Approaches to assessment

There are key similarities and differences between the 3 aspects of classroom assessment: assessment for learning (for teachers), assessment as learning (for students) and assessment of learning (for teachers).

Approaches to assessment

There are 3 approaches to assessment that contribute as a whole to student learning:

  • assessment for learning
  • assessment as learning
  • assessment of learning.

These phrases are used instead of the older terms: diagnostic, formative and summative.

Assessment for learning

Assessment for learning involves teachers using evidence about students' knowledge, understanding and skills to inform their teaching. Sometimes referred to as ‘formative assessment', it usually occurs throughout the teaching and learning process to clarify student learning and understanding.

Assessment as learning

Assessment as learning occurs when students are their own assessors. Students monitor their own learning, ask questions and use a range of strategies to decide what they know and can do, and how to use assessment for new learning.

Assessment of learning

Assessment of learning assists teachers in using evidence of student learning to assess achievement against outcomes and standards. Sometimes referred to as ‘summative assessment', it usually occurs at defined key points during a unit of work or at the end of a unit, term or semester, and may be used to rank or grade students. The effectiveness of this for grading or ranking depends on the validity and reliability of activities - and its effectiveness as an opportunity for learning depends on the nature and quality of the feedback.

Background to these 3 approaches

Traditionally, the focus of classroom assessment has been on assessment of learning - measuring learning after the fact, using the information to make judgements about students’ performances, and reporting these judgements to others.

During the 1990’s a groundswell of research emphasised the importance of assessment for learning (formative assessment). Teachers were using assessment for learning when they built in diagnostic processes, formative assessment, and feedback at various stages in the teaching and learning process. It was, however, often informal and implicit.

From the noughties onwards, assessment for learning was separated into assessment for learning, and assessment as learning, to emphasise the role of the student in the assessment process.

Systematic assessment as learning - where students become critical analysts of their own learning - is an important form of assessment that needs to go beyond incorporating self-assessment into teaching programs. It has become an assessment practice that is systematically used to develop students’ capacity to evaluate and adapt their own learning.

A teacher and his/her students need to know who reaches (and exceeds) important learning targets - thus … assessment of learning, has a place in teaching. Robust learning generally requires robust teaching … and assessments for learning are catalysts for better teaching. In the end, however, when assessment is seen as learning - for students as well as for teachers - it becomes most informative and generative for students and teachers alike. Tomlinson (2008)

Tomlinson (2008) summarises these approaches as:

  • informing teaching
  • informing learning
  • judging performance.

Regardless of the assessment approach, what matters most is how the information is used to improve student learning.

Making decisions about classroom assessment

When making decisions about classroom assessment, it's necessary to understand the key similarities and differences between the 3 approaches so they can be incorporated into the planning assessment strategies process. Considerations when planning assessment include:

  • what is the purpose?
  • what will be the timing and location?
  • what is being assessed?
  • how will the assessment information be gathered?
  • how will the assessment information be used?

Assessment for learning - by teachers

1. Purpose - for teachers to:

  • gather evidence to determine what students know and can do
  • decide where students need to go next
  • determine how best to get them there.

2. Timing: prior to, and frequently in an ongoing manner during instruction while students are still gaining knowledge and practising skills.

3. Strategies: a range of strategies in different modes that make students’ skills and understandings visible.

4. Use of information:

  • plan instruction and assessment that are differentiated and personalised
  • work with students to set appropriate learning goals
  • monitor students’ progress towards achieving overall and specific expectations
  • provide timely and specific descriptive feedback to students (what they are doing well, what needs improvement and how to improve)
  • scaffold next steps
  • differentiate instruction and assessment in response to student needs
  • provide parents/carers with descriptive feedback about student learning and ideas for support.

Assessment as learning - by students

1. Purpose - for students to:

  • gather evidence to monitor their learning
  • use a range of strategies to decide what they know and can do
  • identify next steps in their learning.

2. Timing: prior to, and frequently in an ongoing manner during instruction with support, modelling and guidance from the teacher

3. Strategies: a range of strategies in different modes that elicit students' learning and metacognitive processes.

4. Use of information:

  • provide descriptive feedback to other students (peer assessment)
  • monitor their own progress towards achieving their learning goals (self assessment)
  • make adjustments in their learning approaches
  • reflect on their learning
  • set individual goals for learning
  • report about their learning.

Assessment of learning - by teachers

1. Purpose: for teachers to gather evidence of student learning to assess achievement against outcomes and standards at defined key points.

2. Timing: at or near the end of a period of learning. May be used to inform further instruction.

3. Strategies: a range of strategies in different modes that assess both product and process.

4. Use of information:

  • summarise learning at a given point in time
  • make judgements about the quality of student learning on the basis of established criteria
  • assign a value to represent that quality
  • communicate information about achievement to students, parents, and others.


  • Ontario Ministry of Education (2014), Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis, & Chappius (2007) and Earl & Katz (2006).
  • Earl, L. & Katz, S. (2006). Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind.
  • Ontario Ministry of Education (2014). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario's Schools.
  • Stiggins, R. J. & Arter, J. A. & Chappuis, S. & Chappius, S. (2007). Classroom assessment for student learning - Doing it right. Doing it well. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.
  • Tomlinson, C. A. (2008). Learning to Love Assessment. Educational Leadership, 65, 8 - 13.
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