This section provides a brief introduction to designing your course assessment strategy based on your course learning objectives and introduces best practices in assessment design.

The Guide to Course Delivery will provide resources on how to build and manage your assessments using specific technological tools in an online learning environment.

Tie assessments to the course learning objectives

To determine what kinds of assessments to use in your course, consider what you want the students to learn to do and how that can be measured. When designing an effective assessment plan, it is important to begin with the end in mind.

The goal is to start with the learning objectives and then design assessments that provide evidence of the learning you want to be demonstrated. For example, if your objective is for students to compare and contrast historical texts, but your assessment asks for factual recall of historical events, there is a misalignment between the intended outcome and the evidence. Consequently, students are frustrated that the exam does not measure what they learned.

Another consideration is what type of assessments best fit your learning objectives. For example, a case study may be more appropriate for measuring students’ ability to apply skills to a new situation than a multiple-choice or essay test.

The sections below are suggestions for how to build effective assessments once you’ve brought your learning objectives and assessment in alignment.

Create authentic, learner-centered assessments

Authentic assessments can be defined as “a form of assessment in which students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential knowledge and skills.” (1) This approach is considered to be learner-centered because it gives students multiple chances to practice tasks.

Rethink traditional assessments to enhance the learning experience. At the end of a learning unit or module, summative assessments are frequently employed to measure students’ understanding. These assessments are usually graded, cumulative in design and take the form of a midterm exam, research paper or final project. Consider replacing a traditional assessment with an open-ended project situated in a meaningful, real-world context or modifying existing assessments to “do” the subject instead of recalling information. Here are some high-level questions for authentic assessment design to get you started: (2)

  • Does this assessment replicate or simulate the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace, civic life or personal life?
  • Does this assessment challenge students to use what they’ve learned in solving new problems?
  • Does this assessment provide direct evidence of learning?  
  • Is this assessment realistic? Have students been able to practice along the way?
  • Does this assessment truly demonstrate success and mastery of a skill students should have at the end of your course?

Use practices that promote inclusivity in your assessment design. Take inventory of the explicit and implicit norms and biases of your course assessments. For example, are your assessment questions phrased in a way where all students (including non-native English speakers) can be successful? Do your course assessments meet basic accessibility standards, including being appropriate for students with visual or hearing needs?

> Examples of Authentic Assessment (Indiana University Bloomington)
> Types of Summative Assessment: Going Beyond Quizzes and Exams (University of Buffalo) 
> Designing Better Quizzes: Ideas for Rethinking your Quiz Practices (Faculty Focus)
> Best Practices for Inclusive Assessment (Duke University)
> What are inclusive assessment practices? (Tufts University)

Provide multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding

Tailor learning by assessing previous knowledge. At the beginning of a learning unit or module, use a diagnostic assessment (or pre-assessment) to gain insight into students’ existing understanding and skills prior to beginning a new concept. Examples of diagnostic assessments include: discussion, informal quiz, survey or a quick write paper.

Use frequent informal assessments to monitor progress. Formative assessments are any assessments implemented to evaluate progress during the learning experience. When possible, provide several low-stakes opportunities for students to demonstrate progress throughout the course. Formative assessments provide five major benefits: (3) 

  1. Students can identify their strengths and weaknesses with a particular concept and request additional support during the learning unit.
  2. Faculty can target areas where students are struggling that should be addressed either individually or in whole class activities before a more high-stakes assessment.
  3. Formative assessments can be reviewed and evaluated by peers which provides additional opportunities to learn.
  4. Informal, low-stakes assessments reduce student anxiety.
  5. A more frequent, immediate feedback loop can make some assessments (like quizzes) less necessary.

Examples of low-stakes, formative assessments include: Classroom assessment techniques to gauge student learning, quick assessments like polls which can make large classes feel smaller or informal reflection papers and/or discussions. 

> How To Assess Students’ Prior Knowledge (Carnegie Mellon University)
> 50 Classroom Assessment Techniques by Angelo and Cross

Design clear, scaffolded assessments

Students are likely to perform better on assessments when the instructions and grading criteria are clear.

Use rubrics when possible. Research suggests that assessments designed with a corresponding rubric lead to an increased attention to detail and fewer misunderstandings in submitted work. (4) 

How Rubrics Help InstructorsHow Rubrics Help Students
Encourage the instructor to clarify their criteria in specific terms. Improve student performance by clearly showing the student how their work will be evaluated and what is expected.
Provide objectivity and consistency in grading student work.Help students become better judges of the quality of their own work.
Provide useful feedback to the instructor regarding the effectiveness of instruction.Provide students with more informative feedback about their strengths and areas that need improvement.

Break up larger assignments into smaller parts. Scaffolding large or long-term assignments into smaller assignments with different deadlines gives students natural structure, helps with time and project management skills and provides multiple opportunities for students to receive constructive feedback. Students also benefit from assignment scaffolding when:

  • Rubrics are provided to assess discrete skills and evaluate student practice via smaller pre-assignments.
  • The stakes are lowered for preliminary assignments.
  • Opportunities are offered for rewrite based on feedback.

> Best Practices for Designing Effective Rubrics (Arizona State University)
> Tools and Ideas for Creating your Rubrics (University of Wisconsin – Stout)
> Sequencing and Scaffolding Assignments (University of Michigan)

Next Steps


  1. Mueller, J. Authentic Assessment Toolbox
  2. Stull, J., Varnum, S., Ducette, J., & Schiller, J. (2011). The many faces of formative assessment. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 23(1), 30-39.
  3. Wiggins, G. (1998). Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Reddy, Y. M., & Andrade, H. (2010). A review of rubric use in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(4), 435-448.