Learner-Centred Assessment

Assessment is an integral part of your course design. Carefully planned assessments ensure that the time your students spend on assessments is meaningful in terms of enhancing their learning and/or providing them with an opportunity to receive feedback; and that the time you spend reviewing and responding to their assessments provides you with a meaningful measure of their learning. 

Here are five suggestions to help you when planning assessment:

Consider what you want your students to learn and tell them

Effective assessment practices begin when you can complete the following sentence: "By the end of the course, I want my students to be able to …" Concrete verbs such as "define," "argue," "solve," and "create" are more helpful for course planning than vague verbs such as "know" or "understand" or passive verbs such as "be exposed to." If you write, "I want students to think like kinesiologists," elaborate on what that means. How does a kinesiologist think? Which aspects of that thinking do you want to cultivate in your students? Be as specific as possible and the students will be much more likely to reach the intended learning outcomes of the course. And remember to put these learning outcomes on your course outline and assignments. For ideas on wording your learning outcomes, see the CTE Teaching Tips "Matching Assignments to the Level of Study" and "Writing Learning Outcomes." 

Select assignments and tests that measure what you value most

Because grading is perhaps one of the most labour-intensive things that instructors do, why spend time grading work that does not address your most important goals? Try to ensure that your tests, exams, and assignments will teach and test the knowledge and skills that you most want students to learn. And throughout your course, teach students how to answer the kinds of questions that you will ask on tests and assignments. Help them prepare by asking them exam-type questions in class and encouraging them to answer by saying, "If I asked you this question on an exam, could you answer it?" Other main ideas to consider are as follows:

  • Choose assessment methods that elicit from your students the kind of learning that you want to measure. A combination of careful forethought, knowledge of your own students, and analysis of their work are the keys here. For example, if you teach math problems, you may want students to demonstrate their ability to solve problems and explain the process. Putting too much emphasis on getting the right answers can take away from the goals. So consider adding the following requirement to some of your assignments and exams: have students draw a vertical line down the centre of their page, dividing it into two columns. In one column they solve the problem, and in the other, they write sentences for each step to explain what they did and why.

    Also consider carefully how you label assignments and tests and how your students may interpret those labels. If you ask for a "term paper" but really want a literature review, your students will not complete the assignment you had hoped for. Make your assumptions clear in classes and on your course outline and/or assignment description. And be sure to teach students how to complete the task at hand; if a literature review is new to them, spend some time teaching them how to write one.

    Finally, think about your use of "traditional" assessment methods and ask yourself how much students really need to do in order to achieve your goals. For exampl, an instructor of political science has his students construct a set of research questions, compile an annotated bibliography, and write the introduction, but they never write the whole paper. For him, this abbreviated version of a traditional assignment helps students learn what he most wants them to learn.

    The most important point is that a test or an assignment is a valid measurement only if it will elicit from your students the kind of learning you want to measure.

  • Choose assessment methods that are interesting and challenging to your students. The type of assignments and tests that you administer will influence your students’ motivation (Baird, 1987; Lowman 1995, 1996). Consider creative kinds of assignments without being carried away by something "flashy" or "trendy" that doesn’t really meet your needs. For example, an American historian might ask her students to write diary entries for a hypothetical Nebraska farm woman in the 1890s. He likes this assignment because it requires that students know about economics, social class, transportation, gender roles, technology, family relations, religion, diet, and so on, yet it also gives students a chance to exercise their imaginations. He finds that if he is explicit that they use the diary to display the breadth of their historical knowledge, the assignment achieves his learning goals in an enjoyable way. See the CTE teaching tip on "Types of Assignments and Tests."
  • Use peer collaboration. One obvious advantage of group assignments is that you have fewer assignments to grade, but collaborative assignments can also have strong pedagogical and motivational advantages. One benefit is the power of peer instruction. Astin (1996) summarizes his comprehensive study of factors that influence college students' learning: "The strongest single source of influence on cognitive and affective development (in college) is the student’s peer group … the study strongly suggests that the peer group is powerful because it has the capacity to involve the student more intensely in the educational experience" (pg. 126). Assignments that encourage student involvement with one another and with you as the instructor may draw on this powerful force. Further, when well managed, collaborative work can increase students’ sense of their own control and power in the classroom (Perry, Menec, and Struthers, 1996). When poorly managed, however, collaborative assignments can decrease students’ sense of control and increase their anxiety and anger. Careful planning and guidance of students is crucial to success. The most important principle to remember is that successful group assignments are those that can be better done by a group than by an individual student. It is crucial that students understand why they are participating in a group project rather than completing the assignment on their own. If you do that, the group’s motivation to work together, solve group tensions, and deal effectively with non-participating members will be strong.
  • Don’t be hyper-corrective. Instead, focus on key content when you are evaluating work, and circle mistakes rather than fix them. If you really want students to learn from their mistakes, help them identify one problem at a time.

Construct an assessment skeleton

Once you have chosen assessment methods and their general features, the next step is to combine all your tests and assignments into a bare-bones assessment "skeleton." This skeleton helps you see whether your assignments and tests fit both yours and your students' course goals and whether they are manageable in terms of workload. Ask yourself: "Is the workload reasonable, strategically placed, and sustainable?" The rest of the course outline can then be structured to help students learn what they need to know if they are to do well on the tests and assignments. For more information about course design, refer to the CTE teaching tip, "Course Design Heuristic".

Collaborate with your students to set and achieve goals

Your goals as an instructor are not the only ones in your classroom. Your students' goals are also very powerful. An understanding of those goals is crucial to designing effective assessment methods because if the instructor and students are on different wavelengths, the students might not complete the assignments in the way the instructor planned. 

Student input can come in varying degrees. Try asking the students on the first day you meet with them what they think the purpose of the course is and what they want to learn from it. You may ask them to record their personal learning goals for the course and some strategies by which they can accomplish those goals. Alternatively, ask them to recall the most successful course they’ve had in the past. What assessment methods worked for them there? Can they use or adapt these strategies for your class? Some instructors even wait to finalize their goals and course outline until after meeting with their students once or twice so that the students can help set the course goals. However, the input that you allow the students can also be somewhat minimal, for example, allowing them to decide whether they would like an assignment to be worth 10% or 20%. If you take the liberty of establishing the goals without direct student input, you should still be somewhat flexible because each cohort of students will be different: do not assume that the same goals and methods will work equally well with any group. The degree of collaboration that is acceptable will vary across disciplines and institutions, but the bottom line is that it is very important to know the types of goals your students have in order to create assessment methods that will motivate them to learn.

Make assignment and test instructions clear to students.

How can we assess learning when students define the task in different ways? Once you have assignments and tests that assess what you most want your students to learn, you need to ensure that your instructions for the assignment are clear to your students. Tell the students what you are looking for by means of a rubric or by providing examples. Sometimes it is also useful to ask for stages of the assignment along the way (for example, an essay proposal/outline or a scientific hypothesis) to ensure that students are on the right track. Remember that with sketchy or ambiguous instructions, you risk having students draw on previous learning that may not be relevant or desirable in your situation. Help them to succeed by being as clear as possible and limit both student and instructor frustrations.

These suggestions will help you to create learner-centred assessment methods and are applicable to all disciplines. Remember that the most important thing is to choose assessment methods that will assess the type of learning you are trying to achieve in your course. That means that the methods that other instructors before you have used are not necessarily the only way or the best way to assess. It is all right to step outside your own comfort zone and outside what has traditionally been done if you feel that an alternative assessment method will serve your students' and your interests and goals better. Even if you are a new instructor, remember that you have spent many years as a student and therefore have information and experiences that will guide you in this process. Reflect on those experiences and decide if you want to do what you experienced and use those experiences in your own assessment design or whether you want to change the way you assess. If you do think change is necessary, ask yourself why and how you will change things.

(Adapted in part from Barbara E. Walvoord and Virginia Johnson Anderson, Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment.)


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact.


  • McMillan, James H (ed.), New Directions For Teaching and Learning: Assessing Student's Learning, 34 (Summer, 1988).
  • Miller, Allen H., Bradford W. Imrie and Kevin Cox, Student Assessment in Higher Education: A Handbook for Assessing Performance, London: Kogan Page, 1998, LB 3060.32.C74M54x 1998.
  • Neff, Rose Ann and Maryellen Weimer (eds.), Teaching College: Collected Readings for the New Instructor, Madison, Wisconsin: Magna Publications Inc., 1990, LB 2331.T33 1990.
  • Newble, David and Robert Cannon, A Handbook for Teachers in Universities and Colleges: A Guide to Improving Teaching Methods (Third Edition), London: Kogan Page, 1995, LB 2331.N43 1995.
  • Walvoord, Barbara E., and Virginia Johnson Anderson, Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1998, LB 2368.W35 1998.
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