What is the purpose of assessments? (the ‘Why’)

Why do you assess your students? Is it just to pass or fail them?


Broadly the two main purposes of assessment is:

  • To provide certification of achievements
  • To facilitate learning


A shift in the purpose of Higher Education Institutions, from providing instruction to producing learning (Barr & Tag, 1995)  suggested the adoption of learning-centred teaching practices. This is promoted by the institution as described in the current Teaching & Learning Policy document. In a learning-centred approach to teaching, students are seen to be actively engaging in their own learning. This should also be applied to Assessment. David Boud therefore suggests assessment should be used to engage and direct learning, enable feedback and demonstrate & celebrate outcomes.


Summative Assessment

This is probably what most of us and our students think of as an assessment – the test or exam at the end of the module/semester/year… The purpose is to judge students’ knowledge / performance to make decisions about progression. This is therefore Assessment of Learning. A mark or grade is allocated, which allows students, educators and society (including employers) to judge how well a student performed. These are seen as high stakes assessments for students, meaning it contributes significantly towards their marks. Students therefore want to foreground what they have learned and hide their mistakes. This could potentially lead to learning strategies aimed at passing the test and not at learning. The focus is on the end-product of learning.

Many authors problematize summative assessment and even question their reliability. See Knight (2002) in the References section for an interesting perspective on this.

Summative assessments may be more useful for student learning when combined with formative and sustainable assessments.


Formative Assessment

The purpose here is not judging, but rather on providing feedback to students on how their current knowledge or performance compares with the expected criteria. This will be Assessment for Learning with the focus on allowing students to still make changes to improve. Formative assessments are supposed to be low stakes assessments where students are encouraged to reveal their gaps in knowledge / understanding / performance in order to learn from the process and make adjustments for future learning. The focus here is on the process of learning.

A question you may ask is: should a grade or marks be allocated in combination with feedback? Students may not take assessment tasks seriously if not marks are allocated. In this blog  (from Top Hat) you will find a perspective on how summative and formative assessments can work together.


Classroom Assessment Techniques or CATs can be used for formative assessment. Patricia Cross and Thomas Angelo (1988) are the pioneers in the field and in their book (a copy is available in the library), they describe how CATs can be implemented as a quick way of giving lecturers and students feedback about the level of students’ learning.

Find more information in this document


The results of the formative assessment activities can be used to improve your teaching.


Feedback is an integral part of formative assessment. See feedback section for more on this.



Sustainable Assessment


“Commonly, assessment focuses little on the process of learning and on how students will learn after the point of assessment…. (it) is not sufficiently equipping students to learn in situations in which teachers and examinations are not present to focus their attention. As a result, we are failing to prepare them for the rest of their lives” (Boud & Falchikov, 2007:3)


The focus in sustainable assessment is on preparing students to become life-long-learners, who will be able to judge their own performance after graduation, in a workplace with no formal assessments. This is Assessment as Learning, focusing more on the process than the product of assessment.

The idea of sustainable assessment is extensively researched by David Boud. In his AssesmentFutures website (University of Technology in Sydney), he provides examples of how to engage your students in authentic & integrative assessment tasks, where they learn to judge their own work. It is suggested that students are actively involved in creating assessments and the assessment rubrics.

Some of the key aspects in sustainable assessment is:

  • Student self-assessment
  • Peer-assessment
  • Reflection activities
  • Assessment as part of the learning activities


When designing sustainable assessments, consider these features of the assessment (Boud & Soler 2016:410):

  • what particular features of the assignment and accompanying activity prompt consideration beyond the immediate task?
  • In what ways does engagement in the activity foster self-regulation?
  • How does the activity help learners meet challenges they will they will find in practice settings?
  • How is engagement in the current activity likely to improve the capacity of students to make effective judgments about their work in subsequent ones?
  • Are the educational benefits of the task likely to persist one the particular knowledge deployed in it can no longer be recalled?
  • Does the activity enable students to appreciate, articulate and apply standards and criteria for good work in the area?
  • Does the activity enable students to demonstrate those course-level learning outcomes that relate to preparation for learning post-graduation?