Carnegie Mellon University

Eberly Center

Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation


When writing a course syllabus, you will need to make some high-level decisions about your course assessments (e.g., how many assessments will I have? Will they be open-ended or multiple-choice questions? How much will they contribute to my students’ final grade?), and the questions listed on this page are designed to help guide this thought process. Once you have an idea for the kinds of assessments that your course will include, be sure to include this information on your course syllabus. For information about constructing assessments, please see our assignments and/or exams pages or schedule an individual consultation.

Two main types:

  • Formative assessments are assessments for learning (e.g., quizzes, rough drafts, proposals). Students and instructors can use the feedback from these assessments to inform their future learning and teaching. These assessments are often low-stakes.
  • Summative assessments are assessments of learning (e.g., final exam, final project, final paper). These assessments serve as major milestones in a class and measure what students have learned up to that point.

Research consistently shows that frequent, low-stakes assessments are the most effective for knowledge retention because they ask students to frequently retrieve information (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). These types of assessments as compared to fewer higher stakes tests when students often cram, are a more accurate measurement of student learning.

When constructing your assessments, consider the following questions:

  1. What are my learning objectives and how are my assessments measuring whether students are achieving them (i.e., are my assessments aligned with my learning objectives)? Note: for additional idea about how to create assessments that are aligned with your learning objectives, please see the alignment area of this site.
  2. Are my assessments formative or summative? If your assessments are too skewed in one direction, how can you create a better balance?
  3. How and when are students receiving feedback on their assessment performance? Are they able to use this feedback to inform future learning?
  4. Are there ways in which I can leverage student assessments to inform my teaching?   

There are an endless number of ways to assess student learning, so before settling on traditional formats (e.g., multiple-choice tests, papers, etc.), seriously consider how to best measure whether or not students have achieved the stated learning objectives. Some of the more practical considerations regarding assessments include:

  • Will the assessment be individual or group?
  • How will the students submit the assessment (e.g., in-class, online, etc.)?
  • Have I provided students with sufficient instructions regarding what I expect them to do on this assessment? Note: ensure that these expectations are aligned with your learning objectives and that you communicate this alignment to your students.
  • Have I given students sufficient time to complete the assessment, whether inside or outside of the classroom?
  • How will I evaluate the assessments? Have I chosen an assessment format that will allow me (or my TAs) to provide students feedback in a timely manner? If not, how can I revise my assessment structure?

As you design your assessments, consider how you will grade them. One way to help ensure consistency and to maximize grading efficiency is to use a rubric. If you decide to use a rubric, you might consider including a copy of the rubric in your syllabus. For additional information regarding rubrics, please see the assess learning page.

CONTACT US to meet with an Eberly colleague for more specific help regarding the construction of your assessments (e.g., writing multiple choice questions)