Assessing Learning Outcomes

It is important that all the learning outcomes for a course be assessed by an appropriate method.

In this section on assessment, we will look at the following:

Assessment vs. Evaluation

What is assessment?  What is the difference between assessment and evaluation? As a starting point, consider the following brief comparison list of assessment and evaluation.  Note that these are some possible usages of the words “assessment” and “evaluation”, but are not necessarily definitions.

Assessment… Evaluation…
… is of the process of learning … is of the product of learning
… is of the student (comments, effort grades) … is of the performance (letter grades, scores, percentages)
… includes formative (in-progress) appraisal … is synonymous with summative (end-result) assessment
… process of gathering information and evidence to support evaluation … the judgment of learning quality
… measuring progress or improvement …measuring against a standard

To make a quick comparison, assessment is a way to improve student learning and determine progress, where evaluation is a form of measurement of this progress.

Formative Assessment

“Encompassing all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or by their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged” (Black & Wiliams,1998)

Benefits of Giving Formative Feedback

Sadler (1989) identified three conditions necessary for students to benefit from feedback in academic tasks. He argued that the student must know:

  • what good performance is (i.e. the student must possess a concept of the goal or standard being aimed for);
  • how current performance relates to good performance (for this, the student must be able to compare current and good performance)
  • how to act to close the gap

Seven principles of good feedback practice (Nicol and Dick, 2006, p. 205 ) that support student self-assessment. Feedback practice:

  1. helps clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards);
  2. facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning;
  3. delivers high quality information to students about their learning;
  4. encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning;
  5. encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem;
  6. provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance;
  7. provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape teaching.


Authentic Assessment

Every learner has partaken in the standard test-taking experience; the individualized (often timed) measurement of memorization or recall of specific facts and rote learning.  Authentic assessment strategies are designed to determine students’ abilities by demonstrating skills and concepts using “real world” tasks and activities.

Authentic assessment methods are designed to focus on students’ analytical skills: their ability to integrate what they learn, demonstrate creativity, work collaboratively, and use written and oral expression skills. A cornerstone of authentic assessment philosophy is valuing the learning process as much as the finished product. Fundamentally, authentic assessment seeks to use and build upon a students’ higher order thinking skills.

Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy was first designed in the 1950’s. His intent was to categorize a sequence of learning skills that begin with Lower Order Thinking Skills (LOTS) and move up to Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS). The three domains or levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy have long been a staple of educators as they thought about and devised assessment strategies. The taxonomy provides educators with guideposts for designing authentic assessment activities that actively demonstrate and prompt thinking skills in learning.  (A description can be found at Donald Clark’s Learning Domains or Bloom’s Taxonomy).

Over the past few years, the Bloom’s taxonomy has undergone revision by researchers seeking to incorporate digital learning and technologies into the framework Benjamin Bloom originally proposed. The “revision” sought to use verbs rather than nouns as descriptors and re-arranged the sequence of thinking skills. Andrew Churches (2007) offers a well designed comparative of the two versions of Bloom’s taxonomy.


A rubric is one tool that can be used to authentically assess learners. A rubric usually contains the list of criteria that the learner that highlights the what the learner is expected to do or demonstrate. Along with the criteria, a rubric provides examples of what is expected at each level of performance, from poor to excellent. Providing this criteria up front to learners allows them to assess their progress and compare to a performance level.

Below is an example of a rubric for assessing Blog Postings and Discussions in an online course.


Here is another sample for assessing case study questions:

Formative Assessment Ideas

Feedback Practices

Here are some tips based on pedagogical best practices:

  • Written feedback should focus on 2 or 3 key areas rather than being too general.
  • Ask students to share drafts of assessments with peers or the OLFM for feedback before submitting final version for grading.
  • Practice formative assessment techniques (rubrics, self evaluations, discussions, etc.) throughout the course, rather than just at the end of course.
  • Ask students to do a self assessment at the beginning of the course and then develop a learning plan which they can use as a tool for self evaluation later in the course.
  • Provide a rubric at the beginning of the course to set the expectations and implement a student portfolio to give present and future formative feedback.
  • Form a study group where students share possible questions with each other and try to answer them before final exam.
  • Include more practice tests and exams so students can self-assess.

Choosing and Creating Assessments

Choosing and creating assessments in an online learning context comes full circle from the instructional design, content, learning outcomes, and resources, as well as the teaching and learning practices designed for the unit of study created. There are a number of variables to consider in creating assessments in a distributed learning or online environment.

  • the assessment goals set/designed by the instructor
  • the assessment goals/standards created by a wider system of management

From the perspective of the  instructor there may be a struggle to decide upon instructional strategies, resources and learning outcomes for a unit of study.  It can be even more difficult to then design and apply the right assessment strategies. If learners are engaging in a complex task that involves collaboration, the use of technological tools, problem-solving and application, then the assessment tool should also involve the same types of tasks. Assessment strategies need to be contextual, and a variety of factors such as target audience, types of skills being assessed and whether or not it is formative or summative assessment will influence an instructor’s choice of strategies.

Some alternative assessment strategies lend themselves well to distributed learning.  Consider these different types of assessment:

  • Essays
  • Quizzes
  • Presentations (video, PowerPoint)
  • Interviews
  • Surveys
  • Visual Data (infographics, graphic organizer)
  • Discussions (or reflection of discussions for web)
  • Journals / Reflective papers
  • Blogs
  • E-Portfolio
  • Wiki
  • Social Media

Many of the more creative assignments can be combined with a reflective paper to meet all learning outcomes.

Structured rubrics can help learners to understand the assessment criteria and to assemble evidence to show that they have achieved the outcomes.


Aikenhead, G. S. (2005). Science-based occupations and the science curriculum: concepts of evidence.  Science Education 89, 242– 275.

Black, P. and D. Wiliam (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education5(1): 7-68.

Karagiorgi, Y., & Symeou, L. (2005). Translating constructivism into instructional design: Potential and limitations. Educational Technology & Society, 8(1), 17-27. Retrieved June 15, 2006, from

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education31(2), 199-218.

Sadler, D. R. (1989). “Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems.” Instructional Science, 18: 119-144.