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Cornell University

Measuring Student Learning

Assessment is the systematic collection of information about student learning, using the time, knowledge, expertise, and resources available, in order to inform decisions that affect student learning (Walvoord, 2010, p. 23).

How can you measure student learning?
What are some practical assessment strategies?
How can you incorporate an assessment plan into a course?

How can you measure student learning?

  • Summative assessments are tests, quizzes, and other graded course activities that are used to measure student performance. They are cumulative and often reveal what students have learned at the end of a course. Within a course, summative assessment includes the system for calculating individual student grades.
  • In contrast to summative assessment, formative assessment is any means by which students receive input and guiding feedback on their relative performance to help them improve, absent their grade. Formative assessment can be provided face-to-face in office hours, in written comments on papers, projects and problem sets, and through e-mails.
  • Formative assessments can be used to measure student learning on a daily, ongoing basis. These assessments reveal how and what students are learning during the course and often inform next steps in teaching and learning. Rather than relying on questions such as “Do you understand?”, or “Are there any questions?”, you can be more systematic and intentional asking students at the end of the class period to write the most important points or the most confusing aspect of the lecture on index cards. Collecting and reviewing the responses provides insight into what themes students have gleaned from your lecture and what your next teaching steps might be. Providing feedback on these themes to students gives them insight into their own learning.
  • You can also ask students to report on their own learning. Surveying students about their learning is called indirect assessment. Asking students to rate their knowledge about a topic after taking your course as compared to what they believe they knew before taking your course is an example of indirect assessment. Direct assessments, on the other hand, assess a student’s direct application of knowledge or skill. Some examples of direct assessment are evaluating students’ abilities to summarize a process, apply a theory, solve a problem, or synthesize literature.

What are some practical assessment strategies?

Summative assessments

Asking Good Test Questions
Using Rubrics

Formative assessments

For formative assessments, include students in the process:

  • Tell them what and how you are assessing.
  • Share your findings with them.
  • Based on your findings, explain what changes you will make, if any, and help students focus or redirect their learning.

pdf CTI Measuring Student Learning (CU NetID required to access. Link redirects to login page.)

Classroom Response Systems are useful for formative assessments as they allow for quick collection of data and instant feedback.

Indirect and direct assessments

Course-level Assessment Guide- Assessment Methods

How can you incorporate an assessment plan into a course?

Measuring is the third step in a five-part process (Walvoord, 2010, p. 26):

  1. Outcomes. What do you want students to know, be able to do, or value as a result of taking a course?
  2. Identify. Where in the curriculum are the outcomes addressed?
  3. Measure. How well are students achieving the outcomes?
  4. Revision. What changes can be made to the course to improve student achievement?
  5. Re-measure. Did the revision to the curriculum work?

Some considerations:

  • Include indirect and direct assessments as well as formative and summative assessments for a comprehensive assessment plan.
  • Evaluate whether or not the assessment aligns directly with a learning outcome.
  • Make sure the measurement is sustainable in terms of time and resources.
  • Acknowledge assessments you are already doing through weekly assignments or course projects.
  • Use mid-term and end-of-semester student evaluations to assess student learning.

See our Course-level Assessment Guide for more information on the assessment process at the course level.


Past CTI Presentation Materials


Angelo, T.A. & Cross, K.P.  (1993). Classroom assessment techniques (2nd ed.).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors (3nd. Ed). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Walvoord, B.E.  (2010). Assessment clear and simple: A practical guide for institutions, departments and general education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
     Cornell University