Meaningful Assessment

Assessments help instructors measure student learning and allow students to discover where they are excelling and how they can improve. Low-stakes assessments give students practice with new skills without fear of failure and provide the building blocks toward higher-stakes assessments, such as projects or exams, while fostering academic integrity. Grading practices that are transparent and offer supportive, focused feedback are linked with improved student learning and promote equity across diverse learners (Elwood, 2006; Feldman, 2018).

How do assessments support the “big takeaways” of my course?

To plan your assessments, you might first think about what words or feeling you want students to associate with your course, then construct assessments that foster those types of experiences. The following video will guide you through this process, and is targeted for designing meaningful assessments in online courses, with ideas that apply to all course formats.

Meaningful assessments make the course content relevant to students because they have the following five characteristics:

There are clear connections between the assessment and the types of thinking, skills, and knowledge that are described in the course learning outcomes. 

  • Indicate which learning outcomes the assessment is measuring.

  • Consider how the assessment reveals student progress toward a goal, and how you will adapt instruction based on students’ performance. 

  • Make sure to avoid busywork and redundancy (e.g. use bi-weekly, rather than weekly, formative assessments).

Building in flexibility and feedback can reduce students’ stress and improve learning.

  • Allow students to revise and practice frequently, so they experience failure as part of learning. For example, give students 2-3 attempts on a quiz and keep their best score, or allow students to revise and resubmit a specific assignment.

  • Add pre-programmed feedback to online assignments and quizzes to highlight concepts and cue students about where to get help. 

  • Consider grading smaller assessments on completion/incompletion.

  • Use GauchoSpace and GradeScope Quiz analytics to identify patterns in assessment responses and where students need more support. Then use Light-touch feedback to send students pre-written help and encouragement.

  • Foster intrinsic motivation to learn by using feedback that is descriptive and curious rather than judgemental. Some examples are: What I see here is… You’ve included… It would help me better understand if you… How did you arrive at this conclusion? Why did you choose to…?

You increased access and equitable outcomes among diverse learners by incorporating the following practices:

  • Communicate your expectations and grading criteria in the assignment instructions, or using a rubric. Share examples of high-quality work.

  • Use grading criteria that focuses on the specific skills being learned and less on peripheral skills such as writing and knowledge of complex vocabulary (e.g. idioms/jargon) not related to class.

  • Give students multiple and varied opportunities to demonstrate their learning, rather than relying predominantly on more traditional high-stakes exams.

Consider using grading contracts (6 min video) to specify the work required for different grades.

This fosters intrinsic motivation by providing opportunities for students to take responsibility for, and use their agency in, their learning. 

  • Help students make connections between course content and their existing knowledge and skills.

  • Build in questions that help students reflect on what they’ve learned, their study habits, what they can do to get help or how they can use course skills in future careers.

  • Create activities where students can contribute content and questions that interest them. For example, ask students to submit articles, news, media, images, memes or other items related to the content. Use those during class.

You, the instructor, are a creative expert who knows what real learning and work look like in your discipline. 

  • Brainstorm types of assessments that allow students to show what they know about thinking/working in your discipline in an information-rich, socially-connected, digital context (e.g. making infographics or digital presentations)

  • How might students collaborate to learn and work in your course (e.g. using structured peer review or group work)?

  • How do people with careers in your industry share their ideas, beyond academic papers? (e.g. videos, blogs, websites, op-eds, social media)

Quick check: Are my assessments meaningful?

  • Are the connections between the assessment and the course learning goals clear to students? 

  • How does your assessment provide students with feedback and practice without fear of failure? 

  • Are my expectations clear to students? Have I given the tools that they need to succeed?

  • To what extent does the assessment allow students to apply ideas and skills from the course to their interests and experiences?

  • How well does the assessment help students demonstrate ways of thinking and communicating in the discipline?



Elwood, J. (2006). Formative assessment: Possibilities, boundaries and limitations. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 13(2), 215-232.

Feldman, J. (2018). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin Press.


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