Assessment is the process of documenting, usually in measurable terms, knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs. This article covers educational assessment including the work of institutional researchers, but the term applies to other fields as well including health and finance.


Assessments can be classified in many different ways. The most important distinctions are: (1) formative and summative; (2) objective and subjective; (3) criterion-referenced and norm-referenced; and (4) informal and formal.

Summative and Formative

Summative assessment - Summative assessment is generally carried out at the end of a course or project. In an educational setting, summative assessments are typically used to assign students a course grade.
Formative assessment - Formative assessment is generally carried out throughout a course or project. Formative assessment, also referred to as educative assessment, is used to aid learning. In an educational setting, formative assessment might be a teacher (or peer) or the learner, providing feedback on a student's work, and would not necessarily be used for grading purposes.
Ipsative assessment - Ipsative assessment is a style of assessment (or testing) in which the tested individual is compared to him- or her-self through time.
Summative and formative assessment are referred to in a learning context as "assessment of learning" and "assessment for learning" respectively.

A common form of formative assessment is diagnostic assessment. Diagnostic assessment measures a student's current knowledge and skills for the purpose of identifying a suitable program of learning. Self-assessment is a form of diagnostic assessment which involves students assessing themselves.Forward-looking assessment asks those being assessed to consider themselves in hypothetical future situations.

Objective and Subjective

Assessment (either summative or formative) can be objective or subjective. Objective assessment is a form of questioning which has a single correct answer. Subjective assessment is a form of questioning which may have more than one current answer (or more than one way of expressing the correct answer). There are various types of objective and subjective questions. Objective question types include true/false, multiple choice, multiple-response and matching questions. Subjective questions include extended-response questions and essays. Objective assessment is becoming more popular due to the increased use of online assessment (e-assessment) since this form of questioning is well-suited to computerisation.

Criterion-referenced and Norm-referenced

Criterion-referenced assessment, typically using a criterion-referenced test, as the name implies, occurs when candidates are measured against defined (and objective) criteria. Criterion-referenced assessment is often, but not always, used to establish a person’s competence (whether s/he can do something). The best known example of criterion-referenced assessment is the driving test, when learner drivers are measured against a range of explicit criteria (such as “Not endangering other road users”). Norm-referenced assessment (colloquially known as "grading on the curve"), typically using a norm-referenced test, is not measured against defined criteria. This type of assessment is relative to the student body undertaking the assessment. It is effectively a way of comparing students. The IQ test is the best known example of norm-referenced assessment. Many entrance tests (to prestigious schools or universities) are norm-referenced, permitting a fixed proportion of students to pass (“passing” in this context means being accepted into the school or university rather than an explicit level of ability). This means that standards may vary from year to year, depending on the quality of the cohort; criterion-referenced assessment does not vary from year to year (unless the criteria change).