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Assessment for, of and as learning

When designing assessment, we really need to think about what we want students to learn, and what it is we need the assessment to do.

Assessment is fundamental to furthering student learning, and is not just about measuring student learning. When we talk about assessment for learning, we often think of it in terms of the students learning from their assessment. However, we would argue that there is another side to this - assessment for learning should also inform our teaching. 

This diagram illustrates the three approaches to assessment:
  • assessment for learning
  • assessment of learning
  • assessment as learning
Click on the circles to see more about each approach. 

In a perfect course, learning and assessment would be indistinguishable: the learning would be supported by components from the assessment for, of and as learning, and the quality assurance or end accreditation would be dependent on the assessment of learning. 


Assessment for learning

Assessment for learning is often neglected in the design and teaching of courses.

In this approach, teachers use evidence about students' knowledge, understanding and skills to inform and shape their teaching.

It's sometimes referred to as ‘formative assessment', but is formative from the point of view of both the teacher and the student?

You can see more about the principles of assessment for learning in the diagram below.  Click on the information icons to see more detail about each principle. 

*This diagram has been adapted from the 'Assessment for learning: 10 principles' document, produced by the Assessment Reform Group in 2002. 

Principles of assessment 

Principle: Clarity

Assessment needs to support learning and measure the learning of an objective (even formative assessment). It is critical to have a clear purpose, which in turn will inform the assessment rubrics.

Principle: Accurate measurement

Ideally, assessment will measure performance against a fixed set of standards or criteria.

Criterion-referenced assessment measures a student’s performance based on his/her mastery of a specific set of skills, or on the knowledge the student has (and doesn't have) at the time of assessment. The student’s performance is NOT compared to other students’ performance on the same assessment.

Norm-referenced assessment, on the other hand, measures a student’s performance in comparison to the performance of the course or class cohort. Normative scoring is based on a bell curve. You can see an example in the diagram below: only half of the students can score above 50 percent, regardless of the quality of their submission.


Principle: Relevance and transferability

Much modern tertiary assessment is based on a narrow range of tasks, with the emphasis on knowing rather than doing - this limits the range of skills which the students are asked to demonstrate.

Ideally, an assessment task should address the skills you want the students to develop, in the professional context in which they would be applied.

This gives the assessment a sense of 'real' purpose beyond just the abstract measuring of 13 weeks learning.

It also gives the assessment a 'real audience' over and above the marker.  

Principle: Reliability 

If an assessment is reliable, it is explicit in terms of the learning outcomes it is measuring and the criteria by which the student is being judged.

The assessment criteria should be sufficiently detailed to ensure uniformity of marking across multiple students, cohorts and markers.

In fact, if the criteria and marking schemes for a particular assessment are totally reliable, any number of independent markers can be given a single student's submission, and they should allocate exactly the same mark (and feedback).

Principle: Validity

A key question for assessment is ... does it measure what we want it to measure? This is the principle of validity, which requires that there be a genuine relationship between the task and the learning required to complete the task.  

A valid assessment will assess the student's abilities in the exact learning outcome for which it is designed, and nothing else.  For example, if an assessment asks a student to analyse, it should test whether the students can actually analyse material, not whether they can:

    • describe how to analyse 
    • recite a rote description of an analysis
    • compare other analyses
    • and so on

Principle: Transparency

A transparent assessment means that every stakeholder has access to clear, accurate, consistent and timely information on the assessment tasks and procedures, and there are no 'hidden agendas' within the assessment.

Prior to the assessment, students and staff should know the purpose, task and marking criteria for the assessment.

After the assessment, marking processes and feedback should be visible to the relevant student.

This principle is closely aligned to the principle of reliability, and so is also an important aspect of rubric development. 


 Fit for purpose

In this video, Prof Sally Brown discusses the concept of 'fit-for-purpose' assessment, arguing that assessment should:

  • be built in, not bolted on
  • authentically assess the learning outcomes
  • stimulate learning

When developing fit-for-purpose assessment, the five key questions are:

  1. Why are we assessing?
  2. What is it we are actually assessing?
  3. How are we assessing?
  4. Who is best placed to assess?
  5. When should we assess?

You can see a presentation from Sally which delves further into these question.  


Interesting resource

NSW Education Standards Authority. Assessment for, as and of learning.