropdown section under “Top Questions We Receive”).

Creative assessment methods: The assessment management software company Weave hosts regular free webinars on assessment. This one, aimed at student affairs assessment but adaptable to other settings as well, describes several creative approaches to assessment, such as reflective photography or journals, photo scavenger hunts, and learning contracts.

Curriculum mapping and alignment: Curriculum maps articulate alignment between course-specific learning outcomes and the broader learning outcomes of an entire program of study. These maps can be used to identify gaps in addressing programmatic learning outcomes within the curriculum as well as which courses might be best-suited for assessment of particular outcomes. NILOA has compiled resources on curriculum mapping and alignment (fifth dropdown section under “Top Questions We Receive”), including a curriculum mapping toolkit, and also released a recent paper on adapting this process for student affairs or co-curricular assessment.

Rubrics: This viewpoint article from NILOA describes tips for effectively using rubrics for assessment. Higher education practitioners have also frequently adapted the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) VALUE rubrics to assess student achievement of one of 16 common learning outcomes, such as Critical Thinking, Written or Oral Communication, Quantitative Literacy, and Intercultural Knowledge and Competence. The VALUE project is run by AAC&U’s Office of Quality, Curriculum, and Assessment.

Student affairs assessment: Both NASPA (the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators) and ACPA (the American College Personnel Association) have assessment resources available through their organizations.