Assessment Types

Assessment Types:

Diagnostic, Formative, and Summative


What It Is

  1. Diagnostic assessments (e.g. pre-class survey)are used to determine learners’ interests and prior knowledge about a topic. They can be deployed at the start of the semester or new unit of content, or during a unit, to inform classroom methods and teaching approaches. 
  2. Formative assessments (e.g., anonymous polls, think-pair-share, class discussion) are used to check learner understanding throughout the learning process and inform learners of their own progress. Formative assessments are generally lower stakes and provide opportunities to learn through the assessment activity. 
  3. Summative assessments (e.g., final exam, term paper, project presentation) are used to determine the extent to which students have met course learning objectives; they are typically used at the end of a unit or semester and are higher stakes.

Why It Matters

According to Stassen et al (2001, p.5), assessment is the “systematic collection and analysis of information to improve student learning.” Suski (2018)  cautioned that grading and assessment are not the same. Grading takes a snap picture of students’ learning and performance but cannot fully reflect what a student really has learned. Learning assessment, on the other hand, is an ongoing effort, intending to improve learning and thus a crucial component of the teaching and learning cycle. Instructors can use assessment data to inform their teaching, facilitate learner reflection on their own learning, and identify areas for improvement. 


Apply It


  1. Pretest: Give a brief pretest to assess their prior knowledge on key concepts to inform instruction. 
  2. Readiness Check: Briefly discuss learners’ past experiences working in groups to determine how much structure is necessary for group assignments.
  1. Muddiest Point: Ask learners to use Poll Everywhere, Blackboard Discussion Boards, or sticky notes to answer the question, “What was the muddiest point from today’s class/reading?” 
  2. Think-Pair-Share: Pose an open-ended question and ask learners to think individually first, then pair up in small groups to refine their thoughts. Finally, invite learners to share and exchange their ideas with the entire group, providing an opportunity to learn from one another.
  1. Alternative Assessments: Allow learners to choose the format of a final project (e.g., podcast, documentary film, or service project)..
  2. Public Exams: Give learners access to portions of the exam in advance, so the format of the questions or the academic language used don’t become barriers to demonstrating their understanding.
  3. Scaffold major projects by providing smaller assignments throughout the learning process that build on one another and prepare for the summative assessment.
  4. Leverage rubrics to clearly communicate expectations for high stakes assessments.





Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center. (n.d.). Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation: What is the difference between assessment and grading?

Crisp, G. T. (2012). Integrative assessment: reframing assessment practice for current and future learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(1), 33-43.

Fisher, M. R., Jr., & Bandy, J. (2019). Assessing Student Learning. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

Gareis, C. R., & Grant, L. W. (2015). Teacher-Made assessments : How to connect curriculum, instruction, and student learning (2nd ed). Routledge.

Suskie, L. (2018). Assessing student learning : A common sense guide. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.


Cite This Resource

Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation. (2023, February). Assessment types: Diagnostic, formative, and summative [Teaching resource]. 


Updated 2/2023