Core to the learning experience and with a wider breadth than grading, assessment entails gauging students’ learning with respect to a task, course, or program. 

The assessment tasks you assign signal to students what content you value in the course and students will therefore naturally focus their attention on learning that content. So, if you want students to achieve the learning outcomes, the assessment tasks need to be aligned with those outcomes. Indeed, as educator Sally Brown has said, “While students can ignore our teaching, they cannot ignore the assessments.” 

In the context of education, we often talk about formative and summative assessment

  • Formative assessment (also referred to as assessment for learning) provides ongoing feedback to students to guide learning. Formative assessment can be in the form of a grade (often low stakes) or feedback comments (i.e., non-graded). It has the potential to motivate students and can inform actions that improve both teaching and learning. Examples of formative assessment tasks: practice quizzes, in-class polling questions, draft submissions. 

  • Summative assessment is used to judge/grade students’ performance at the end of a course or unit. Examples of summative assessment tasks: final exams, term papers. 

View a table that compares the different purposes and implementations of formative and summative assessment (University at Buffalo). 

Review McGill’s University Student Assessment Policy (effective until Fall 2024). 

Review McGill’s Policy on Assessment of Student Learning (effective Fall 2024). 

To find out more, explore the topics below:


  1. ^ Brown, S. (2004-2005). Assessment for learningLearning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1, 81-89.