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Modes of Classroom Assessment


In this workshop, you will familiarize yourself with the concept of classroom assessment. You will develop the ability to discuss the purposes and uses of different types of assessments, the conditions for quality assessments, and multiple modes of classroom assessment. The video at the end of this unit will summarize concepts from the written lessons and provide tips for writing strong assessment items.

This lesson will list modes and item types for traditional, non-traditional, and informal assessments. Specifically, we will look at:

Traditional Assessments

  • Selected Response
  • True or False
  • Matching
  • Essay or Constructed Response
  • Lab Sets or Ordered Sets
  • Oral Exams
  • Recitation
  • Take-Home Exams
  • Open Book Exams
  • Portfolios
  • Projects

Non-traditional Assessments

  • Paired Testing
  • Reworking on the Board
  • Piggyback
  • Round Robin Responses
  • Interview

Informal Assessments

  • Questioning
  • Flash Cards
  • Exit Slips
  • Thumbs
  • Minute Paper

Typical Classroom Assessments

There are a number of modes and item types that teachers often use for their classroom assessments. We will review some advantages and special considerations that accompany each one.

Selected Response

Selected response (also known as multiple choice) questions are among the most common question or item types. A selected response question asks the students to select the correct answer from a series of possible correct answers in response to an introductory statement, which is also called a stem. Typically the students are confronted with four or five possible answers and their task is to select the correct one instead of having to generate a response from memory. Selected response questions are considered objective assessments because there is only one correct answer.

Selected response questions offer many advantages for the classroom teacher:

  • They are easy to score. Multiple choice questions have become very popular because of the proliferation of machine scoring. Computer scoring also allows for an advanced statistical analysis of the data. This type of analysis will indicate areas of student strengths and weaknesses as well as provide an item analysis for each question.
  • Teachers can create different degrees of difficulty. For instance, the teacher can include simple recall or memorization questions while also including more difficult questions that require a synthesis or evaluation of facts or details.
  • Distractors (meaning the wrong answer choices) can be worded to indicate student misconceptions. This can help teachers determine if a particular concept is well understood and isolate any areas or concepts that may be confusing or troublesome for students.
  • Multiple choice short quizzes make good formative assessments to quickly determine if the students are progressing at an acceptable level.
  • Teachers can include a range of questions that assess an entire curricular unit in both a summative and formative style.
  • Teachers can minimize the disadvantage felt by poor readers or non-English speaking students by adjusting the question stem.

There are several limitations to selected response questions as well. The one that most students recognize is that the correct answer is in there somewhere. Savvy test takers can eliminate one or more of the distractors and then guess between the remaining two or three choices. This is important because if there are four possible answers on a test, then the student has a 25% chance of guessing the correct answer. If the student can eliminate one or two of the distractors, the odds may become 50-50.

It also takes time to create good multiple choice questions. A good question must be consistent with the approved curriculum, written without bias, and include reasonable distractors that are neither too close to the correct answer nor too unrelated to not be considered a possibility. Because of the time involved in creating questions that assess advanced thinking, teachers often rely too much on factual recall questions. Students are quick to figure this out and they may limit their preparation to just enough to do well on the test. They may not develop a deeper understanding of the material just because it will not be measured on the test.

An additional disadvantage of selected response questions is that they do not measure or allow for the creativity of the students.

It takes longer to write selected response questions that assess higher level thinking than would be expected. It may be helpful to write a few of your own and then, search the web and consult with your peers for additional questions. You should continue to add to your item bank which you can tap into again and again.

True or False

True or false questions are a common type of question. A question of this type is one in which the student is required to determine whether the question stem or statement is a falsification or not. Like multiple choice questions, true or false questions are also considered objective assessments because there is only one correct answer. This type of exam is not considered very reliable or informative since the students have a 50-50 chance of guessing the correct answer. In some cases, the degree of effectiveness can be increased by asking the students to make each false statement into a correct statement or by having the student write an explanation for each answer for why the question is true or false.

True or false question types can be very effective if the question is measuring dichotomous information. True or false questions are also teacher-friendly because they are among the easiest to write and can be used as a springboard to an instructional event.


Matching type questions are objective assessments that require a student to correctly identify, link, or “match” the relationship between two items. Typically matching questions provide two sets of items for the students to analyze. Virtually any items can be used to create a matching question, but typical examples include vocabulary words and definitions, cause and effect relationships, tools/instruments and their uses, or dates and events. Matching questions are able to cover expansive amounts of curriculum while minimizing students’ ability to guess correctly compared to traditional multiple choice questions. The likelihood of guessing a correct answer is decreased as the length of the item sets increases. It can be further decreased when one of the item sets is larger than the other or by allowing answers to be used more than once. Therefore, the students cannot better their chances just by eliminating possible answers from the answer pool.

Matching questions measure recognition but are not especially good at measuring multiple step problems or creative thinking.

Essay or Constructed Response

Most students think essay-type questions are the most difficult because the student has to generate the correct answer since it is not given somewhere in the question stem. Essays and constructed responses are considered subjective assessments because there is more than one correct answer or more than one way to express the correct answer. They require students to think through their answer and perhaps write a rough draft before writing a final draft. Students are often prompted to study more in preparation for an essay-type exam.

From a teacher’s perspective, essay-type questions reveal more insightful data about the student than other types of traditional assessments. They enable the teacher to evaluate a student’s ability to solve problems, organize, integrate, analyze, and apply concepts in their own words. Essay questions allow the teacher to assess all six levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

There are two variations on the essay-type question that are common and useful to the classroom teacher. The short answer question is one in which the teacher is looking for an answer within a paragraph or less. This contains most of the benefits of the longer essay-type question but is more limited in scope. Short answer questions should be designed so that they can be successfully answered within the time given and response limitations. Another variation is the mock or incorrect answer. In this type of question, the teacher presents incorrect answers for the students to repair.

One of the drawbacks to essay questions is the amount of time it takes to score them. Yet, though they take longer than most other types of questions, they reveal a lot of useful information about the learner. Other considerations about essay questions include how to ensure grading consistency among your students and whether and how much spelling and grammar will affect students’ scores. Finally, think what might occur if a student writes an answer that is correct, but is different than the teacher’s goal or expectation for what the question was supposed to measure. How will this affect this student’s score and what should be the teacher’s response? These are questions that teachers should consider before giving students essay assessments.

Lab Sets or Ordered Sets

A lab set (which is also known as an ordered set or a problem set) is a series of questions based upon and related to a single stimulus. The types of stimuli vary but generally fall into one of the following categories: mathematical solutions, technical reading passages, graphics or illustrations, or processes or experiments. For instance, a student may be required to read a narrative that describes a laboratory investigation. The questions that follow may ask the students to identify the purpose, the independent variable, the control, all sources of error, and predict the type of graph needed to correctly display the data while using the information from the passage. Typically lab sets are used by science and mathematics teachers although their usefulness should extend into other disciplines.

Lab sets allow the teacher to assess students for a number of discrete items by using a single stimulus. The teacher can adjust the range of question types to elicit almost any type of thinking. As an example, an ordered set may require the students to write an essay or complete multiple choice problems. This type of problem also allows the teacher to “dry lab” or try out an experiment to save the time and cost of actually doing the experiment to determine if the students can transfer understanding from a similar “wet lab” or hands-on experience.

Oral Exams

Oral exams have long been the domain of foreign language and reading teachers, but should be considered as an option for almost all subject areas. If a teacher wants to know how much or to what extent a student understands a curricular topic, one of the best ways is to ask the student directly. This may be as informal as a question in class or a more formal arrangement where the questions are prepared in advance and may require models to successfully respond to the exam. The teacher also has the opportunity to ask follow-up questions to pursue answers to a deeper level and to clarify student thinking.

Oral exams tend to be a strong instructional motivator for students. However, most students do not initially like oral exams for the same reasons that they do not like essay questions: they have to produce the correct answer without any hints from the answer choices. Oral exams also cause additional anxiety in that the oral exam is typically face-to-face with the teacher and may be in full view of the remainder of the student body. Yet, once students become accustomed to oral exams, they generally prefer them to more traditional exams because they are often better able to explain their answer and the amount of reading and writing is minimized.

When preparing for an oral exam, the teacher needs to determine if the event is to be public so that other students can hear and learn from their peers, or if it will be more private to make the students feel more comfortable. If the teacher prefers a more private setting, the remainder of the class will have to have an assignment to work on while the oral testing is occurring. Time is also a factor in that oral exams take longer if each student in the class must have a turn.

Teachers often use formative oral quizzes to determine if/when the students are ready for a summative exam. From the teacher’s perspective, they are a definitive means to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a student.

There is an instructional advantage to public oral testing in that most students will listen intently to their peers’ answers while waiting and preparing for their turn. This repetition promotes mastery learning. However, students who go last have a decided advantage.


Similar to an oral exam, recitation is a type of discourse where the teacher asks questions, the students respond, and the teacher judges the quality of their answers. While this is typical in most traditional classrooms, recitation is a quick way to determine if the students understand a topic.


Take home tests offer a unique characteristic in assessing students because they allow the students the freedom of unlimited resources, outside help, and a lengthened time frame for completing an answer. In the simplest form, a take-home exam is one where the teacher creates an assessment and then allows the students to work on solving the problem for an predetermined amount of time outside of class. The students are then free to work together, draw upon professional expertise, and think creatively. Of course, the teacher knows this in advance and expects each student to complete the task at a mastery level. A variation on this question type is to require the students to complete several questions as a take-home event and then the teacher selects one question as an in-class assessment.

Take home exams give the teacher the freedom to ask a variety of question types at multiple levels of rigor and to expect that the answers will reflect genuine understanding. Most teachers appreciate the instructional value of take home tests and use them to interlock instruction and assessment.

Teachers should provide their students with a clear understanding of the rules because students may become very creative with take home exams. For instance, imagine if all of the students’ answers appear to be identical. To preempt these types of situations, teachers should determine what they will and will not accept for take home exams and clearly present this to the class before the exam is administered.

Open Book

Most students love the thought of an open book test until they have to take one. An open book test is one where the teacher allows the students to use their textbook and often any notes or other resources during a test. Typically students assume that they will be able to look up every answer and receive a mastery score for their efforts. Because of this, students often spend their time searching and marking the location of vocabulary words and other curricular topics in the textbook as opposed to actually learning them. On test day, those students who know the material tend to do much better than those students who have to look up every or most of the questions because their time is up before they are able to complete the task.

However, teachers can and should advise their students about open book tests before they administer them. From a student’s perspective, an open book test should be retitled as a book-assisted test. Students should understand that their best strategy is to only reference the text for those questions that they absolutely need help in solving. In that way, the students prepare for the assessment with the same rigor that they would apply to a standard assessment.

A variation on this type of assessment is the professional scenario technique. The premise behind the professional scenario technique is that students are placed in a simulated real-life or authentic career situation. Students are allowed to use multiple resources to solve problems and write reports or memos. Open book activities or tests can also be used as instructional components and may be used to link instruction with assessment.


A portfolio is a purposeful selection of student work that exhibits the student’s effort, progress, and achievements in a curricular area. The portfolio is personalized for each student and is designed to portray the student within the confines of the curriculum. When using the portfolio technique, teachers should clearly explain the purpose of the portfolio and inform the students if a particular event may be included in their personalized portfolio. Students should be encouraged to be invested in the process and participate in the selection of the portfolio’s contents.

There are several characteristics of portfolios which make them unique and useful to the teacher:

  • Portfolios are designed so that the teacher is able to work directly with the students. This attribute promotes discussion and increases student-teacher interaction.
  • They are effective at displaying student growth over time. This allows the classroom teacher and other interested parties to make decisions based on a history of evidence.
  • They allow students to recognize their own growth.
  • They empower students to assume greater responsibility for their own learning which is often a motivator for reluctant learners.
  • Portfolios allow the teacher to assess the students using a variety of techniques and formats, including performances and open-ended problem solving strategies.
  • They are often considered to be a more representative sample of the students’ true level of achievement for a particular area.

Note that developing a portfolio style of assessment will require extra class time to explain the concept to the students and then to rate each item individually with the student.

It is a good idea to inform administrators and parents before you implement a portfolio-based assessment plan, especially if you are the first teacher to propose the idea.


Projects allow students a degree of freedom in investigating, compiling, and displaying a particular topic in a style that represents a personal flair. Teachers establish the boundaries for the project, such as the curricular goal, due date, extent of research, and allowable materials. Then the students are free to construct their project within these parameters.

Projects are a great way to allow students to pursue their personal interests within the umbrella of a curricular topic. Often students engage their topic in far greater detail than what is required by the curriculum and may develop a particular interest for that subject area. Projects allow the teacher to measure learning at a greater depth, through a variety of modalities, and over a greater curricular expanse.

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Non-Traditional Assessments

In addition to the item types and assessment instruments that teachers often use in their classrooms, there are also non-traditional assessments that teachers can use to measure their students’ learning. We will review just a few of these additional assessment tools that are available to teachers.

Paired Testing

Paired testing is a way to allow a pair of students to collaborate on an assessment event. The teacher may select the pairs or allow the students to self-select their pairings to maximize their effectiveness. Upon completion, the pair submits one answer form that represents the work of both students. Therefore, one of the obvious benefits is that the amount of scoring the teacher has to complete is divided in half. Another benefit is the collaborative nature of the assignment, especially if it is a criterion-referenced event.

A variation on this strategy is to have the students work together to accomplish the task and then work independently to complete individual answer forms. Another variation is to expand the number of students working together to create a group exam. A group exam is effective if the task is large and rich enough to allow each student a specified role that compliments and contributes to the entire process.

Reworking on the Board

Allowing students to rework problems or add to curricular concepts while at the front board is a popular event for students. In most cases, students are happy to get out of their seat to perform a task. The fun and instruction are multiplied when the students get to orally share their ideas with the other students while referencing their board work. While this is a great way to measure students’ understanding of the concepts being taught, this is also an easy method for the teacher to build student engagement.


In simplest terms, a piggyback occurs when the teacher asks the students to create or expand on an answer based on the previous response of another student. For instance, the teacher asks an open-ended question. Once a student response is received, the teacher calls upon another student to add to or continue that response. The process repeats until the topic is covered.

Round Robin Responses

The round robin responses technique requires the students to think creatively and provides feedback to the teacher regarding the achievement level of the students. In this strategy, the teacher provides the initial stimulus such as a question and then facilitates and monitors the flow of student answers. In round robin responses, students provide answers in an organized manner so that all students have the opportunity to respond in order before a student is required to provide a second response.


The interview format is designed as an ice-breaker and provides an opportunity for the teacher and students to get to know each other. This is especially useful in the beginning of the school year and as an introduction into oral assessments. Teachers can also interview students as a variation of the oral exam strategy or students can interview each other as a formative assessment to help guide their study efforts.

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Informal Assessments

Informal assessments are those that can be easily and quickly incorporated into lessons without taking much if any time away from the instruction. They usually serve as formative assessments in that they indicate the students’ learning and understanding of the skills or topics being discussed. We will review just a few modes of informal assessments, most of which were introduced in previous workshops. As a new teacher, you will likely identify ways that you prefer to check in with your students.


An informal, non-obtrusive method for determining if a student understands the instruction is to ask him or her a question. A proper questioning technique is a valuable, everyday strategy that is needed by every teacher. Good questions not only measure students’ understanding, but they also promote student thinking. A good questioning technique will also inform the teacher about the pace of the lesson in reference to the level of student retention.

You can review the first part of the Whole Group Strategies lesson in the Pedagogy and Instructional Design workshop for more detailed information about questioning and responding to students.

Flash Cards

A flash card is a writable surface with a question on one side and the answer on the other side. The teacher can used them in small or large group settings or can allow pairs of students to use them to quiz each other. The length of this activity can vary as the time and circumstances permit. Flash cards are very valuable because the students can immediately see the results and receive feedback.

Exit Slips

Exit slips or tickets are small pieces of paper with answers to previously asked questions that the students give to the teacher as they exit the room or after a particular unit of study. The exit slips are designed to give the teacher a snapshot of how much the students learned as a result of the instruction. Although this technique does require the teacher to collect and analyze the data, the responses tend to be truthful and insightful, especially if they are anonymously received.


During a lesson the teacher may ask the student to signify if they know the answer, understand a concept or agree with an opinion or statement. One method is to have the students signal “thumbs up” if they know or agree,“thumbs down” if they do not know or disagree, and “thumbs sideways” if they are neutral or not sure. The resulting information is immediate and usually truthful. Variations of this strategy are stop/go cards or red/green colors. This technique is not disruptive to the flow of a lesson and provides useful and immediate feedback from all students.

Minute Paper

The minute paper is a brief three to five sentence narrative that the students write to the teacher. This activity can be implemented at any time during a lesson, depending upon the type of information the teacher is requesting. Typically minute papers are a personal essay to the teacher which indicates what the students have learned as a result of the lesson and identifies any remaining trouble areas. Minute papers are effective because they require the students to write about their own personal thoughts, ideas, and reflections.

10 Things to Remember About Assessment

  1. Assessments work best when they are ongoing and integrated into instruction as opposed to episodic and marginally referenced to classroom instruction.
  2. The value of assessment is magnified when assessments are part of a comprehensive program that promotes learning, improvement, and growth.
  3. A comprehensive assessment-instruction system should contain a variety of assessment techniques.
  4. A test only tests what it was designed to measure. It is up to the teacher to make sense of the data.
  5. Summative assessments are referred to as “assessments of learning,” while formative assessments are referred to as “assessment for learning.”
  6. Specific and descriptive instructional feedback that will help students to improve their learning and prepare for mastery of the curricular topics are central to effective formative assessments.
  7. Frequent short tests are more instructionally helpful and provide better assessment data than infrequent extended exams.
  8. Diagnostic assessments measure a student’s current knowledge and skills for the purpose of identifying a personalized program of learning for that student.
  9. Quality assessments are valid, reliable and unbiased.
  10. A test is no better than the quality of items it contains.

Video Summary: Assessment (13:44)

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Assessment Glossary

This review of assessment terms may be helpful for those that are new to the vocabulary and concepts of the Assessment Workshop.

  • Accountability is the use of assessment results and student or program data to influence important educational decisions such as teacher evaluations, program continuation, and/or funding determinations.
  • Assessment is the process of documenting, usually in measurable terms, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs.
  • Authentic Assessment measures students’ performance on real life situations, problems, and tasks.
  • Benchmark is a detailed description of the current performance level of a student in reference to a curricular unit specific to that grade or age level. Benchmarks can also be used as checkpoints to monitor student performance through a unit of study or over time. Examples of students’ work may serve as an example of a benchmark.
  • Biased Assessment includes the presence of some characteristic that may unfairly influence the students’ scores.
  • Criterion-Referenced Assessment compares an individual’s performance to a specific standard or learning objective. This informs the students and teacher about how well the students performed on specific goals rather than how their performance compared to a norm-referenced group. In a true criterion-referenced assessment, it is possible that all, none, or some of the students will demonstrate proficiency on a particular standard.
  • Formal Assessments are planned events that are scored and contribute to a student’s grade. Typically, they require a written response such as a traditional test or essay.
  • Formative Assessment is the repeated collecting of information that monitors students’ learning as part of a class or program to improve and personalize instruction to improve the students’ learning.
  • Informal Assessments are embedded into instruction and are less high risk than formal assessments. If the teacher records a score, it seldom weighs heavily enough to affect the students’ final grade. Examples of informal assessments include direct observation by the teacher as well as student checklists, performances, peer and self evaluations, and discussions.
  • Ipsative Assessment is a measure that compares a student’s personal best with subsequent assessments over the same event or topic.
  • Norm-Referenced Assessment is where student performances are compared to a larger “norm group.” The purpose of a true norm-referenced assessment is to sort students and not measure their achievement in comparison to a standard or criterion.
  • Objective Assessment is a type of assessment where there is only one correct answer. Objective assessments can be either formative or summative. There are many different types of objective questions, such as true/false, fill in the blank, multiple choice, selected response, and matching. The popularity of objective assessments has grown recently because they are easily machine-scored.
  • Peer Assessment is the evaluation of learning by one’s own peers.
  • Performance-Based Assessment gathers data through a systematic observation and measure of student prowess by evaluating that data based on predetermined criteria.
  • Portfolio Assessment is a collection of work that is used to make judgments about student achievement.
  • Reliability refers to the degree to which the results of an assessment are consistently able to get the same measure for student knowledge and skills. Reliability is also an indication of the consistency of scores and raters across time.
  • Rubric is a specific set of standards or criteria that define for both the teacher and students the range of acceptable and unacceptable performance. Rubrics typically assign a value to each level of proficiency.
  • Self Assessment is the process of evaluating one’s own level of mastery.
  • Standards are a predetermined level of accomplishment that students are expected to meet or exceed. Standards may be high or low and do not necessarily imply a high level of thinking or a single pathway to meet a minimum level.
  • Subjective Assessment is a type of assessment where there is more than one correct answer, or more than one way to express the correct answer. Essay or constructed response questions are typically subjective.
  • Summative Assessment is the deliberate collecting of data at the end of a learning unit to determine student achievement or to satisfy accountability demands.
  • Validity is the extent to which an assessment measures what it is intended to measure and the extent to which decisions made on the basis of test scores are accurate.

Resources and References

  1. Bangert-Drowns, R.L., Kulick, J.A., and Morgan, M.T. “The instructional effect of feedback in test-like events.” Review of Educational Research 61.2 (1991): 213-238.
  2. Black, P., and Wiliam, D. “Assessment and classroom learning.” Assessment in Education 5.1 (1998): 7-74.
  3. Black, P. and Wiliam, D. “Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment.” Phi Delta Kappan, 80.2 (1998): 139-148.
  4. Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., and Wiliam, D. Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice. Berkshire, England: Open University Press, 2003.
  5. Brookhart, S.M. and Wiggins, Grant. Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
  6. Butler , D.L. and Winnie, P.H. “Feedback and self-regulated learning: a theoretical synthesis.” Review of Educational Research, 65.3 (1995): 245-281.
  7. Cowie, B., and Bell, B. “A model of formative assessment in science education.” Assessment in Education 6 (1999): 101-116.
  8. Herman, J.L., Ashbacher, P.R., and Winters, L. A Practical Guide to Alternative Assessment. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1992.
  9. McMillan, J.H. “Classroom Assessment: Principles and Practice for Effective Instruction.” Pearson Technology Group, 2000.
  10. National Research Council. Classroom Assessment and the National Science Education Standards. Ed. J.M. Atkin, P. Black, and J. Coffey. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001.
  11. Nicol, D.J. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. “Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice.” Studies in Higher Education 31.2 (2006): 199-218.
  12. Pausch, L.M. and Popp, M.P. “Assessment of Information Literacy: Lessons from the Higher Education Assessment Movement.” 1997.
  13. Sadler, D.R. “Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems.” Instructional Science 18.2 (1989): 119-144.
  14. Sadler, D.R. “Formative assessment: revisiting the territory.” Assessment in Education 5.1(1998): 77-84.

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