Assessment Considerations: A Simple Heuristic


Discussions on assessment in education often describe summative assessments as a product-oriented assessment of learning, formative assessments as a process-oriented assessment for learning, and ipsative assessments as a self-reflective assessment as learning (Manitoba Education, 2006; Scott, 2012). Each of these types of assessment can serve different educational purposes, so which assessment would work best for you and the students with whom you work? This article presents a simple heuristic for creating or selecting an assessment.

Six Ws of Assessment


When creating or selecting an assessment, start by asking why you are considering using an assessment. Your intended purpose for an assessment should serve as a guide for the remaining considerations, as it can help determine if the assessment is intended to inform how you teach or facilitate; provide feedback to students through automated, peer, teacher, or self-reflective means; or simply to assign a grade. For example, if you are looking for an assessment that can produce a final grade for a class, a summative assessment in the form of a project or test might serve such purposes. However, if you are looking for an assessment that can inform how you guide or facilitate each student during a project or process, formative and ipsative approaches might better serve your needs.


After outlining a clear purpose or "why," consider what will be assessed. When an assessment involves the creation of a product or expression, it should focus on the core concepts, practices, and understandings evident within the creation, rather than the creation itself. In other words, assessment criteria should focus on the core concepts, practices, and understandings associated with district standards or community interests and needs, rather than subjective or arbitrary criteria. For example, an assessment of the Common Core ELA standard CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.4.3 ("Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, descriptive details, and clear event sequences") should assess the development of real or imagined places through descriptive details and sequences of events, rather than arbitrary criteria such as the number of characters in a narrative. Although not everything can or should be assessed, narrowing the focus to the core concepts, practices, and understandings can provide clarity of purpose while simultaneously opening up multiple pathways for demonstrations of understanding.


Knowing what is being assessed and the purpose behind the assessment can help determine when to implement an assessment. For example, when engaging in a multi-day project, we might assess understandings prior to the start of the project, shortly after beginning the project, toward the middle or end of the  project, or well after the conclusion of the project. In addition to considering when the assessment will occur, also consider when the assessment will provide feedback. For example, an assessment that occurs in the middle of a project might not be useful if the feedback is made available after the conclusion of the project. However, such delayed timing between an assessment and feedback might be useful when the feedback is used as data that informs a self-reflection on how a student's understandings changed over time.


Depending on when you plan on implementing an assessment, you might consider where the assessment will take place. If an assessment occurs outside of class, this can allow for more in-class time to focus on explorations and creative applications of understandings. However, when using out-of-class assessments, consider whether an assessment requires access to physical or digital resources that are difficult to acquire outside of class (e.g., chemistry equipment, pianos, platform-specific software, etc.) and whether students should be encouraged to consult peers or external resources when completing an assessment.


Although many discussions on assessments position an assessment as an act done by a teacher to a student, a multiperspectival approach to assessments might diversify feedback. For example, while teachers can and should assess students, automated software can provide in-the-moment feedback on individual progress or understandings, and students can assess themselves, their peers, or their teachers. Encouraging both external and internal feedback distributes the assessment processes across people and software, which can make it much easier to assess a large number of people.


When determining which approach to use for an assessment, consider each of the following types of assessment in relation to each of the aforementioned Ws of assessment:

Summative - Assessment of learning

Summative assessment is “an assessment at the end of a unit, scheme, term, or whatever, which is designed to summarise student attainment into a mark, grade, or level" (Savage & Fautley, 2016, p. 212). Summative assessment is sometimes referred to as assessment of learning because it is assessment of intended learning outcomes demonstrated through performance (Partti, Westerlund, & Lebler, 2015). Examples of summative assessments include exams, projects, playing tests, portfolios, etc.

Formative - Assessment for learning

Formative assessment is “an assessment which happens as work is being undertaken and is purposed with improving the work done by the student, often undertaken in dialogic form” (Savage & Fautley, 2016, p. 212). Formative assessment is sometimes referred to as assessment for learning because it provides feedback which informs future learning (Partti, Westerlund, & Lebler, 2015). Examples of formative assessments include one-on-one facilitating and questioning, daily journals, entrance or exit tickets, think-pair-share, storyboarding, etc. 

Ipsative - Assessment as learning

Ipsative assessment is “an assessment the student makes against their own prior performance, so that they are measuring their personal progression against their own previous work" (Savage & Fautley, 2016, p. 212). Ipsative assessment is sometimes referred to as assessment as learning because it is an assessment where students are active participants in an assessment intended to produce learning (Partti, Westerlund, & Lebler, 2015). An example of an ipsative assessment that can occur as a daily self-reflection or after the completion of a project is a reflection on what students learned while working on a project in comparison with their prior understandings (e.g., when working on previous projects), as well as setting a goal for continued learning. An ipsative assessment differs from student-completed summative assessments in that the focus of an ipsative assessment is on reflecting on changes in understanding over time and setting goals for future learning rather than evaluating a completed product or expression.

Combining Assessment Types

Each of the three assessment types mentioned above can serve different purposes that may address your "why" of an assessment. However, these assessment types are not mutually exclusive, as each assessment type can work together to provide recurring feedback for different purposes. For example, in the K-8 project-based classes I previously facilitated, I heavily emphasized formative assessments to focus on in-the-moment feedback for projects that took weeks or years to complete; however, we also engaged in summative and ipsative assessments at the completion of projects, for setting weekly goals, for providing peer-to-peer feedback at the end of each class, and for providing feedback on how I might better assist the kids with whom I worked. Throughout each of these assessment types, I followed up with questions to further assess understandings, as a correct answer, apparent skill, or completed product does not necessarily demonstrate understandings and abilities that are consistently replicable or transferable.


Manitoba Education. (2006). Rethinking classroom assessment with purpose in mind. Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth.

Partti, H., Westerlund, H., & Lebler, D. (2015). Participatory assessment and the construction of professional identity in folk and popular music programs in Finnish and Australian music universities. International Journal of Music Education, 33(4), 476–490.

Savage, J., & Fautley, M. (2016). Assessment processes and digital technologies. In A. King & E. Himonides (Eds.), Music, Technology, and Education: Critical Perspectives (pp. 210–224). Abingdon: Routledge.

Scott, S. J. (2012). Rethinking the roles of assessment in music education. Music Educators Journal, 98(3), 31–35.