The Brains Behind Assessment

Illustrated brain floats over hand.

In the current day and age of learning, we find a lot of variability in how we develop and provide learning environments. Many individuals have had to rethink their teaching and learning atmospheres to accommodate societal changes. In all of those alterations, the need for assessment is one of the primary components of any learning environment that needs to be addressed. But with the consistency found in needing assessment, we still need to think through what activities and evaluations fit best with the curriculum, learners, and modality. So how do we make that decision?

In order to understand assessment, we need to look at a few different components that come into play for effective learning. As we survey the options, remember there is no universal right answer. There are too many varying opinions and components of assessment strategies to be applied universally, so what we need to do is look at the different factors that create an effective assessment and use that information to inform our decisions.

Designing with Neuroscience (Retrieval Processes)

One of the main purposes of assessment is that it calls into question the learners’ retrieval of information from storage when they need it. Assessment is used to gauge if they are able to recall information showing their level of retention.

While there are different theories about how information is stored in the brain (for a more intensive dive into this I suggest the book Psychology of Learning for Instruction by Marcy Driscoll), we need to remember that some methods of teaching (chosen based on the individual needs of the learners and environment) have been proven to create better retention resulting in higher assessment scores. One of the common components of those effective learning environments is that when we interact with a concept in multiple ways, it becomes more concrete for the learner. Then, when we want to evaluate this learned information, we need to design the assessment in ways that engage the learner’s stored knowledge by leaving the form of assessment more open. We do this by making sure to employ several different forms of assessment in order to get a holistic understanding of what the student truly knows, and for some ideas on how to do this you can explore this post on Retrieval Mapping.

Therefore, it is essential to be aware of what a certain modality can truly offer for both formative and summative assessment when choosing the most appropriate options. By picking the right assessment strategies, we can help the individuals learn because “As the research strongly suggests, when students focus on mastery of learning rather than on their performance on tests, they significantly increase their intrinsic motivation for learning.” (Whitman & Hardiman). When the desire to learn increases, the learners become more invested in creating neurological connections for the information and then apply it to other schemas of understanding.

Designing with Psychology

Building off of what we understand about the brain, by looking at the psychology behind assessment, you can begin to analyze the best choices through discovering the goals and overall motivation for the learners. Marcy Driscoll discusses the various components of this in her book when she recognizes that “when individuals set goals, they determine an external standard to which they will internally evaluate their present level of performance.” (Driscoll, 314). When we choose an assessment model, we force what we perceive as the most valuable way to access their goals upon the learner, and if they disagree with that model, the learning process becomes hindered. Therefore, understanding the learners’ end goals (or the course objectives they adhere to when they enroll in a course) becomes a valuable component of determining how to evaluate their understanding. Consider doing this at the front end of the course by asking for feedback from your learners about their goals and what would qualify as successful understanding for them. Through doing this, the learner has the opportunity to acknowledge and verbalize their goals and then use that lens while interacting in your course. Additionally, through this they give you the data needed to design effective assessment.

Intertwined with motivation, there are also the learner’s goals which have significant bearing on if they will succeed. We need to make sure to pick assessments that align with student goals to increase motivation rather than just the rote memorization of facts, which can be easily lost by the learner once they no longer internally deem that information as valuable. If we align assessment to gauge the learner’s goals, they will become more motivated to engage and retain the information.

Designing with UDL

As we have gathered, it’s important to start with an understanding of the learner’s goals. Considering many learning environments have several learners, by using principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) we can make sure we create meaningful materials that are applicable and accessible for all.

“Effective teachers do more than merely give tests; they understand that the right assessment matched to the learning goal and complemented by UDL strategies can increase the success of their lessons” (Ralabate, 56)

When we design with UDL, we become proactive instead of reactive in our course curriculum and materials. For more specific information on the principles of UDL, fellow blogger Tara McCoy covered that in An Overview of Universal Design for Learning. Now with an understanding of universal design, we can look at how it applies to assessment.

When designing an assessment, the focus should always remain on the learner and what will appropriately evaluate their knowledge. You need to make sure that there are several opportunities to interact with the curriculum in varying ways. Some examples include papers, multiple choice tests, discussions, projects (group or individual), and other means of interaction that lead to stronger connections for the new content within the learner’s current mental associations. A strong lesson and assessment will require all three phases of CAST’s Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, from the course and learner. Learners need to engage with the material, find multiple ways it can be represented through various forms of application, and then express it back to show their retention. By doing this we become proactive as we design and implement our curriculum and assessments, creating sustainable and relevant materials that can speak to individual learners’ diverse needs and goals.

In light of all of this, we need to ask the final question of whether or not we really believe that assessment can look the same across modalities. If the way the learner interacts with the material and the time frame in which they do so changes, can we really expect to evaluate their understanding in the same way?

It is easy to try to make the existing curriculum or training you have been investing in fit in the new modality box required of it, but unfortunately while this seems easier, this mindset taints the learning environment. It makes it less effective because it disregards the unique features of the new modality, learners or curriculum. Even through the exhaustion felt over having to redesign the same content in a new course modality, our end goal should be to create an effective learning environment. To do this, we need to evaluate our assessments and use them as a tool to help our learners discover their understanding of the curriculum rather than choosing the form of assessment we are most comfortable and familiar with.

Assessment has value in learning, and we need to remember the underlying components of neuroscience, psychology, and UDL and how they all play a part in making learner evaluations effective when changing elements of a learning space.


Driscoll, M. P. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction. Allyn & Bacon.

Ralabate, P. K. (2016). Your UDL lesson planner: The step-by-Step guide for teaching all learners. Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Sumeracki, M. (2020, November 19). Retrieval mapping. The Learning Scientists.

Whitman, G. & Hardiman, M. (2014). Assessment and the Learning Brain. Independent School Magazine.

Author: Jessica Pierce, Instructional Designer

Jess enjoys the science behind learning and cognition and how it applies in multiple modalities, including eLearning. In the off hours, she likes spending time with her husband and three kids, going out for coffee, or running the occasional road race for the “free” shirt (to counteract the caffeine).

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