Methods for Assessing Student Knowledge Over Time

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Assessments are an important part of the total educational process. They allow teachers to see how much knowledge their students are gaining. This lesson covers methods for assessing student knowledge over time.

Why Assess Student Knowledge?

Can you imagine a school without tests? Some students might be filled with joy at the thought of such a thing. Traditional assessments, like tests, have gotten a bad name due to their tendency to cause stress in students.

Why should students take tests anyway? Is it important to assess student knowledge at all?

Consider a student who never misses a class, but has no idea what is going on in the class. Because this student is shy, he often doesn't speak up and the teacher doesn't know he is confused. By the end of the term, he has not retained anything from the course and the teacher has no idea. What is the point of education if a student does not learn anything? How can a teacher know that a student is learning?

Assessments are tools used to measure student knowledge. They are an important part of the educational process because they show students are progressing towards goals set in each class. When students struggle, assessments help teachers identify their struggle and support them to succeed in acquiring knowledge. Assessments ensure that curriculum guidelines are being met and students are progressing appropriately through standard material.

There are two main methods to assess student knowledge over time: diagnostic assessments paired with summative assessments (pre- and post-tests) and formative assessments.

Diagnostic and Summative Assessments


Often, students need to take a diagnostic assessment to determine their starting level in particular areas of education. Diagnostic assessments are common in early childhood education subjects such as math, English, and reading. Diagnostic assessments are typically traditional multiple choice/short answer type tests offering the students an opportunity to show their ability in an area before learning begins. Other forms of diagnostic testing are performance based, in which a student is asked to perform a task (such as reading a passage, computing a math equation, or building a model) that relates to the subject area. The results are recorded for later review.


When you think of assessment, often the traditional end of term final exam comes to mind. This might also be an end of unit exam to assess what is known about the subject. Summative assessments are assessments that come at the end of a period of time to assess the student's knowledge. Traditionally, summative assessments have been similar to diagnostic assessments.

Teachers are beginning to move away from using strictly objective assessments (multiple choice and fill in the blank) with absolute right/wrong answers to more subjective testing (like essays, open-ended questions, performance based assessments) that allow students leeway in how they explain their knowledge to the teacher. In either case, summative assessments come at the end of learning and are intended to assess what the student has learned through the learning process. The question becomes, did the student learn the material during the learning process or did the student already have the knowledge prior to beginning the learning process?

This brings us to the first main method for assessing knowledge over time. By comparing diagnostic assessments to summative assessments, teachers can identify exactly what knowledge was gained during the time period under investigation (this might be a unit of study or an academic year). In some cases, the summative assessment is identical to the diagnostic assessment, thus the phrase 'pre- and post- testing'. In other cases, the diagnostic and summative assessments are different, but still assess the same knowledge base.

The method of comparing diagnostic and summative assessments allows teachers to identify knowledge gained over a period of time based on two snap shots of the student's progress. It doesn't show the stages of learning, when the learning occurred, or if there were any leaps in understanding along the way.

Formative Assessments


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