Principles of assessment

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There are a variety of issues that must be taken into consideration when planning an assessment strategy within higher education. It is important to start with the understanding that assessment is a form of communication. This communication can be to a variety of sources, to the stuents (feedback on their learning), to the lecturer (feedback on their teaching), to the curriculum designer (feedback on the curriculum), to administrators (feedback on the use of resources) and to employers (quality of job applicants).

There are five main points to consider when designing any assessment to ensure that the communication is as meaningful, useful and honest as possible.

  • The purpose of the assessment and whether the task fulfills that purpose

An essential starting point is to be aware of the reasons why you are assessing the students,and how to design an assessment that will fulfill your needs. To do this it is important to consider the decisions you are going to make, the information you need to gather to make those decisions, and what methods are the most effective for gathering that information.

  • The validity and reliability of the assessment that you are constructing

To ensure that the communication is as honest as possible it is crucial to make sure that the assessment is both valid-in that it tests a relevant skill or ability and that it is reliable - in that the same result would be achieved if you repeated the assessment.

  • The referencing of the assessment

To make the assessment meaningful it is important to compare the candidates abilities with a common measure. The most common comparisons made are with other candidates, with objective criteria, or with the candidates' own performance in another area. Through careful consideration of the purposes of the assessment the most appropriate reference frame should become clear.

  • The construction quality of assessment items

To ensure useful assessment, the assessment items must be constructed to an appropriate quality. Judging the quality of items can be complicated but,as a starting point, consider the difficulty level of the items. In general, a good assessment ought to be at about the difficulty level of the average candidate. Also consider how well the assessment differentiates between the candidates - to provide maximum information the assessment ought to separate out the candidates as much as possible.


Before designing any assessment, you need to ensure that what you are planning will fulfill the demands that you wish to make on it. This involves a thorough examination of your reasons for assessing: considerations may include the information that you want to get out of the task, the uses that you will put that information to, how much time and efforts you are able to devote to it, what info0rmation you wish yo convey to students and others. The rest of this section discusses some o the decisions that you may wish to consider.

  • Formative or summative

Formative assessment is meant to assist the learning process by providing feedback to the learner, which can be used to highlight areas for further study and hence improve future performance. Self and diagnostic assessment are types of formative assessment with specific purposes. Summative assessment is for progression and/or external purposes, given at the end of a course and designed to judge the students' overall performance.

Advantages and disadvantages

Summative assessment is the most useful for those external to the educative process who wish to make decisions based on the information gathered, for example employers, institutions offering further study, the courts (in the case of a driving test). It generally provides a concise summary of a student's abilities which the general public can easily understand ewither as a pass/fail (driving test) or a grade (A-E; 1-7; 1st-3rd etc). It is not however very useful for communicating complex data about a student's individual abilities - are they strong in algebra but weak in calculus for example. Formative assessment on the other hand allows the students and other interested parties to form a more detailed opinion of their abilities, which can then be used to inform further study, concentrating students efforts on the more appropriate areas and hence improving overall performance.

Appropriate use

Formativge assessment is most appropriate where the results are to be used internally by those involved in the learning process (students, lecturers, learning, learning support etc.), whilst summative assessment is most appropriate to succinctly communicate students' abilities to external interested parties.

Formal or informal Formal assessments are where the students are aware that the task they are doing is for assessment purposes. With informal assessment the judgements are integrated with other tasks.

Advantages and disadvantages

Formal assessments are perceived to be fairer. Criteria tends to be more explicit and have less room for bias. Students know they are to be assessed and behave accordingly. However, such assessments can induce stress sometimes causing students to perform less well; others may stress and give a more valid view of students abilities, however some students may feel cheated out of their chance to shine. There can also be problems with hidden prejudices and stereotypes influencing the judgement of the assessor when informal assessments are used.

Appropriate use

For summative assessment, formal is most frequent, while for formative and diagnostic assessment, informal is more common. Where there is evidence of high examination stress, or where a formal exam would be so artificial that it would challenge the validity of the assessment, summative informal assessment is desirable. Formal assessment, however can have motivational effects. If students are unmotivated, early formal assessment may be useful to encourage achievement.

  • Final or continuous

Final (terminal) assessment is that which takes place only at the end of a course while continuous assessment is scattered throughtout the course.

Advantages and disadvantages

The primary advantage of final assessment is that it is simple to organize and condenses the assessment process into a short space of time. This means, however, the timing of the examination becomes of great importance. Illness at an unfortunate time can unduly influence the result. Furthermore final assessment cannot be used for formative purposes. The main advantages of continuous assessment are that both students and lecturers obtain feedback from the process which can then be used to improve teaching and learning and the final result is based on evidence gatyhered over the span of the learning period. Disadvantages include the increased workload inherent with this mode of assessment and difficulties associated with students from different backgrounds tackling the same material and being assessed in exactly the same way.

Appropriate use

Final assessment may be appropriate where there is evidence that learning each new field of study contributes to the understanding of every other and hence learning can only be assessed as a complete whole rather than as constituent parts. Continuous assessment is more appropriate where student feedback is required and a series of pieces of information are required across the course to build up a picture of students abilities. Computer assisted assessment (CAA) can provide a powerful means of continuous assessment, providing rapid and detailed feedback to students and academics about the learning process.

  • Process or product
  • Convergent or divergent


  • Validity
  • Reliability


  • Norm-related referencing
  • Criterion referencing
  • Ipsotive referencing


  • Difficulty (facility)
  • Discrimination