Elizabeth Gehrig By Elizabeth Gehrig • May 31, 2017

3 Types of Assessment You’ll Take in College (And How to Approach Each One)

I’m 99.9 percent sure that most people do not like exams.

While that .1 percent is another story, there’s no way around it: throughout your time as a student, you will be tested on the knowledge and skills learned in your college courses. This requires hard work, but it also ensures you possess the expertise that your degree says you have. It confirms that after you graduate, the diploma hanging on your wall means something - to your employer, to your colleagues, to any educational institutions that you might attend in the future and, most importantly, to you. 

In your college classes, you will come across several different types of assessments. This may feel like a lot of pressure, but knowing what to expect and understanding the differences among them can offer a sense of relief and allow you to perform at your best. Here’s a breakdown of every kind you will encounter, what these evaluations mean and how you can prepare for whatever comes your way.

1. Formative Assessments

Think, bite-sized learning.

Formative assessments are the type you see most frequently and include written assignments, discussion forum entries and quizzes. They are relatively low-stakes, cover a fairly small amount of material, and tell both you and your mentor where you stand in your mastery of course content. They are intended to support your learning as you go along.

As you complete a formative assessment, you will notice what material comes easily to you and what you need to keep studying or reviewing. Your mentor may offer feedback to you and your classmates based on the results. If your course has formative quizzes, each quiz may provide feedback on your performance, referring you to a particular chapter for any question that you answered incorrectly. These are the types of quizzes that you will want to take several times for additional practice to get the most benefit. 

2. Summative Assessments

Think, time to prove yourself.

Summative assessments are bigger, perhaps more intimidating and include final papers, projects and exams. These are higher-stakes, frequently worth 20-40 percent of your final course grade and they cover much more material than formative assessments. Their purpose is to evaluate your cumulative learning at the middle or end of a semester.

If your course includes exams, it may provide tools to help you prepare for them, such as an exam study guide or practice exam. The good news is that, if you have taken your formative activities seriously and internalized the feedback they offer, you should be well prepared for a summative paper, project or exam. 

3. Diagnostic Assessments

Think, painting the big picture.

Not everyone will take a diagnostic assessment, though whether you do or not depends on the courses you take. For example, you may see the ETS Proficiency Profile within a Capstone course. The University uses the results to understand students’ skill levels, as a group, at the beginning or end of their studies.

Diagnostic assessments are low stakes, and there’s no grade. However, they help the University determine how to effectively support student learning and future achievement in learning outcomes. When you take a diagnostic assessment, you help the University improve its degree programs, which in turn, benefits you as well as future students.

Now that you know about the kinds of assessments you’ll find in your courses, you can feel more confident about what knowledge and skills they’re testing and how you can approach them to enhance your learning. Good luck!

Elizabeth Gehrig

Written by Elizabeth Gehrig

Elizabeth Gehrig is a senior assessment development specialist in the Center for Learning and Technology. Passionate about high-stakes testing, her career spans more than 10 years in language testing, credit-by-exam and outcomes assessment. Email her at clt@tesu.edu.

Subscribe to the Thomas Edison State University Blog and get the latest updates delivered straight to your inbox.

!-- start Main.js DO NOT REMOVE -->