Assessing Student Learning

This is the second of three “backward design” tutorials in the following sequence:


Image of book cover of Understanding by DesignMany of us plan our courses at the activity level because activities are engaging, and we like having them in place when we face our students on Monday morning. In Understanding By Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (available at Cline Library), the authors ask us to hold off on thinking as activity designers and to first think like assessors. Why? Because assessment is how you find out whether students have learned what you intended.

What You Will Learn

By the end of this tutorial you will be able to do the following:

  • For each of your learning objectives, list at least one type of assessment that demonstrates acceptable evidence of student mastery/understanding for that objective.
  • Create a sample assessment that aligns with your intended course outcomes.

The assessment work you do in this tutorial will serve as the foundation for the activity work in the next tutorial, Creating a Learning Activity.


Ideally, your learning expectations lead you to create assessments that in turn lead to the learning activities in your course. This cycle is shown in the following diagram of an aligned curriculum model from Using Biggs' Model of Constructive Alignment in Curriculum Design, part of the University College of Dublin’s Open Educational Resources.

Drawing showing that The Intended Learning Outcomes of the Curriculum lead to the Assessment Regime which leads to the Teaching and Learning Activities, which in turn leads back to the Intended Learning Outcomes

First decide what you want your students to end up knowing. We covered this in tutorial 1, Creating Learning Expectations. From there, you can engage in “backward design” by choosing an assessment that will demonstrate what students have learned, and then you choose activities that will help students learn the concepts sufficiently to demonstrate them acceptably.

In Thinking Like an Assessor, Chapter 7 of Understanding by Design, the authors ask following questions (from p. 150):

What kinds of evidence do we need to find hallmarks of our goals, including that of understanding?

What specific characteristics in student responses, products, or performances should we examine to determine the extent to which the desired results were achieved?

Does the proposed evidence enable us to infer a student’s knowledge, skill, or understanding?

Image of book cover of Classroom Assessment TechniquesThomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross share 50 classroom assessment techniques (CAT) for various kinds of expectations in Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for Teachers (Jossey-Bass, 1993). An online version of these can be found at, and the book is available at Cline Library.

Activity: Identify Types of Assessments that Match Your Learning Expectations

Let’s examine for a moment how we came to including the following activity in this lesson. We first identified a learning expectation for this lesson, and then we identified an assessment that would demonstrate whether the expectation had been met.

Stage 1  ➠
Stage 2 ➠
Stage 3

My hope is that by the end of this tutorial students will be able to …

How will I know if this goal has been reached?

What will students have to do to accomplish this?

By the end of this tutorial you will be able to identify at least one assessment activity and at least one learning activity to be used in this tutorial and tutorial 3, Creating a Learning Activity.

You will complete your own version of this table.

You will read pages 123–135 in Understanding by Design, and then you will fill out a version of this table, using one of your own learning expectations that you identified in tutorial 1, Creating Learning Expectations.

So, what are some examples of learning expectations, and what aligned assessment activities do these suggest? For now, concentrate on the Assessment Activity column. We’ll focus on the Learning Activity column in the next tutorial.


My hope is that by the end of this course students will be able to …

How will I know if this goal has been reached?


Students will be able to identify the main signs and symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Students will pass a multiple-choice test.


Students will be able to write an acceptable research proposal in the discipline.

Students will submit a 1,000-word research proposal that describes their topic and research methodology and includes a preliminary literature review of at least 5 relevant peer-reviewed articles.


Students will be able to demonstrate effective oral and visual presentation skills.

Students will develop and deliver a 15-minute in-class presentation that includes audio or visual supporting materials.


Book cover of Teaching for Quality Learning at UniversityThese examples are drawn in part from Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does by John B. Biggs and Catherine So-Kum Tang.

Now, using the learning expectations that you wrote in tutorial 1, suggest some assessments that align with your learning expectations for your course. Think carefully about whether the assessment you want to use accurately demonstrates students’ learning. For example, in a speech class, having students give a speech is probably a better assessment than having them take a quiz about giving speeches.

Type your answers in the fields provided below.

Note: If you want to keep a copy of your answers, click the Show Answers button near the bottom of this page, and then print the resulting page.


My hope is that by the end of this course students will be able to …

Describe the type of quiz, proposal, presentation, paper, project, etc., that will indicate to you and the students whether the learning expectation has been met.


Now self-assess your understanding. In language that one of your departmental colleagues would understand, answer the following questions.

Next Tutorial: Creating a Learning Activity

Now that you have identified your learning expectations and assessments, you need to create learning activities that will help students to meet your learning expectations and be able to demonstrate their level of mastery on your assessments. Go to the next tutorial, Creating a Learning Activity.

Further Reading and Activities

Blackboard Learn logoThe assessment activities in the examples above correspond to three tools in Blackboard Learn: assignments, tests, and collaboration. For more information on these tools see

Icon for podcast series Tuesday Tips on Teaching with TechnologyRubrics can enhance assessment activities. In the podcast series Tuesday Tips on Teaching with Technology, John Doherty and Wally Nolan of NAU’s e-Learning Center discuss rubrics and assessment with Sue Pieper, the e-Learning Center’s coordinator of assessment. Check out Episode 12, Assessment and Large Course Redesign Discussion.

Now that you have some ideas for your assessment activities, see the e-Learning Center’s tutorials and training schedule for more information on how to implement the assessments in Blackboard Learn.


For more information on this topic, contact the e-Learning Center at We are also on Twitter ( and Facebook (, and we blog at