Assessments in Curriculum Design

Assessments in Curriculum DesignThe essential lens through which education is viewed is assessments. An appropriate and effective method for assessment must be chosen to get an accurate view of a student’s learning style, prior knowledge and even to determine the mastery of current content information. These lenses can be fatally darkened to obscure what the educator needs to discover through the inappropriate application of an assessment method in an educational environment such as higher education.

Assessment possesses many roles in education as instructors use the tool for a variety of different reasons. It is used to determine the motivation behind students. It creates feedback for learning opportunities for both teachers and students. It can be used as a grading function and also to assure quality within a program. Many times assessments can overlap in these functional purposes. However, the foundational reason for assessment is “intended to help the student learn and assessment intended to identify how much has been learnt” (Rust, 2002, p. 1).

Assessment in each role of its varying purposes is the critical component in the educational planning process which needs to be an integral part in formative and summative evaluation. Formative assessment must be conducted in both formal and informal means to analyze students’ understanding. It is accomplished through observation, discussion and the analysis of student work including homework, written work, projects and exams. Teachers use this information “to make necessary instructional adjustments, such as reteaching, trying alternative instructional approaches, or offering more opportunities for practice. These activities can lead to improved student success” (Boston, 2002, p. 31). Black and Williams (1998) confirm that in over 20 selected studies that the use of formative assessment produced substantial educational gains for the student.

Summative assessment is generally used in order to produce a grade. It can be conducted throughout the course and is always used when producing results to validate or prove compliance to educational mandates. Despite its necessity to provide accountability, many educators are recognizing its weak contribution in the learning process. Instructors are directed to comply with these educational mandates but to remember to focus on the purpose of education which is student learning (Gioka, 2009).

Heritage (2007) validates this deficit in summative assessment.

“Assessment is not regarded as a source of information that can be used during instruction. Instead, it has become a tool solely for summarizing what students have learned and for ranking students and schools. In the process, the reciprocal relationship between teaching and assessment has been lost from sight. In a context in which assessment is overwhelmingly identified with the competitive evaluation of schools, teachers, and students, it is scarcely surprising that classroom teachers identify assessment as something external to their everyday practice” (para. 2).

Pennsylvania State University (1998) created a guide to direct their assessment efforts in their newly formed online higher education. These principles focused on evaluating the students’ mastery of information as it related to the goals and objectives of the course. They emphasized that instruction must be integrated with the assessment methods. These same methods need to be part of the learning process which helps learners to assess their progress and recognize their weaknesses. Assessment needs to be both summative and formative in nature. Assessments also need to accommodate learners who have special needs. Following the course, learners need to be given the opportunity to provide feedback on the course, instructional design and instructor contribution. However, assessment is not the first step in curriculum design.

Curriculum architects have developed a method to meet the needs of teachers and students entitled the backward design. This system simply focuses on the course objectives and assessment before approaching and organizing the activities. It forces all educators to note the big picture and focus on the end goal. By keeping the end in mind, educators are capable of developing a detailed map with a clear vision of where they’d like to bring their students (Childre, Sands, & Pope, 2009).

The backwards design follows three basic steps.

  1. First, educators will identified the desired outcomes by addressing several questions. What should students learn which are essential concepts? What is worth learning?
  2. Second, the evidence that learning has occurred is determined or the assessment is planned. Teachers should ask how should their students demonstrate this evidence of learning?
  3. Lastly, the instructor will design their instruction, activities and learning experiences around these objectives and assessments (Pitner, 2009).

Krajcik, McNeill and Reiser (2007) emphasize the importance of basing assessment methods on identified learning goals. Assessments and learning activities must be aligned with the learning goals of the course, units and lessons. These three components are the foundational stones upon which education rests. When they are aligned appropriately, successful student learning can be achieved.

When assessments are appropriately utilized, teachers can evaluate the effectiveness of their instruction. This can best be determined through implementation of a variety of assessment methods in both formal and informal means. Although there is much emphasis on external assessment such as standardized testing and state-mandated exams, the most effective teaching relies on “a variety of assessment tools, including informal tests, interviews, observations, samples of students’ work, portfolios, and students’ judgments of their own performance. Such assessment procedures when combined with teacher reflection provide teachers with a much more complete picture about their students’ reading and help them make informed instructional deci- sions to maximize their teaching effectiveness” (Blair, Rupley, & Nichols, 2007, p. 433).

Effective teachers perform informal and continual assessment procedures throughout their interaction with the student. This contact magnifies difficulties students are having as well as emphasizes any holes in their prior knowledge. The instructor can also determine how a student’s performance measures up with standards as set apart by federal, state and local educational boards. The teacher can also see how a student performs in comparison to their classroom peers (Ruiz-Primo & Furtak, 2006).

Effective educators also use a variety of assessment techniques to determine the depth of student learning. They spend considerable time in pinpointing specific assessment methods which will measure skills from different angles. The use of the results from different sources ensures the validity and reliability of the assessment (Blair, Rupley, & Nichols, 2007).

Multiple methods of assessment also provides many different ways to view student learning. Wood, Darling-Hammond, Neill and Roschewski (2007) share

“For example, multiple samples of actual writing taken over time can best reveal to a teacher the progress a student is making in the development of composition skills. This provides ongoing feedback to learners as well, as they see how they are developing as writers and what they have yet to master. In addition, different kinds of writing tasks – persuasive essays, research papers, journalistic reports, responses to literature – encourage students to develop the full range of their writing and thinking skills in ways that writing a five- paragraph essay over and over again do not” (p. 4).

Black and William (1998) emphasize the essential nature of assessments in identifying successful and unsuccessful instructional procedures. Through this identification, instructors can alter teaching techniques to cater to the needs of the student. The learner needs then becomes the focus of education. “For assessment to function formatively, the results have to be used to adjust teaching and learning; thus a significant aspect of any program will be the ways in which teachers make these adjustments” (p. 4).

Educators should take all assessment results whether formative or summative and also within the domains of formal or informal to make decisions on past instructional performance or to plan future instructional methods. Results should be evaluated in comparison to a student’s peer group, national standards or proficiency. These conclusions should be considered in future lesson planning or even in the day to day operations within a classroom. For example, a teacher may use assessments to determine if specific information was fully comprehended by a student in a particular learning environment such as small group instruction. Based on these results, the teacher can alter the teaching technique to meet the needs of the student or alter the information content to complete educational gaps in knowledge (Gioka, 2009).

Assessments are the vital component to evaluate effective learning and teaching within classrooms. When accurately developed, they enable an instructor to execute expedient and efficient responses which cater to the learning needs of individual students. However, only through the appropriate choice of assessments and their productive application do educators gain a valuable insight into the intellectual maturity and development of their students.


Black, P. & William, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappa, 1-13.

Blair, T., Rupley, W., & Nichols, W. (2007). The effective teaching of reading: Considering the what and how of instruction. The Reading Teacher, (60)5, 432-438.

Boston, C. (2002). The concept of formative assessment. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, (8)9, 30-36.

Childre, A., Sands., J. & Pope, S. (2009). Backward design: Targeting depth of understanding for all learners. Teaching Exceptional Children, (42)5, 6-14.

Gioka, O. (2009). Teacher or examiner? The tensions between formative and summative assessment in the case of science coursework. Research in Science Education, (39)4, 411-428.

Heritage, M. (2007). Formative assessment, what do teachers need to know. Retrieved from the Phi Delta Kappan Website:

Krajcik, J., McNeill, K. & Reiser, B. (2008). Learning goals driven design model: Developing curriculum materials that align with national standards and incorporate project based pedagogy. Science Education, (92)1, 1-32.

Pennsylvania State University (2002). An emerging set of guiding principles and practices for the design and development of distance education. Retrieved from the Pennsylvania State University Website:

Pitner, S. (2009). Curriculum planning with backwards design. Retrieved from Suite101 Website:

Ruiz-Primo, M. & Furtak, E. (2007). Exploring teachers’ informal formative assessment practices and students’ understanding in the context of scientific inquiry. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, (44)1, 57-84.

Rust, C. (2002). Purposes and principles of assessment. Oxford Centre of Staff Learning Development, (2)1, 1-4.

Wood, G., Darling-Hammond, L., Neill, M. & Roschewski. (2007). Refocusing accountability, using local performance assessments to enhance teaching and learning for higher order skills. Retrieved from The National Center for Fair and Open Testing Website:

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including The Art of Learning Journals, Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.

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