Centre for Teaching and Learning

Centre for Teaching and Learning
Centre for Teaching and Learning


Assessment in higher education shapes the experience of students and influences their behaviour even more than the teaching they receive. (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004)

What is Assessment?

Assessment is a central element in the overall quality of teaching and learning in higher education. Assessment of students' learning can take many forms including essays, portfolios, tests, performances, presentations, design proposals, and more.

The quality of assessment procedures can be enhanced at each stage of learning by:

  • Establishing expectations for what students will learn and how they will demonstrate their learning
  • Selecting a type of assessment that matches the learning objectives
  • Ensuring that the assessment type and expectations provides students with ample opportunity to demonstrate their learning
  • Providing specific, timely, and individual feedback to students (Seven Principles of Good Feedback Practice)

Types of Assessment

Formative Assessment: occurs frequently and in an ongoing manner during instruction, while students are still gaining knowledge and practicing skills. Formative assessments should be used by students and instructors to identify misconceptions, learning gaps, areas of challenge, etc. so that they can be addressed as soon as possible. Examples of formative assessments that can be integrated into lectures:
  • Polling students with a question(s) relating to a key concept. This encourages students to check-in on whether they understand the concept and can apply their knowledge while also providing data to the instructor as to whether the class has grasped the concept and is ready to move on.
  • Asking questions and observing students during discussions. Do students look confused? What questions are the students asking? Observations can serve as a passive way for instructors to gain a sense of students' progress in learning and to re-orient instruction as needed.
  • Homework assignments that are not graded toward their final grade.
  • Diagnostic Assessment: a type of formative assessment that occurs before instruction begins so teachers can determine students’ readiness to learn new knowledge and skills, as well as obtain information about their interests and learning preferences. A common example of a diagnostic assessment is an entrance card or poll.

Summative Assessment: occurs at or near the end of a period of learning, and may be used to inform further instruction. Typically associated with a mark that goes toward a student's final grade. Common summative assessments include midterm exams, final projects, and papers.

Additional Resources

Growing Success, Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010

Formative and Summative Assessments, Yale Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning

Formative Assessment, MIT Guidelines for Teaching


Rubrics are scoring guides, usually in chart form, that outline explicit sets of criteria at progressive levels of learning performance. They provide effective means of communicating expectations to students. When rubrics are well constructed, they have the additional benefit of helping students identify where and how they can improve.

Most often, elements of an assignment or project are listed vertically down the left side of the chart and levels of achievement run across the top.

Creating Rubrics

If you’re preparing to create a rubric from scratch, there are a couple of ways you might approach the task.

1) If you have ready access to a set of reports, projects,or assignments that you’ve already graded:

  • Select and set aside all the projects that earned a passing grade.
  • Create three categories for those projects: low but passing grades; middle range scores; and high grades.
  • For each set of projects or assignments, record the characteristics of each project that enabled you to make the judgments you did.
  • As much as possible, use positive language to describe what achievement looks like at each level.
  • Describe each level in terms of the learning in evidence, not in terms of what was missing that prevented the work from being awarded a higher grade.

2) If you don’t have ready access to already graded reports, projects, or assignments:

  • Begin by recording your bottom line by listing the basic minimum characteristics of an assignment that you would be willing to award a passing grade to.
  • Describe the additional characteristics that would allow you to award a middle range grade.
  • Describe what an ideal report, project or assignment would look like.

3) Create rubrics collaboratively with students by:

  • First sharing samples of completed work with students. Together, decide which of the samples are of superior quality and what characteristics set them apart from the others. Continue through the samples, differentiating the characteristics of each that set them into qualitatively different categories.
  • Describing the assignment or project you are asking them to undertake. Include the purpose of the task and the learning you are intending to target. Ask students to describe the characteristics that should earn a passing grade. Work from there to describe the characteristics at increasingly levels of complexity.
  • Deciding what your bottom line is for successful completion of the assignment/project you have planned. Use those characteristics as the descriptors for the Ideas cells of a rubric and invite students to collaborate to finish the rubric.

There are times when rubrics are inappropriate. When inclusion of content, steps, or facts is the focus of an assignment, a checklist may be more effective.

*Based on: Fostaty Young, S., & Wilson, R.J. (2000), Assessment and learning: The ICE approach. Winnipeg, MB. Portage & Main Press.


Additional examples are available online by searching your particular assignment, discipline and the word "rubric".

BASICS Rubric Builder

For a Research Paper:

  Ideas Connections Extensions
  • Introduces the issue(s) and why it is significant
  • Identifies the stakeholders
  • Terminology is used accurately; any definitions provided are accurate
  • Gathers, and accurately represents at least 5 primary sources of information
  • Describes the complexity/impact of the issue in terms of its medical, societal and personal risk elements
  • Interprets discrepancies, similarities and contradictions among the resources
  • Connects topics within the paper
  • As new ideas and resources are introduced they are critiqued, indicating how the material is shaping their learning & understanding
  • Course material is integrated into the paper to strengthen/augment the argument(s)
  • Examines the assumptions underlying the issues that currently influence practice and may be preventing alternative thinking
  • Outlines the implications of the data
  • Evaluates the resources’ contributions to the discussion/resolution of the issue(s)
  • Extrapolates from the primary sources to real-life applications
  • Explanations are included as to the usefulness of the resources in understanding, and possibly solving the issue(s) presented 
  • Suggests at least one feasible approach toward resolving the issue
  • Takes a personal stand on the issue that is based on findings and experience
  • Supports the stance with a logical argument, supported by references
  • Considers what ‘trade-offs’ (if any) may result from the adopted stance
  • Provides a complete reference list
  • In-text sources are identified
  • Reference list is in APA style
  • Any minor spelling or grammar errors do not distract the reader’s attention from the argument
  • A variety of sentence structures adds to the readability of the paper
  • Titles and sub-titles guide the reader’s attention

Note some of the characteristics of the rubric.

  • Only positive language is used to describe the demonstrations of learning at Ideas, Connections and Extensions.
  • The descriptors are of what is in evidence rather than what was lacking.
  • The focus is on the processes of learning not on content to be included
  • Not all cells are filled. There are times when (a) defining Extensions may inadvertently restrict students’ potential for creativity or (b) no Extensions can be identified or are expected
  • Because the rubric reflects the intentions for learning that have been selected by this particular teacher it is unlikely that you agree entirely with what has been included.  That’s great and means that you now have a little more clarity about what it is that you do expect in the research papers you assign.

Video: Purposeful Assessment to Support Intended Learning

Purposeful Assessment to Support Intended Learning Workshop

held in March 2011 with Sue Fostaty Young

Typically students interpret teachers’ assessment choices as indices of what kinds of learning are valued and therefore rewarded (Brookfield, 1995), so assessment has significant impact over what and how our students choose to learn (Boud, 1990). One implication of these findings is that through purposeful assessment, we have an opportunity to intentionally influence students’ approaches to learning.  This session will introduce and demonstrate a framework for teaching, learning and assessment (the ICE model) that has enabled me, and others, to become increasingly intentional in our teaching and purposeful in our assessment choices while at the same time supporting  our students’ ability to plan and assess their own learning.

*This session is intended as an introduction for those not already familiar with ICE.





  • Activity: Student Journal Writing PDF | Word
  • Words Associated with Different Qualities of Learning PDF | Word
  • Rubric for the Research Portfolio PDF | Word
  • An ICEd Rubric for Math PDF | Word
  • A Quantitative Rubric for Math PDF | Word
  • A Cool Palette Rubric PDF | Word
  • Rubric for Discussion PDF | Word
  • Case Studies: Nursing PDF | Word
  • Tables of Specifications PDF | Word

Cognitive/transformative learning : 

Merriam, S.B. (2004). The role of cognitive development on Mezirow's transformational learning theory. Adult Education Quarterly, 55(1), 60-68.
DOI: 10.1177/0741713604268891

Novice to Expert :

Daley, B.J. (1999). Novice to expert: An exploration of how professionals learn. Adult Education  Quarterly, 49(4).