What Makes a Quality Assessment?

Updated article originally posted Aug 9, 2016

In many ways, successful higher education hinges on assessment, whether it is assessment of overall student learning or of teaching effectiveness. Valuable assessment measures the comprehension of concepts and the development of skills, which depends, in part, on effective teaching. To properly evaluate teaching and learning, though, quality assessment creation is essential. But how can educators achieve the lofty but realistic goal to measure the educational process? To answer that, take a closer look at content and authentic assessment.

Content and Design

Researchers from the Center on Assessment—a constituent research group at Stanford University—encourage a total reconceptualization of the debates surrounding what makes a quality assessment. While many discussions center on assessment question types, the Stanford Center suggests that content should be at the core of assessment design. The Center’s interdisciplinary research and focus on developing content that drives toward testing a mixture of “central disciplinary knowledge and skills” led to the creation of six “design features” to keep in mind when crafting assessments:

  • Focus on and measure core disciplinary concepts and skills. – Disciplinary concepts and knowledge are subject specific and require judging the student on matters that are important to the field of study. In science-based areas, big ideas and how they relate to the field as a whole should be explored via assessment. In the humanities, a selection of texts that are touchstones of the subject can be used to pinpoint conceptual knowledge. For assignments that are more skill-based, identify key competencies that are developed out of the field. For instance, science may test problem-solving methods whereas humanities may seek writing and argumentation as developed skills.
  • Integrate theory and practice. – Beyond the abstract ideas, students must be tested on how they can move beyond the theoretical to incorporate ideas into their own thinking and real-world applications. In science, assessment questions may be framed more around specific articulation of a particular issue (ex: applied engineering or design) and in the humanities, questions may be oriented around specific social phenomena.
  • Maximize access, and minimize bias. – Think about how the content-based question is written. Is it plainly articulated? Strive to develop assessments that avoid steering questions towards certain answers.
  • Evaluate reasoning, rather than focusing on the response. – Structure grading criteria around the assessment of reasoning. If you leave the question somewhat open-ended, you will be able to reward the thinking processes behind the question rather than strictly the right answer.
  • Use authentic source material and case studies. – Require students to either think about or actually use materials and methods in line with the discipline. This method helps to align students’ thinking and responses with the style of the discipline. For sciences, consider hypothesis-testing frameworks; for humanities, use primary source materials.
  • Strategically use technology-enhanced tools to increase accessibility and understanding. – Integrating technology into assessments enhances the complexity of questioning, and promotes critical thinking through the use of edtech-specific media or other materials. Digital technology in the classroom is always a welcomed and innovative way to promote learning.

Consider Authentic Assessment in Higher Education

These discussions surrounding assessment design lead to a rumination on the nature of authentic assessment. Briefly, authentic assessments are those designed to “foster disciplinary behaviours and ways of thinking and problem solving used by professionals in the field.”

The benefits of authentic assessments are widespread, but mostly relate to the fact that they prepare students for the workforce and offer them a new type of assessment experience. In the sciences, authentic assessments may expose students to scientific presentations or case studies, and in humanities, policy briefs or reports are appropriate. Authentic assessments may not be the best choice in every context, but mixing in one on occasion will prove to be an interesting new take on the assignment genre.

Innovative Assessment in Higher Education

Rethinking assessments does not mean a radical change; assessments do not have to fundamentally change nor do they need to be thrown out altogether. Instead, a slight alteration to the way they are oriented may be in order—moving from the specifics of design to the more broad way the types of content are selected and articulated.

Consider employing some of the insights from Stanford’s research in your next assessment. Or, to go a step further, synthesize multiple insights, and make an exam that tests disciplinary knowledge and its application via a clearly explained set of questions using technology or media. Now, that, would be one quality assessment.

Interested in more perspectives on assessment design? See more here: