Design assessments to promote learning

Expanded guide: Design assessments to promote learning

Assessments that encourage students to actively engage with course content are a powerful tool in promoting learning. These recommendations discuss ways to create assessments that amplify the learning process.

Design assessments to promote learning using these strategies:

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To discuss your unique teaching and technology needs, schedule a consultation with an ATS instructional designer at instructionaldesign@ucdavis.edu. For questions about pedagogical and teaching strategies, contact the Center for Educational Effectiveness: cee@ucdavis.edu.

For information on final exams and alternative assessments that can be used in place of final exams, visit the Keep Teaching Testing page:

Keep Teaching Testing page


Create assessments that are also learning opportunities

Assessments can provide students with valuable opportunities for learning.

  • Consider using multiple, low-stakes assessments. Giving students multiple assignments or assessments that “chunk” information into smaller pieces can scaffold learning for students, allowing them to demonstrate their learning earlier before they move on to the next topic. Low-stakes assessments also allow students to receive frequent feedback in the form of grades or comments earlier in the quarter, giving them opportunities to improve or modify their learning strategies.  A variety of low-stakes assessments, such as quizzes worth only a few points, short analysis papers or posts, and reflections provide alternative, learning-centered methods for assessing students that go beyond traditional high-stakes exams.  The Global Digital Citizen Foundation provides a wide variety of low-stakes assessments categorized by cognitive dimension. ♦
    • Technology that supports this:  Canvas Assignments, Canvas Discussions, Canvas Quizzes, Google Docs, iClicker, PlayPosit
  • Give students the opportunity to learn from their errors on exams and quizzes. Students can learn from a question they missed by correcting their error or by explaining why their response was incorrect and another response was correct instead. Points can be awarded as a separate homework score or by adding a pre-determined number of points to the exam score.  This can also be done as an in-class activity in a Zoom Breakout Room, where students discuss or work through blank exam questions together after they’ve received their grades.
  • Use a progressive-build structure for your assessments. Many final assessments, like papers or projects, are developed over a period of time. Break up the phases of the assignment into smaller assignments so that students have a chance to turn in portions of the final assignment for feedback before submitting the final assessment. An example would be a lab report or research paper: have students submit the research question and a literature review early in the quarter for instructor or peer feedback. Methods, results and discussions can be progressively taught by the instructor and worked on and submitted by students throughout the quarter. This will result in improved student learning and a higher quality final assessment at the end of the quarter.
    • Technology that supports this:  Canvas Assignments, Canvas Modules, SpeedGrader

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Create transparent assignments

Clear and specific assignments help students focus on learning.

  • Write clear assignment instructions/prompts. Providing students with transparent instructions for assignments has been demonstrated to improve learning outcomes for students. Post on your Canvas site a written prompt for students that outlines the steps students will take to complete the assignment. The prompt can also explain the learning objectives or purpose of the assignment and the criteria by which students’ work will be evaluated. These elements of purpose, task and criteria for evaluation help students understand the expectations for the assignment, which improves student learning and performance. The Transparency in Teaching and Learning project at Brandeis University provides a template for transparent assignments for instructor use.
    • Technology that supports this: Canvas Assignments
  • Give students the rubrics you will use for grading their assignments. While rubrics are useful for efficient grading, they also help students understand the criteria by which their work will be evaluated. Giving students access to the rubric as they begin the assignment will communicate to students the relative importance of various elements of the assignment and will help guide their interaction with content and learning materials. Going over the rubric explicitly during a live course session gives students dedicated time to ask you any questions they may have. Students can also be asked to evaluate their early drafts of an assignment based on the rubric. This helps students to assess their own work and identify areas for improvement.
    • Technology that supports this: Canvas Modules, Canvas Rubrics, Zoom
  • Closely align what you teach with learning activities and with specific assessments. Students are more motivated and learn more effectively when they have the tools to succeed on an assignment or assessment. Explicitly teaching students the content and skills they will need in order to fulfill an assignment allows students to fully engage with content, gives them confidence, and prepares them adequately to demonstrate their knowledge on the assessment. The content you teach, learning activities and assessments should all be aligned with your course learning outcomes to ensure that goals for student learning are met.
    • Technology that supports this: Canvas Assignments, Zoom

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Consider learning-focused grading processes

Learning-centered grading processes can encourage learning, increase student motivation and save time.

  • Take advantage of educational technology tools like Canvas Rubrics, SpeedGrader, and Gradescope. These tools facilitate the grading and feedback process so that you can provide feedback that your students can use to improve their learning. Gradescope allows instructors to electronically collect paper assignments or exams from students and grade them online. Canvas SpeedGrader allows you to comment on and annotate student work, as well as record audio feedback, all within the Canvas interface. Canvas Rubrics can be added to Assignments to inform students how their work will be evaluated. Rubrics also speed up the grading and feedback process.
  • Grade only selected assignments. When shifting to multiple, low-stakes assignments, consider giving students choices as to which of several assignment(s) you will grade. You can require students to do a certain number of assignments in order to be able to designate the ones that will be graded. Another option is to let students know that throughout the quarter, you will select 2, 3 or more assignments at random for grading. Investing time at the beginning of the quarter in explaining to students that the learning that comes from doing the work is important even if a few selected assignments are not graded. This  will help students understand why they can and should put their full effort into an assignment regardless of whether it ultimately receives a grade.
  • Use binary grading (pass/no pass) for low-stakes assessments emphasizing learning. For some assignments where the learning process does not require checking for accuracy (e.g., reflections), you can grade assignments as “done” or “not done.” If you prefer to offer a three-point grading structure, you can grade assignments as “done” (2 points); “minimally done,” (1 point); and “not done/not submitted” (0 points). This gives students an opportunity to practice skills -- an important part of learning -- while motivating them to complete the assignment.
    • Technology that supports this: Canvas Assignments, SpeedGrader
  • Build peer review into assignments as appropriate. When possible, let students learn from one another through peer review. Determine whether your assignment lends itself to a peer review process. If so, give students instructions for the peer review that will help to stimulate discussion around the assignment so that students learn from the process and get actionable feedback.  Align the peer review with the rubric to reinforce what you want students to learn from the assignment.
    • Technology that supports this: Canvas Assignment with Peer Review, Google Docs, Zoom Breakout Rooms 
  • Give feedback on early drafts that students then revise. If your assignment involves stages that can be submitted as drafts, have students submit early drafts of their work for peer review or instructor/TA feedback through written comments or a rubric. When students receive early feedback, their final work is of higher quality and often easier to grade. Early feedback also helps students learn and is more actionable than feedback offered on a final assessment.
    • Technology that supports this: Canvas Assignments, Google Docs, SpeedGrader

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For information on final exams and alternative assessments that can be used in place of final exams, visit the Keep Teaching Testing page:

Keep Teaching Testing page

For information about the learning outcomes assessment cycle, visit the CEE Student Learning Outcomes Assessment page:

CEE Student Learning Outcomes Assessment page