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Beyond grading: Ever heard of “assessment for learning”? Let me explain …


What words or images come to mind when you hear the word “assessment”? As a teacher? As a student?

Twice a year, McGill University’s Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) offers a two-day Course Design Workshop that includes an exploration of assessment practices. As a lead-in to discussion, TLS puts that question to the instructors who attend the workshop. The responses show a wide variety of associations that reflect the complexity of assessment considered from both instructor and student perspectives. Words such as fairness, clarity, judgment, stress, workload, and anxiety are frequently associated with assessment.


Many of the negative associations come from equating assessment with judging or grading student performance at the end of a course. End-of-course grading is one important purpose of assessment, and there’s another one. What if we think about assessment as a way to let students know how they’re progressing with their learning? As an opportunity to guide students’ learning and motivate students to learn? What if we think about assessment for learning?


Assessment for learning (AfL) provides students with opportunities to:

  • learn through frequent informal and low-stakes feedback, such as peer review of draft assignments
  • learn through formal feedback, such as instructor comments on assignments
  • practice and build confidence
  • engage in challenging, authentic tasks
  • develop their ability to assess their own learning
  • receive a balance of formative and summative assessment

(Sambell, McDowell, & Montgomery, 2013, p. 5)

AfL suggest that assessment goes beyond assigning a grade to students’ work. AfL describes assessment as an activity rich in practice opportunities and informal feedback, and one that can involve the individual student and peers, as well as the instructor. Thinking about assessment in this way may represent a marked shift in conceptions of purpose and implementation of assessment. Indeed, assessment can be a most opportune moment to bolster students’ learning!

Do students believe they can learn from the way they are assessed? We asked them. TLS randomly stopped students on campus to ask them for examples of assignments that helped them learn, along with explanations of what, in particular, was helpful. Their responses speak to AfL, and they afford us insight into how instructors can intentionally design assessments to foster students’ learning. Listen to excerpts of what some students had to say:

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more video clips with you where McGill students describe assignments that have helped them learn. You might also be interested in reading student perspectives on AfL in Assessment for Learning: A student survival guide: for students by students.

McGill symposium on assessment

Do you teach at McGill? McGill instructors are invited to attend Beyond Grading: Effective Assessment Strategies for Better Learning, a university-wide symposium taking place on December 7, 2018. The event, organized by TLS and McGill’s Assessment and Feedback Group, a long-standing faculty learning community, will offer you opportunities to learn about creative and effective assessment strategies to help improve students’ learning and motivation to learn, and inform your teaching practices. Through panel and round-table discussions, and informal networking, participants will share a wide range of strategies relevant across disciplines and applicable in both large and small classes. There will also be opportunities to reflect on the application of strategies to one’s own teaching context.

If you teach at McGill, register now, mark the date in your calendar, and join us for what promises to be a stimulating and informative exchange!

Check out the other posts in the Assessment for Learning series:


Sambell, K., McDowell, L., & Montgomery, C. (2013). Assessment for learning in higher education. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Ebook available from the McGill Library.

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Associate Director, Faculty and Teaching Development, and Senior Academic Associate, at McGill's Teaching and Learning Services; former Senior Faculty Lecturer at the McGill Writing Centre; area of specialization: Second Language Education; loves teaching and learning!

(Photo credit: Owen Egan)

2 comments on “Beyond grading: Ever heard of “assessment for learning”? Let me explain …

  1. Pingback: Assessment for learning: questions – a feedback practice we learned from Socrates | Teaching for Learning @ McGill University

  2. Pingback: Before you go “On your mark …”: Instructors and constructive feedback – Teaching for Learning @ McGill University

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