What are assessments, and how do you survive them?

This section will look at different forms of assessment.  It will give you some practical ideas on how to prepare for them, and how to get the most out of them.


Presenting assignments to audiences was a real pain at the beginning, but little by little it became easier.
(Finnish student)

Assessments are the means by which your tutors can gauge how you are progressing on your course, allow you to receive feedback, and can also provide the grades which will allow to move on to your next stage of study.  Assessments generally fall into two categories: formative and summative.

Formative assessments

These assessments are generally informal, and do not count towards a final mark or grade. They could take the form of a crit that takes place during a unit, a blog post on a group blog that invites comment from fellow students or staff, a reflective journal, or a first draft of a piece of work.

Summative assessments

These are the assessments that generally come at the end of a project or unit, and provide you with a grade or mark that may count towards your overall mark. They could take the form of a final essay or dissertation, a portfolio of work, a final presentation or an exam.

In order to make sure that everyone is marked fairly, your tutors will use a set of criteria to mark against.

  • Learning Outcomes outline what you’re meant to have learnt and be able to demonstrate by the end of a unit. An example of a learning outcome could be, ‘Apply organisational skills that will facilitate a time-efficient response to independent, directed studies, and team work.’
  • Assessment Criteria identify how your tutor measures your work against defined Learning Outcomes. An example of assessment criteria might be, ‘An ability to communicate clearly and coherently in visual and verbal forms.’

How could this affect me?

Many students find assessments stressful, if you are unsure about what you need to do, how to approach the assignment or interpret the learning outcomes and assessment criteria you should speak to the module leader as soon as you are able to. This will ensure that you are able to work to the brief without misinterpretation.

You should remember that assessments are also an important way for you to receive feedback, which will allow you to develop and improve your work, and to move forward.

It was difficult to hand in assignments on time and to present work in front of people.
(Finnish student)

Many autistic students told us that one of the main challenges with exams is to organise the time for revision – doing little by little over a longer period. Also, nerves can get in the way during the exam itself, especially when there are distracting noises in the room.

With coursework the challenges can be similar – organising your time so that you don’t have to rush things towards the deadline. But also knowing when to stop work on an assignment, and when to direct your attention to other assignments as you are likely to have multiple deadlines around the same time. Getting regular feedback from a tutor on your work-in-progress is crucial to ensure you stay on track with your work.

Feedback comes from a range of sources and will provide different ways for how you might improve your work, learning to respond to feedback is a vital skill for all students.

Whilst feedback from friends and family may be useful, feedback from a technician about a technical process is informed, specialist knowledge and it has a different level of usefulness. Your tutor is usually best placed to give you guidance that is intended to help you meet the Learning Outcomes of the unit.

Feedback is usually constructive and therefore relies upon you to respond to it by not repeating the same mistakes in your future work.

I needed help with organising myself for a big research essay.
(UK student)

Reasonable adjustments

If you are struggling with assessments the Disability Advice team may be able to suggest a reasonable adjustments, to enable you to participate in the assessment process. For example, a reasonable adjustment could be flexibility around deadlines, making a video presentation instead of presenting in person, or showing your work to the tutor in private, rather than in front of a group. The reasonableness of adjustments can vary from course to course depending on professional body requirements and the competency standards which are being assessed, your Disability Adviser will be able to help you to explore the options available to you.

What to do next?

Make sure that you are aware of what the Assessment Criteria are at the start of a project or unit.

Practical tips

Familiarise yourself with the ‘Learning Outcomes’ and ‘Assessment Criteria’ from your module handbook. Knowing these will allow you to stay focused and work towards specific targets – if you are unsure of anything ask your module leader for clarification.

Researching for and writing your assignment

  • Make use of the support available at your university, including Skills for Learning and support from your Academic Librarian
  • Utilise any support that has been recommended for you, including 1:1 support and assistive software

Create opportunities for feedback so that you can continuously improve. Here is how:

  • Make your work available for tutors and classmates; don’t hide away and isolate yourself.
  • If you find it difficult to ask for feedback, think of ways that you might be able to receive it in an indirect way – maybe online through a blog or other social media.
  • Try to accept feedback in a professional manner; don’t take it as a personal insult.
  • Likewise, if you are giving feedback, keep it related to the work.

Make sure that you aware of deadlines for formative and summative assessments

  • Use a calendar to prompt you a few days before a deadline, so that you have time to get everything ready.
  • Allow enough time to get to wherever it is you need to be to hand your work in; always factor in public transport, traffic issues etc.
  • If your assessed work is to be printed, make sure that you allow time in case of any technical issues with printers.
  • Likewise, if you are giving a presentation, make sure that the projector works, and your presentation is in the correct format.

Finally, take note of any feedback and use opportunities for discussing any feedback that you receive. Many tutors will offer a tutorial after giving feedback, which will give you the opportunity to discuss any concerns, and ask for advice.

Questions to think about

  1. What is the difference between formative and summative assessment?
  2. How do I learn and study best? Is it helpful to listen to research materials in audio format? Should I mindmap my ideas?
  3. How can I encourage feedback on my work?
  4. How can I use formative assessment to improve my work?
  5. Where do I find details of what the tutor will be assessing me on?
  6. What are the hand in dates for my assessment?
  7. Where do I need to present my work for assessment?
  8. Who can I discuss my feedback with? Do I need to book a tutorial/one-to-one?

About the author

This article was written by Jackie Hagan, Learning Support Coordinator at the University for the Creative Arts at Rochester.